The Future of Crappie Tournaments: Part 2…Formats and Divisions

By Tim Huffman

            Part 2 discusses the different formats and divisions often seen in national tournaments. Our series experts include Darrell Van Vactor, General Manager of Crappie USA; Mike Vallentine, President and Owner of Crappie Masters; and Matt Morgan, Co-Owner of the American Crappie Trail. There will also be comments from tournament fishermen.

Tournament days are not always held in perfect conditions. Rain, wind, cold, fog and high water are a few of the common situations tournament fishermen must face.

Tournament days are not always held in perfect conditions. Rain, wind, cold, fog and high water are a few of the common situations tournament fishermen must face.

            The purpose of this series is to discuss the national trails, a little inside information and the future of the sport. Whether you fish tournaments or not, these national trails and the fishermen who fish them have an impact on the boats, gear and baits that are available. Tournament fishermen have added volumes of fish-catching information that can be used in weekend fishing.

Primary Format: All-in-One or Amateur/Pro

A tournament trail’s personality is formed by a number of factors including the level of the tournaments, who fishes them, the people who run them and the format. Some trails may choose to have many tournaments while others may have fewer events. The tournaments can be split into amateur/pro while others lump everyone together. The choice of format, along with the sub-divisions, or categories, are two of the factors defining a tournament trail.

There are many male-female teams competing in crappie tournaments. The Robinson husband-wife team is shown at the Alabama River weighin.

There are many male-female teams competing in crappie tournaments. The Robinson husband-wife team is shown at the Alabama River weighin.

Crappie USA has amateur and pro divisions. The amateur division is for teams who earned less than $2000. Teams may enter either category unless they must enter pro because of previous year’s earnings. Entries are lower for amateur with lower paybacks.

Yamaha  Van Vactor says, “Our trail was based upon including grassroots fishermen and it has worked well for us. The amateur division is a great way for an individual or team to enjoy tournament fishing. Also, they gain experience should they decide to fish more seriously in the future. The Amateur division gives fishermen who would not fish a more expensive, serious tournament a way to enjoy tournament fishing. The Pro Division has higher entry fees and paybacks. These fishermen are more competitive minded.”

Crappie Masters has an all-in-one format. The original format has been maintained since the beginning. Vallentine says the primary reason is for bigger paybacks rather than splitting it between divisions. The top teams in the tournament earn more money. He says his personal philosophy, whether a softball or crappie tournament, is that everyone enters and the best team for that weekend wins.

The Adult-Youth division provides the perfect opportunity for quality time together in a boat. The competition adds to the fun.

The Adult-Youth division provides the perfect opportunity for quality time together in a boat. The competition adds to the fun.

The American Crappie Trail has an all-in-one format. “It would be impossible,” says Morgan, “to give a Ranger Boat for top prize each tournament if we split the field with two or more divisions. If a team is there to compete, let them face everyone. Winning is a matter of skill and a lot of luck so anyone can have a good day.”

Operating a National Tournament Trail
Managing a crappie trail is difficult, work intensive and expensive. I’ve written about crappie tournaments for 27 years so I’ve been around to see a lot of the struggles and successes.
One thing that goes hand-in-hand with tournaments is complaining. I love crappie tournament fishermen but in general, many of them are complainers and they always have a better idea for doing things. Tournament trails are never doing anything right, they play favorites, their polygraphs don’t work, their registration could be simpler, their weigh-ins are lousy, they don’t pay enough money, and so on and so on. Some are legitimate complaints while many are not.
So what about the complaints verses the trails? Tournament trails have weaknesses and they make mistakes. Do you know of a business that is perfect and without mistakes? However, in support of the trails, they must balance making sponsors and fishermen happy while figuring how to make enough money to pay for travel, motels, daily operating expenses, payroll, etc.
The bottom line is simple. If running a tournament circuit was easy there would be a dozen established, proven trails. That is not the case. So our trails may not be perfect but without them there would be no competitive crappie fishing with payouts and events like we have now.

Male-Female & Adult-Youth Divisions

Crappie USA has Male-Female, Female-Female and Adult-Youth Divisions. These allow fishermen to compete with all fishermen yet compete against other similar teams.

Van Vactor says, “Everything about these divisions are positive. We are a family oriented circuit. The divisions are an incentive to compete against similar teams. Also, it’s easier for a guy to get away fishing on more weekends if he is taking his wife or child. He can fish more while having family time.”

He says he wants to keep their tournaments fun and something families and friends can do together. The divisions are one way to do that.

Crappie Masters has both Make-Female and Adult-Youth. “The Male-Female has been very popular for several reasons,” says Vallentine. “Teams we see at multiple tournaments are often those who like to travel and fish. The tournaments give them the opportunity to practice and fish together along with the opportunity to compete. Crappie fishing is definitely a family-friendly sport with most people having a laid-back attitude compared to many other sports. This division also creates another opportunity to win and I believe the division gets more people out to fish.”

The Adult-youth division has not been as popular. Vallentine says school is the primary reason for lack of participation. It’s difficult for kids to miss much school to go fishing and most tournaments are scheduled when school is in session.

The American Crappie Trail has no Adult-Youth or Male-Female Divisions.


Kayak Division

Van Vactor  “Kayaks are very popular so we tried a two-year sample program to see the level of interest. We encountered two major problems. First, a lot of our tournaments are in early spring with cool water, cold fronts and wind. It isn’t the best for kayak fishermen. The second problem is we hold few tournaments in the summer because it’s tough to keep fish alive. That’s when kayaking would be best. The kayak fishermen are great people but the kayaks haven’t been a good match for our tournaments.”



Crappie USA established the Crappie Kids Fishing Rodeos in their beginning and they have been an important part of that trial’s identity. The Rodeos are held in conjunction with their tournaments. It’s to encourage America’s youth to actively participate in the preservation of our lakes, the sport of fishing and their educational goals. All participants are eligible for six $1000 college scholarships awarded every year.

They further encourage youth by allowing a third partner (must be under the age of 16) to compete with a tournament team. “Pole numbers stay the same so there are no advantages. But it’s great that a dad, or mom and dad, or grandpa, can take a youth with them to fish a tournament.

Crappie USA has presented over $328,000 in scholarships so far.

Crappie Masters has had kids events and two years ago teamed with Kids Fishing & Education. The Kids organization took over their Kids Rodeos, raising funds and getting youth involved. They are also doing high school tournaments. Crappie Masters assist by doing the weigh-ins and has filmed a tournament for television. Crappie Masters staff assists at all the events. Their combined goal is to expand youth in crappie fishing.

The American Crappie Trail has no kids program yet but has plans to include one in the future.


Next month: Part 3 will continue our series with more on tournament format options with input from seasoned tournament fishermen. Also, a profile on Crappie Master’s Mike Vallentine.

Profile: Darrell Van Vactor
Current Title: General Manager of Crappie USA
Home: Calvert City, KY
Home Waters: Kentucky Lake
Age: mid-sixties
Crappie Tournament Business: 31 years. Currently the General Manager for Crappie USA. He started as tournament director for Crappiethon in 1985. He was a member of a group who started Crappie USA in 1996 and served as President for many years.
Honors: Darrell was recently inducted into the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame. “Being chosen to be inducted is very humbling because it puts me into a group of previous inductees I never expected to be a part of. The people in this group are sportsmen who have worked very, very hard to accomplish whatever their specialty might be. I’m honored to be a part of it.”
Previous Occupations? “I owned and operated a steakhouse for 13 years. I was also in law enforcement. I lost a partner and after that it was tough on my wife every time I went to work. My fishing partner and I did well in the first two years of Crappiethon, 1983 and ’84. They offered me a job and I seen it as a way to get out of law enforcement and the restaurant business. I’ve been in competitive crappie fishing ever since. Also, I started guiding when I was 18 and going to college so that’s 49 years. I’m still doing it some but have scaled way back.”
Favorite Fishing Memory? “There are so many, but one day that was special was a fishing trip on Kentucky Lake to catch fish for the Crappiethon tagging event. During the trip my dad caught his first ever crappie over 2.5 pounds. That was special.”
Still motivated for work? “The fishermen are family. Some have fished tournaments as long as I’ve been around. The motivation is the fishermen because there are too many travel miles and hard work for the money that’s in it.”
Hobby? “A little hunting but mainly fishing. After all these years I still love fishing.”
Hero’s? “Forrest Wood, founder of Ranger Boats, has help grow the sport of fishing including crappie. He is a conservationist and is just a good person.”
Favorite Sports Teams? “I’m a not big fan but I like the St. Louis Cardinals and Kentucky Wildcats once the playoffs and tournaments begin.”
Boat Food? “Lance Toasted Peanut Butter Crackers.”
Something people don’t know about you? “I have a passion for elk hunting.
How would you like to be remembered? As a guy that treated everyone the same when they came to the scales.”
Anything else? “My wife Stacie has made it possible for me to stay in the business and enjoy the work. She has been a big part of it and we were working together all the time until I sold a couple years ago.”