The Future of Crappie Tournaments: Part 7 of 7…The Future
Story & photos by Tim Huffman
Our series experts include Darrell Van Vactor, General Manager of Crappie USA; Mike Vallentine, President and Owner of Crappie Masters; Matt Morgan, Co-Owner of the American Crappie Trail; and tournament fishermen. The last part of the series looks at the changing look of tournaments and their future.
The Changing Look of Tournaments
My first classic as a writer/photographer was in 1991 at Lake Ouachita, Hot Springs, Arkansas. Things were different then. First, qualifying for a classic was difficult. There were more fishermen at qualifier events so making the cut was a challenge. The classic was an honor…much more than today when basically anyone can get in.
Another difference then was the boats. There were 14-foot johnboats, many 15- and 16-foot aluminum rigs and small glass boats. 40- to 90-horsepower motors were common. I watched boats slid from flatbed trucks. Flashers were the primary depth/fish finder. Homemade rod holders and racks were common with 2×4’s often a part of the system. Compared to today’s standards, the equipment was basic. The good thing about those times was that everyone could compete no matter what boat or equipment they owned. Today a fisherman can’t finish consistently without a good boat, advanced electronics and equipment.
At the ’91 classic, Crappiethon housed all the contestants in a downtown Hot Springs motel. The rooms were paid. A police escort took a motorcade of boats to and from the lake. It attracted the attention of many people along the route. The weigh-in was downtown. The prize was two fully rigged Ranger fiberglass boats and some cash.
VanVactor says, “One of the biggest changes in crappie fishing in the last 30 years has been equipment. Today manufacturers are creating baits and equipment geared directly toward the crappie fishermen. That’s a change. The biggest difference is electronics. BnM is one of the few who have always supported crappie fishing and competitive crappie fishing since day one.
VanVactor continued, “A potential sponsor years ago told me, “Oh yea, the crappie fisherman is the guy setting on the bank on a bucket with a pack of cigarettes and a carton of beer.” Getting sponsors to a few tournaments was all it took for them to see what competitive crappie fishing was really like.”
Vallentine says, “I’ve only been on the competitive side for seven years but I’ve learned a lot from those who have fished for decades. I’ve learned that a few teams, including Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman, dominated. They are still very good but I have witnessed growth in the skill level of many other teams.
“Crappie tournaments are no different than softball tournaments. There is a percentage of people who are likely to win a number of tournaments, a group with a chance to win one, a group who might win and a group who enjoys competing but are less likely to win. The skill level separation between teams seems to be growing smaller with many good fishermen.”
Matt Morgan says, “That’s a funny question because I go to tournaments as an escape from everyday work and life. It is a stress relief. I work harder at fishing than I do at my job which is not easy and includes long hours, but the fishing is competitive fun.
“I’m not sure about 30 years ago but today the intensity level is there in the tournament fishermen. For me, I always want to win no matter if we are playing checkers or tournament fishing. I like to believe a part of my success has been the desire and intensity I bring. Today’s crappie fishermen are knowledgeable and serious.”
The Future of Crappie Fishing
“The crappie market has leveled out a little bit,” says VanVactor. “Fewer people are coming in to advance those numbers. I believe it is because they don’t have time. People are working longer hours and have less time to fish. It’s not just the money because crappie fishing numbers go up during a bad economy.
“I believe we are stable for the long haul. Tournaments should be good if we don’t try to over-emphasize what we do and we don’t lose the number one purpose of crappie fishing. It can be a competitive sport but the number one reason is for learning. If we don’t catch fish we can learn from others. Tournaments make a fisherman better because of experience and learning.”
Vallentine says, “I believe we will see the competition getting stronger and numbers will continue to grow. National tournaments will be in a better place than they’ve been but I don’t know to what scale.
“Growth not being at a higher level can be boiled down to a couple of things. People have always been intrigued and want to know how to catch crappie but taking it to the tournament level is whole different story. The second thing is that our baits don’t cost $20 apiece like some of the other species. Part of that $20 is for marketing that relates to more sponsor monies. A package of crappie jigs does not have that level of marketing dollars.
“Just this tournament for media alone we have motels bills for our magazine editor, TV camera man, plus two days on the water, gas in the boat, meals. Plus all our staff expenses. Payroll, travel, the trailer and motel are all very expensive. It’s just a part of running the trail. But if this were easy everyone would be running a tournament circuit.”
Vallentine continues, “Our purpose as a tournament trial boils down to promoting sponsors. The more eyeballs we get on crappie fishing the better it will be for us, the fishermen and the sponsors. So media and good business practices are keys for the future of tournament trails.
“I hear about the huge numbers in the early years of tournaments. Entry fees aren’t an issue and economy is a small factor. Fishermen who have not had a lot of success have learned the tournaments are probably not for them and have dropped out. Numbers have shrunk to what we have today but they are very solid numbers with competitive fishermen who continue to fish. The sport has evolved into something more complex and expensive. There is nothing wrong with this for tournaments but it changes the level of fishing.”
Matt Morgan says, “The sky is the limit for crappie tournaments. I give a lot of seminars every year and one of my first topics is that crappie fishing has been treated as the redheaded step-child of fishing. I love crappie fishing and it has been growing bigger, faster and stronger. Although we will never reach the status of the all-mighty bass, if we do things right the sky is the limit compared to where we are now. We can’t be afraid to try new things even though some may fail.
Russ Bailey, Host of Brush Pile Fishing TV, says, “I can remember the days when I fished tournaments with 200 and 300 boats. We are fighting our way back. I believe all three trails are different and have a place. As payoffs increase, the number of teams will rise.”
Steve Coleman has many classic wins. He says, “What gets the numbers of fishermen is the money. Years ago if you won the classic you won two Ranger boats and $10,000. It’s more expensive to fish now but the payoffs are not as much. People who tournament fish need a return. A team competing without national sponsors helping is spending a lot of money out of pocket. It’s expensive. Pre-fishing and tournament, truck gas, boat gas, motel, food, bait and everything else often runs about $2000 if nothing major tears up. Competition is more equal today and numbers will stay if the money is there.”
Classic champ Jason Sandage says, “As long as several trails are running I believe it will split it up. Spreading out the money isn’t good. Also, the costs for a fisherman who works is difficult. We are getting priced out with entry fees and travel expenses. I have to give up five days of guiding so between that and costs, I need to win $3000 just to break even. Also, when we won the classic we won $75,000. Those payouts have come down. I believe there will be a core group fishing the tournaments and some locals, that shouldn’t change.”
Classic champ Tony Sheppard says, “I think we are growing in leaps and bounds but not in the tournament fishermen numbers. I think Kentucky Lake has exploded with fishermen but tournament fishing is not at the same growth. We need younger fishermen in the sport and that’s getting better.”
Louie Mansfield, Grizzly Jig owner, says, “I love tournaments but until the money is there they won’t be much bigger. Paying on the number of boats doesn’t work unless you have over 100 boats at each tournament. I also think electronics may hurt tournaments. The fishermen who have the money and time to learn electronics has such an advantage it makes it difficult for a weekend fisherman to compete. We see it all the time with the younger fishermen who live and die with electronics having consistent success.”
I miss tagged tournaments and Tangle-Free Tom from the Crappiethon USA era. I miss huge tournaments with the fun and excitement that weekend fishermen brought. I miss simple crappie fishing. Those days are gone. But we are more knowledgeable and advanced so fishing is much easier with tournament fishing playing a huge role in product development.
Tournament numbers are steady and growing slightly so if our economy stays level tournaments should continue to have a slow growth. Competitors will continue to become more educated and skilled. The future of crappie tournament fishing? Only time will tell but for now it’s a great period for fishermen to have the opportunity to compete and have a shot to win some money and prizes.