Fishing has always held a special place in my heart. My Dad worked second shift in the factory as well as farmed. He had five weeks of vacation time per year, two of which he took in the spring to get the crops out, two in the fall for harvest and one week he saved for July to take us kids fishing. We had our certain spots on the St. Joe River by Colon, MI, that we went angling for blue gills. I am not sure if they were more fun to catch or to eat. I lived for that week.
That was, and still is, fishing at its finest for me but, for some, it's a whole different ball game. For many, bass sport fishing or tournament fishing is the big lure, pardon the pun. Tournament fishing requires long hours of practice, little sleep sometimes, days of travel, fuel money and lots of equipment. So, why do they do it? Mike Adkins, who belongs to the Whitewater Valley Bass Masters club of Richmond, IN, sums it up best, "It's the thrill of catching that big one and reeling him in after a big fight. It's the fight, not the fish."
Fishing tournaments have become the fourth most popular sport in the country with large and small mouth bass being the anglers' most sought-after catch. All fishing offers anglers the chance to get outside and spend time away from electronics and with friends. Fishing tournaments add a little more thrill by offering prize money and the chance to have caught the most or largest fish.
Actually, the first televised fishing competition, the Bassmaster Classic, was dreamed up in a hotel room in 1967 by an enterprising fisherman who saw no reason why fishing tournaments couldn't be televised just like basketball and other sporting events. He started drafting the rules that would promote the ideals of ethical angling, conservation and safety. The first tournament was held at Beaver Lake in Arkansas.
It doesn't happen in my neck of the woods, but in some areas of the country competitive bass fishing is sanctioned as a high school sport. Illinois was the first state to recognize it in 2009 and in its first year more than 800 students competed to represent 217 high schools at statewide competitions.
Various tournaments use different factors in determining winners. Some are based on the largest fish caught in length, many go by weight and some are based on species and number of fish caught. The one thing that most all tournaments have in common is being catch and release. Most have strict rules on keeping the catch alive until they are officially weighed and then releasing them gently. Usually nets are not allowed and the fish must be lowered to the bottom of the boat before they are released to prevent any further injury to them.
Some of the biggest fish ever caught have been reeled in during fishing tournaments. This is a little out of the norm, but a 17-year old competitor in Australia reeled in a record-breaking 585-pound swordfish. This was only after it took his team six hours to wrestle him in the boat.
What did I say a while ago about fishing being a way to unplug from modern technology? Well, anglers can even compete online in tournaments in some cases. Some sites give fishermen permission to upload digital pictures of their catch for online chances to win prize money. They must submit photos with their fish lying beside a tape measure and high-tech algorithms are used to make sure that photos are not photoshopped. Come on, is this really fishing?
Not all competitions are held under warm sunny skies. Every January the largest ice fishing competition takes place on Minnesota's Gull Lake. When it is all said and done, more than 30,000 holes have been drilled in the ice there.
Long considered a man-thing, women are now slowly making progress in this sport. Women were actually banned for decades from competing in bass fishing tournaments. In 2005 one organization sponsored the first women's pro tour which included 88 female boaters. In 2008 the first female qualified for the Bassmaster Classic.
So, how do you get started in tournament fishing? Lots of times it is by word-of-mouth when you know someone in a fishing club. If you don't know of one, you can always check the Internet for clubs in the area. Usually, it will list contact information, how much dues are and when the club meets. Joining one of these is a good way to learn the ins and outs from seasoned fishermen.
Like any other sport, it can be as expensive, or not, as you want it to be. You not only do not need a huge, fancy boat to enter a fishing tournament, you don't need a boat at all. Yep, you read that right. You can enter as a non-boater and a drawing at the beginning of the tournament will determine with whom you are partnered. If you fish off another's boat, the entry fee will be lowered but the prize money also will be. It is also customary to pay half the fuel cost.
As far as other equipment, you can go hog-wild on rods, reels and lures or you can stick to a few brands that you trust. Only experience will teach you what works for you. Often, it is only a matter of personal preference.
Whether you catch the big one or not depends a lot on experience, skill and a lot of luck of being in the right place at the right time. Some anglers are so serious about their fishing that superstition plays a part in it. Some won't fuel up the morning of the tournament because they don't want gas fumes on their lures. This is for the real serious ones. After all, if you get too serious, it takes the fun away.
So, what is the draw for some fishermen to enter tournaments instead of just kicking back on a riverbank and cracking open a cold one with a couple friends? Some actually do dream of making fishing a career but, for some like Mike, it's the pure love of the sport. Why does he tournament fish? In his words:
"I still remember and cherish the memories of the days that my dad took me fishing when I was probably 4 or 5 years old. It always made me wonder how he could catch so many more fish than I could. As time went on, every once in a while, I would catch a bigger one or a few more than Dad and it made me feel like I was the Michael Jordan of bass fishing.
When I first got married to Suzie I worked in a Buick/GMC dealership and the service manager there, Jack Matney, fished tournaments and always came to work with the stories of last weekend's tournament and all the stories of the outing that had just taken place. Man, I loved hearing those stories. And then it happened. After a year or so of these fantastic stories, he invited me to become a member of his local club. From the first meeting and outing I WAS HOOKED.
Now some 40 years later, I am still married to both of my loves... Suzie and my fishing club with my 20 or so brothers that I know would do just about anything to help each other in time of need and I always look forward to trying my best to out fish, out catch and out-smart those guys. Most of the time with no luck, but I guess I'll keep trying as long as I physically can.
You know the saying, till death do us part, it's kind of like that. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it."
This just says it all!
Photo property of Lois Hoffman.