Fishing for Love or Money
The boom in fishing tournaments has led anglers to ask how these big-money events affect Minnesota's fisheries and the sport of fishing.
By C.B. Bylander
It's hard to say when fishing's age of innocence turned belly up in the sea of technology and publicity that swamps the sport today, but June 28, 1997, is a defining date in the Gopher State. For on that Saturday, the richest bass fishing tournament ever -- the Forrest Wood Open -- came to a close on Lake Minnetonka. It ended in no small way.
At 2:30 p.m. the State Patrol led an entourage of five sleek four-wheel-drive vehicles, each pulling a glittering bass boat, onto Interstate 494. The destination was the Mall of America, where tournament finalists would stand on a specially built stage, wave their fish in front of a cheering crowd, and play to television cameras that would capture the rapture of this made-for-TV event.
And that's precisely what happened. Upon arrival, the finalists rushed to their boats. They fetched their catch. They placed their booty in 10-gallon plastic bags filled with water. Then they dashed into the mall, where they slipped their still-breathing bass into the livewells of yet another bevy of boats, which had been built into a stage in the rotunda. Producing his catch one by one, as coolly as laying out a winning poker hand, Minnesotan Jim Moynagh took first place and won $200,000.
Two days later the Department of Natural Resources received a report that a number of dead bass were floating in Minnetonka's Maxwell Bay. Duane Shodeen and Mike Halvorson, both of DNR Fisheries, investigated. "Some were floating like footballs," Shodeen recalled. "We were able to locate 15 nice ones."
Ninety-nine bass had been hauled to the mall during two days of high-profile, away-from-the-lake weigh-ins. The DNR, which rarely allows off-site weigh-ins and then only in highly regulated situations, estimated immediate mortality at 7 percent, meaning seven of 99 bass brought to the mall were either dead or dying and not able to be released back into Lake Minnetonka. Ten bass were provided to the Mall of America aquarium, thus leaving 82 to be released in Maxwell Bay. Delayed mortality, based on dead bass counted two days after the tournament, was estimated at 18 percent, meaning 15 of 82 bass died after they had been returned to Lake Minnetonka.
Yet perspective is important. About 300 anglers participated in the first two days of this four-day tournament. They weighed in 1,965 bass at North Arm of Lake Minnetonka in typical at-the-lake fashion, with only 16 dead or dying bass reported. That's an immediate mortality rate of less than 1 percent.
Research shows that off-site weigh-ins kill a higher percentage of fish than do lakeside weigh-ins. That's why, as a rule, the DNR does not issue permits for off-site weigh-ins.
No Big Deal?
Now here's the million-dollar question: Were these dead bass a big deal or not? The tournament anglers did not harm the lake's abundant bass population, which, according to DNR fish population data, is the picture of health despite 516,000 hours of angling pressure per year. For a few days, the tournament added dollars to the local economy. It might have even lured more kids into fishing. So, why the fuss? Especially when fish die every day -- eaten by other fish and by those of us who love a fine fillet served with a wedge of lemon.
"There is nothing inherently wrong with fishing tournaments," said Henry Drewes, a DNR Fisheries Biologist who monitors and reviews permits for Minnesota fishing tournaments. "The state of Minnesota views fishing tournaments as a legitimate use of Minnesota's lakes and rivers. In fact, most of the 270 or so tournaments that the DNR issues permits for each year don't have a hint of a biological or social problem. That is to say, most tournaments have no apparent negative effect on fish populations, and we receive no citizen complaints."
Still, fishing tournaments, especially the big ones, are a hot topic these days. "The average angler and lakeshore owner who sees tournament after tournament is increasingly skeptical about the low mortality rates espoused by event organizers. And their concerns are not without merit," said Drewes. "The most recent scientific studies suggest that tournament organizers often underestimate fish mortality. Studies conducted by universities and state agencies in other states suggest that three to four largemouth bass die from delayed mortality for every bass that dies of immediate mortality. Overall, most scientific, peer-reviewed studies on largemouth bass tournaments place total mortality in the 20 to 30 percent range."
How many fishing tournaments are held each year in Minnesota? No one knows for sure because fishing club or community tournaments ($2,000 or less in prize money or an entry fee of $10 or less) do not require a DNR permit. However, the number of large tournaments is increasing. So is prize money, the length of tournaments, and the number of anglers who participate. In 1982, for example, bass tournaments at Lake Minnetonka offered a total of $42,000 in prize money. Prize money rose to $499,800 in 1996 and to $1.2 million in 1997. Lake Minnetonka had 12 permitted bass tournaments in 1997.
How did fishing tournaments become so popular? Nationally, Ray W. Scott Jr. deserves the credit. Founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, Scott created a popular professional fishing circuit in the South in the 1970s. He did so by capitalizing on anglers' competitive nature (we all bet on who will catch the first fish of the day, don't we?) and the public's insatiable thirst for angling tips and tactics.
Before you could say "your bobber is down," Scott had created a pool of regional and national angling celebrities. Scott's success spawned similar ventures elsewhere. In Minnesota, for example, Don Shelby, the WCCO-TV news anchor, tossed his well-worn fishing cap into the tournament scene in a big way in 1989 by hosting the Don Shelby U.S. Invitational Charity Bass Tournament. Another Minnesotan, Irwin Jacobs, went on to build a number of national fishing tournament circuits that market, among other things, Ranger bass boats, part of his Genmar line of boats.
Jacobs believes fishing tournaments will someday be a true spectator sport, like golf, and that people who watch tournaments on TV will ultimately buy the sponsors' products at the stores that professional anglers endorse. Said John Hesse, one of Minnesota's major bass tournament organizers: "Jacobs wants to take fishing to the next level."
So that's how tournaments are evolving. Ron Payer, operations manager for DNR Fisheries, sees no evidence to suggest that tournaments have harmed Minnesota's fish populations under existing formats. He says the number of competitive anglers is relatively small (about 2,000 tournament anglers compared with about 2 million total anglers). And, he says, most tournament organizers work hard to minimize mortality, and catch-and-release tournaments have brought about positive changes in such things as boat livewell location and design.
Payer also points out that the DNR permit process allows the DNR to impose restrictions that minimize fish mortality. Still, he said, tournaments rankle some lakeshore owners and others who view schools of prize-hungry anglers more like pirates plundering a public resource than hometown heroes and educators. According to Drewes, "There also are the very real problems with competition for access spaces and prime fishing spots on heavily used lakes. Non-tournament anglers also have complained about how much more difficult it is to find fish after a major tournament."
John Schneider, former president of the Minnesota Sportfishing Congress and Foundation, has launched a campaign to get tournament lovers and opponents to compromise before fishing tournaments founder in the unpredictable waters of the Legislature. To that end, the Sportfishing Congress and the Minnesota Bass Chapter Federation held a fishing summit last fall to generate a list of recommendations for future fishing tournaments. They included such recommendations as fewer large tournaments on certain bodies of water and fewer tournaments on weekends and holidays.
Though the groups struggled to find the middle ground, Schneider lamented that he has friends on both sides of the issue who no longer speak to him because of his moderating efforts. "Still," he said, "I feel we are making progress, and we are committed to continuing to work on this issue."
Others question the value of tournaments altogether. Tony Dean, noted South Dakota angler, lecturer, and host of a weekly outdoors television show, believes the fishing industry has lost sight of its market and that tournaments reflect that fact.
"I used to fish tournaments all the time, but I don't anymore. They are not what fishing is all about. And they are not doing a lot for the image of fishing," said Dean, who said his tournament friends are sending the wrong message to the public. "We have taken a simple sport and made it complicated," he said. "Sadly, the message most people see and hear is that you need a decked-out boat and a lot of electronics to catch a half-dozen walleyes."
He said that's a poor image for the angling industry to cast if it wants to catch more customers. "The average income of an angler in America is $34,983. Almost 58 percent of America's anglers make less than $40,000 a year," said Dean. "Yet we've reached the point of 10-year financing for a fishing boat. A lot of people don't want to tie up their money for that long. Or if they do, they are out of the boat-buying market for a decade. Tournaments are not driving the fishing industry. I'm afraid they are simply confusing our potential customers and chasing them away."
Duluth angler Dave Zentner, former national president of the Izaak Walton League, shares similar sentiments. "I believe the vast majority of anglers have a very different relationship with their fishing experience than the pros do. Most anglers view fishing as a sanctuary and a way to escape from the day-to-day pressures of life." Zentner conceded that tournaments might not harm fish populations, but he believes broader issues are at play. "It's image. It's not just biology. And I don't think a lot of tournament fishermen get that."
Don Shelby gets it. That's why he insisted that his tournaments raise money for charity. The Shelby tournaments raised more than $500,000 for the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis, making them the largest single contributor to that charity for children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.
Still, Shelby harbors some of the same sentiments as the ordinary angler. "The beauty and poetry of fishing as I learned it is being supplanted by this image of glitz and trophies and big money," he said. That's difficult for him, he said, because he realizes he's had a hand in this change and can relate to both sides of the issue.
The image tournaments convey, he said, is a far cry from ordinary fishing, including his own as a child.
"I can still hear my dad's voice say 'Don't horse 'em in; don't horse 'em in,' when I'd hook a fish. Today, I hear pros say 'Horse 'em in; horse 'em in' as they skip in their fish across the water with a flippin' stick and 40-pound test line. You don't even fight the fish anymore."
Shelby believes tournaments have their place in Minnesota but "understanding is needed" among anglers and non-anglers alike. "Maybe it's fewer tournaments. Maybe it is creating more non-competitive fishing events. It's something where we fish for the fun and the love of it," Shelby said.
Clearly, fishing tournaments are here to stay. They are popular; they spread some money around; and under the right conditions, they don't appear to harm fish populations. Above all, they are often just plain fun for those who participate, and isn't that what fishing is all about?
A more difficult question to answer is this: What will the image of angling be in the new millennium? Most of today's anglers learned to fish while aboard a boat with Mom, Dad, and the rest of the family. They watched bobbers together. They baited hooks together. And they built relationships from the bench seats of unpainted aluminum boats as oars dripped drops of summer water on their feet. Most anglers, even the most hardened pros, still relish those days. And when you get them talking, they hope the next generation of anglers will experience the same.
C.B. Bylander is a DNR Information Officer in Brainerd.