Once absent for 16 years, big-league bass fishing has returned to Louisiana.
Larry Nixon walked away with the winner’s trophy and first-place check at the conclusion of the B.A.S.S. Louisiana Invitational at Lake Bistineau Feb. 17-19, 1982. Little did he, or anybody else for that matter, know that B.A.S.S. would not return to Louisiana for 16 long years.
Kenyon Hill had to be happier than anyone to see B.A.S.S. return to Louisiana, since he won the Louisiana Kmart Top 150 held Oct. 14-17, 1998, at the Louisiana Delta.
Sixteen years — what happened? During the growing stages of B.A.S.S., the organization visited the state on a regular basis. Legendary angler Roland Martin actually set the heaviest winning-weight record for a seven-fish limit during a three-day tournament on Toledo Bend with 21 bass weighing 84-11. That’s good fishing in anybody’s book.
What caused the absence of major tournament fishing from Louisiana? Who really cares? The focus now should be on why are they coming today and what we have to do to keep them coming back.
On second thought, maybe we should analyze what kept the big tournament organizations away from Louisiana for so long. After all, history is taught so that we can learn from our mistakes and not repeat them.
One angler who has “been there and done that” is Louisiana’s own Homer Humphreys. He has seen it all and probably knows more about the bass-tournament scene in Louisiana than anybody. In fact, he has been fishing B.A.S.S. for 26 years, and has only missed one tournament during that time. He was there at that tournament in 1982 when B.A.S.S. left Louisiana, and he was there in 1998 when they returned.
“The main reason they had such a long absence from the state was the non-aggressiveness of state officials and no help from the local Chambers at the time,” says Humphreys. “Couple that with the fact that there weren’t any adequate facilities for hosting major tournaments, and you can see why they didn’t come back. Too many other states were courting them, and Louisiana got left behind.”
It took a long time, but there was a change that took place in Louisiana a few years ago. The lackadaisical and complacent attitude toward bass tournaments was replaced by a real “go-getter” attitude, thanks in large part to Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Blanco.
Blanco serves as commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and she has been executing her duties in that regard to the highest level.
“Blanco and her chief of staff, Leonard Kleinpeter, have been instrumental in attracting the tournament organizations back to Louisiana,” said Humphreys. “They have been the most aggressive state officials in the entire United States in the past year. They are doing a super job working to build a relationship between the major tournament organizations and local hosting cities.”
Humphreys isn’t the only one who believes Blanco has been the driving force behind bringing big-league fishing back to the Bayou State.
“The lieutenant governor is fully aware of the economic impact to the cities and the state when a major tournament comes to Louisiana,” said B.A.S.S. Tournament Site Selection Manager Dewey Kendrick.
“She also understands that the publicity received for Louisiana through the CITGO BASSMASTERS TV show and the magazine editorial coverage pay off even after we leave. That coverage is going to attract anglers from all over the country to Louisiana for a fishing trip, and they are all going to be spending money.”
And make no mistake about it — attracting big-league fishing is all about money. It takes money to bring in the big tournaments. The tournament contestants spend major amounts of money while they are in town. And money continues to be pumped into local economies after the fact, thanks to the tourism dollars of out-of-town anglers visiting Louisiana because they saw the state featured on their favorite fishing show.
Just how much money is spent by visiting anglers? According to flwoutdoors.com, one out of every six people 16 years old and older fish an average of 18 days per year and spend more than $1,000 in the process. And that’s just an average angler. Tournament professionals spend much more money when they come to town.
The FLW organization says that communities hosting Wal-Mart FLW Tour events benefit from nearly $600,000 in direct expenditures by anglers, spectators and sponsors. Their web site says that, assuming this money circulates in the community three times, the economic impact rises to $1.8 million. And this doesn’t even include the subsequent tourism revenue generated for the host city.
Humphreys says there is even a hidden amount of money that is spent by visiting tournament anglers.
“During a B.A.S.S. Tour event, most of the top pros are going to spend a week or two in town prior to the cut-off. That almost doubles the total amount that a tournament is worth to a host city,” he said.
According to Humphreys and Kendrick, these kind of gaudy figures haven’t escaped Blanco.
“She realizes just how much money fishermen bring in to the state and exactly how the press generated from professional tournaments can boost tourism dollars in the long run,” said Humphreys.
But all this money discussion means absolutely nothing if Louisiana isn’t capable of hosting such high-profile tournaments. As Humphreys mentioned earlier, there just weren’t any hosting facilities large enough to stage a major tournament in the early ’80s.
“That’s all changed now,” he said. “Clark’s Marina on the Red River has gone out of their way to build facilities to attract the major tournaments. They have lots of parking space, several boat ramps and on-site lodging.”
Kendrick said he couldn’t agree more with Humphreys.
“One of the main reasons that we’ve been coming back to Louisiana on a consistent basis the past few years is the facilities,” said Kendrick. “The new Cypress Bend Resort and Park area has finally given us the proper area to hold a professional event at Toledo Bend. And Clark’s Marina is an excellent weigh-in site. And what better site to host a BASS Masters Classic than the Louisiana Superdome?”
While several new facilities have been built in an effort to attract B.A.S.S. and the FLW to Louisiana, Humphreys believes more can be done.
“Lake Bistineau has hosted a B.A.S.S. tournament before, and there isn’t any reason it can’t again,” he said. “It is one of the top lakes in Northwest Louisiana, and it is large enough to hold a BASSMASTER Tour field. The Minden Chamber of Commerce has gotten a lot more aggressive in trying to attract a tournament to the lake. In fact, the FLW approached me at one time to talk about bringing their championship to Lake Bistineau. It didn’t happen, though.
“We’re going in the right direction, but we’ve got to do more to get these guys in here to Bistineau.”
An interesting side note is that the 2002 FLW Championship is scheduled to be held at Cross Lake in Shreveport in September.
“Shreveport/Bossier has done an excellent job in attracting these tournaments,” said Humphreys.
But all the money in the world isn’t going to mean too much if one magical ingredient is missing — good people. According to B.A.S.S. Central Division competitor Jason Pittman from Covington, Louisianians have gone out of their way to make the tournament organizations feel at home when they get here.
“Everybody I talk with at the Louisiana tournaments speaks highly of how well they are being run,” said Pittman. “Of course I have a biased opinion since I am from Louisiana, but I think we do them better than any other state.”
Pittman pointed out one organization and their president as being the spearhead of the effort.
“Kevin Gaubert, president of the Louisiana B.A.S.S. Federation, and the rest of the Federation members go out of their way to help out and make everybody feel at home,” says Pittman. “They are the first to volunteer to work the weigh-ins, drive camera boats and help put fish back in the water.”
Pittman was also quick to point out that the big tournaments wouldn’t be coming to Louisiana, even with lots of money and lots of help, if the bass fisheries were sub-par.
“The state has been doing a good job in managing the waterways so that they offer excellent bass fishing,” he said. “The Mississippi River Delta, the Red River and Toledo Bend are nothing short of amazing when it comes to bass fishing.
“And the Ouachita River, Caney Lake and Lake D’Arbonne, which were visited by the B.A.S.S.-sanctioned World Championship Fishing in 2000, are right up there with the best of the best.”
If not for these great bodies of water, the tournament competitors might not want to come back.
“It wasn’t too long ago when an angler from up north started cursing when he saw Louisiana on the schedule,” said Pittman. “But that’s all changed now. They look forward to coming to Louisiana because they know they are in for a good time, some good fishing and some good hospitality.”
Pittman says it is the sheer size of the lakes and rivers that the visiting anglers enjoy most.
“Tournament anglers hate to be crammed into a small lake because they wind up fishing on top of each other,” he says. “They like the fact that they can get away from everybody else and do their own thing. In fact, there could be 12 different patterns working for 12 different people, and that’s what they want.”
One professional angler from outside the state who enjoys fishing tournaments in Louisiana is Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, Ark.
“I love it,” he said. “I really feel at home when I’m fishing down there because I’m a shallow-water type of guy, and anywhere you go down there you can find bass in shallow water.”
Browning also says that he likes the fact that most Louisiana bass fishing is just good-old river fishing.
“I grew up fishing the Arkansas River,” he said, “so I am comfortable fishing moving water. Most places in Louisiana at least allow you to fish river situations, even if you aren’t on an actual river. Take Toledo Bend for instance. You can run up north and find a basic river-fishing situation.”
Browning also said one of the major pluses he associates with coming to Louisiana is the fishing fans.
“The fan base is wonderful,” he said. “Louisiana is known as an outdoor state, and they do appreciate us when they come out to the weigh-ins. And, unlike some areas, they come out every day of the tournament, not just on Saturdays. There’s nothing more disappointing than arriving at a weigh-in on Thursday and finding a sparse crowd. But the people of Louisiana are there, and that definitely makes us want to keep coming back. We fee like we’re wanted.”
Kendrick also said the enthusiasm of Louisiana fans hasn’t been overlooked by the B.A.S.S. brass.
“The Superdome crowd for the two Classics (held there) has been the largest in B.A.S.S. history,” he said. “They really get into the show, and that only makes the fishermen want to go out and try harder the next day.”
One place that Browning was really excited about Louisiana fans was the northeast region of the state around Monroe.
“I had a blast when we fished that WCF down there,” he said. “We really got to meet with the fans in a close-up environment, and we all enjoyed that. The only bad thing was that Caney Lake and D’Arbonne, while excellent fisheries, are too small to hold a major tournament. The Ouachita River maybe could hold a limited-field tournament, and I would love to come back in that kind of situation.”
Browning added that one positive result of the major tournaments returning to Louisiana is more Bayou State residents signing up to fish the major events.
“Any time you get an opportunity to fish your home water it kind of gives you a little incentive to get out there and test your skills,” he said. “You feel a lot more at home and your confidence level remains high.”
So what’s it going to take to keep Browning and the rest of the competitors coming back? Perhaps Kendrick put it best.
“As long as there are excellent fisheries, enthusiastic fans and aggressive officials, I see no reason for us to stop visiting Louisiana.”
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