Landing the Big One

Ohio River towns see cash
in catfishing tournaments

Area catfish competitions have grown in number,
size to rival bass fishing events

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(June 2007) – Shafter Bowling was out on the Ohio River fishing when, suddenly, he realized he had caught “the big one.” This one didn’t get away though; it was a 71-pound blue catfish, and the fight was like pulling in a third-grader.

2007 June Edition Cover

2007 June Kentucky
& Indiana Edition Cover

Bowling, 32, became hooked on fishing when he was a child. The Hanover, Ind., resident says he still loves being outdoors on the water with all the excitement that surrounds catching fish.
His experience shows. For the past two years, Bowling has won the Catfish Masters of America’s annual fishing tournament in Madison. In June, Bowling and his partner, Danny Gross, are hoping to make it three straight in Madison.
The 2007 Madison Sea Ark-Outdoor World-Suzuki Classic is scheduled for June 23-24 on the Ohio River. Area fishing competitors will pay a $130 per person entry fee for the chance to catch the heaviest 10 catfish over two days and collect the Big Pot of $2,500. Cash awards will be presented in the top seven places, plus other prizes will be given away by the tournament’s many sponsors.
Steve Shipman, CEO of Catfish Masters of America, says he is excited about the event and that it will be the biggest tournament field yet held in the city. “An increase in sponsorship and promotions has nearly doubled our entries from the past year.” He had 44 teams entered as of late June and expected another 15 or so to sign up by the tournament weekend.
Like previous years, hotels in the area are offering special rates for anglers. Also, if an angler is staying at a sponsor hotel and finishes in the position sponsored by the hotel, that angler gets the room for free. For example, Best Western is sponsoring the first, fifth and tenth places. If the anglers that finish in those places are staying at Best Western, they get their rooms for free. “It is just a great deal, and we think it is wonderful of these hotels to offer this,” said Shipman.
Another sponsor, Eagle Hollow Marina, is planning to serve a complimentary breakfast and dinner on Saturday to all of the anglers. Many other local businesses have helped to sponsor the tournament, including Wal-Mart and Big-O Tires.
In a very special giveaway after the tournament, anglers finishing in the top 15 positions will be given a key to try to win a boat, engine and trailer given away by Sea Ark Boats, Outdoor World and Suzuki.
“Everyone is truly excited about this amazing chance to really win something big,” said Shipman.

Steve Shipman

"An increase in sponsorships and promotions has nearly
doubled our entries from
the past year."
– Steve Shipman, Catfish Masters of America

Even the city of Madison is helping to promote the tournament. The city has agreed to provide funding for Tone Deaf Productions, located on Main Street, to film the tournament. Madison tourism officials have donated $500 toward operating expenses.
Some of the videos will be offered for sale to the anglers, and the city’s local access cable TV Channel 15 is planning to broadcast the video at some point. Shipman plans to mail several copies to potential sponsors across the country for next year’s tournament.
Shipman said he approached Madison officials last year for help, but they said there was no money at that time. This year, however, he was hopeful when the city organized a committee to creating a sports commission to attract more sporting events to the area.
“The city leaders I talked to said they saw the benefit in helping to promote the tournament because of the money that it will bring to the city,” said Shipman.
Indeed, at a mid-March initial meeting of the sports commission committee, Madison Mayor Al Huntington said the Ohio River would be a perfect example of a venue that can be used to attract fishing tournaments. He says they are the type of events that normally generate huge financial gains to communities that hold them.
In fact, Madison has seen other communities along the river cashing in.
Carrollton, Ky., only 15 miles upriver, has already proven that fishing tournaments are big money. Carrollton’s tourism director, Sarah Oak, said her community holds up to six large bass fishing tournaments a year. Each of those two-day tournaments, with 75 to 100 boats per competition, can easily generate more than $50,000 in economic impact to the small city.
“These anglers come here, fill up their gas tanks, eat, stay in hotels and shop, so it is easy to do the math,” she said. “Bass fishing has become big business for us.”
Carrollton has been holding tournaments for years but recently began to actively pursue even larger tournaments, according to Oak. The city has secured a national tournament for 2008 that will bring up to 300 boats for a week of fishing. “We expect 200 to 500 visitors and participants per day for the tournament, and many will have to stay several days, so the economic impact for our city will be huge,” she said.
Her department and the city are working to get money to help attract the bigger tournaments to Carrollton, she said. Already, the community has acquired a welcoming reputation for fishing competitors, and many tournaments have begun approaching the city for discussions, Oak said.

Shafter Bowling and Ben Shourds

Photos provided

Shafter Bowling (left) and his
brother-in-law, Ben Shourds,
haul out a 54-inch blue catfish
last year at Cannellton Dam.

Plapp’s Pro Outdoor owner Matt Plapp, whose Florence, Ky., company is the title sponsor for Carrollton’s biggest tournament, the Ohio River Rumble, said the city’s “open arms” policy makes it a great place for tournaments. “Tournament fishing is often overlooked by tourism departments, but Carrollton recognized the opportunity and went with it,” he said.
Plapp’s company sponsors 600 tournaments a year throughout the Midwest. He said bigger two- and three-day tournaments easily bring $150,000 in spending to a community.
Jeremy Leach, 28, of Madison, has been competing in catfish tournaments for five years with his partner, Beacher Woolf, 31, of Hanover. They travel up and down the Ohio River competing in the tournaments sponsored by a variety of organizations, including Catfish Master of America, and the larger DuraCat Series.
“We love to tournament fish because it is fun and exciting,” said Leach.
Woolf agreed, saying, “I’ve been fishing my whole life and tournament fishing just seemed like it would be a fun thing to do.”
At this point in the season, the pair is second in points in the DuraCat Series and has finished in the top five in numerous tournaments this season. While they both love the competition, they do admit it can be costly.
Leach said they are scheduled to compete in 14 catfish tournaments this season, each of which can cost up to $700 a team for entry fees, and two-night, weekend hotel and food expenses.
“We sometimes take vacation days to pre-fish and scout an area,” said Woolf.
That practice, which is common among anglers in bigger tournaments, drives up the cost even more for the competitors.
Leach has secured sponsors for them, including Arvin Sango Inc., Sea Ark Boats, Outdoor World and Eagle Hollow Marina. Those sponsors help offset the costs of their travel and competition fees.
Leach, an engineer, said he would love to become a professional angler on the catfish circuit but admits the catfish circuits don’t pay as much as the more well-established bass tournaments. “The catfish trails haven’t gotten big yet, but that will happen eventually.”

Junior Miller

Photo provided

Junior Miller of Madison holds a blue cat
he landed at a past tournament.

Plapp agreed, saying, “In five years, I see catfish tournaments overtaking bass tournaments as far as size because of their increasing popularity.”
Charlie Hatchell, an angler from Wise’s Landing, Ky., also believes catfishing will eventually overtake bass fishing in popularity. He used to fish for bass but switched to catfish a few years back.
“People are finally beginning to realize that there is a technique to catching catfish, just like there is with bass fishing,” he said. “It used to be people thought we just threw a pole in the water and waited.”
Woolf, Leach and Bowling also described using various strategies and techniques during tournaments. Most catfish anglers cut up shad, bluegill, skipjack or other small fish for bait and drift their lines within 4 feet of the bottom. The challenge is finding them. Once they are hooked, the fun begins.
Hatchell began traveling a variety of catfish circuits years ago with his father-in-law, Buddy Scott. He and partner, Adam Davis, have been successful; so far this season they have had a first place, a second, a third and two top five finishes.
“I really have to pay tribute to Buddy and thank him because he taught me everything he knows about the river,” Hatchell said.
Hatchell is another angler who said he competes because of the excitement in the challenge. “You are out there against people who are much more experienced, and it is just fun to go up against them. You also get to meet many good people up and down the river.”
While he simply enjoys traveling up and down the river competing, he does try to hit a few of the tournaments that pay good money. “It can really help offset costs if you win and recoup some of your investment,” he said.
Winston Wyatt, 65, of Westport, Ky., in Oldham County, is the current point leader in the Kentuckiana Catfish Tournament. He said that even for a one-day event, the costs can runs as high as $300.
He and partner, Billy Peabody, love to travel the catfish trails up and down the river. In Westport, there are usually three to four catfish tournaments a season, but they are really small with only 8 to 10 boats competing.
Wyatt said that the larger events were good for a community because of the amount of money the fishermen spent during them. He wouldn’t mind one of those bigger tournaments coming to his town.
That is exactly the kind of input newly appointed Oldham County Tourism Director Kim Buckler is looking for as she works out a new strategy for her county’s tourism department.

Beacher Woolf and Jeremy Leach

Photo provided

Beacher Woolf (left) and Jeremy Leach
prepare for the weigh-in during a
tournament held last year. A team score
is usually derived from the two-day
total weight of five fish.

“We want to find events already happening and help market them better to draw bigger crowds,” she said. “We would love to help increase the exposure for some of the small fishing tournaments like the ones in Westport to get them to grow.”
At the helm for only a month, she is working on a plan to put out a county-wide calendar of events for little-known things such as fishing tournaments and to increase marketing for those events. “Advertise it, and they will come,” she said. ‘Many events organizers don’t necessarily understand tourism and how our office can help them. They need to contact us.”
Shipman realized the value of marketing and how Madison’s leadership could help his annual event in the city. “I believe the new sports commission the city is working on could be a great thing,” he said. “With help from the city and other sponsors, we could double our participation next year as well.”
During the two-day 2007 Madison Sea Ark-Outdoor World-Suzuki World Classic, anglers will search the water for seven hours a day in hopes of catching the biggest catfish of the day. Last year, Bowling caught a 46-pound catfish, which helped him secure the victory. Anglers can catch a variety of catfish, including channel cats, blue cats and flatheads, but blue cats are usually bigger so most fishermen go after them.
Blue cats can go much bigger. Fisherman Pat Courtney of Madison said he recently caught a 68-pound catfish in the Ohio River. Shipman landed a 48-pounder during a recent tournament.
At the end of each day, five fish for each team are weighed, and the total of the five largest fish over the two days comprises the team score. The fish are then released back into the water to help preserve the ecosystem and to guarantee future catfish angling.

• For more information about the Madison World Classic or Catfish Masters of America, call Steve Shipman at (812) 866-2244 or visit: www.catfishmasteramerica.com. Visit Jeremy Leach’s website at: www.tanglingwithcatfish.com.

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