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Lake life

What’s going on with pro crappie tournaments?

Large professional crappie fishing tournaments are in the midst of a serious identity crisis.

Not the fishermen and women themselves, mind you; it’s the playing field – the tours themselves and the number of people willing to come out and pay to play in today’s environment. And it’s pretty much self-induced.

Participant numbers are way down. Attendance at weigh-ins is down. Major circuits have changed ownership and direction numerous times in the past two years. And just as bad, local community interest and involvement is way down in many areas.

An example: in the Crappie Masters “national championship” on the Ouachita River last summer, there were seven spectators at the final weigh-in that were not family members of contestants. Yep. Seven. I counted twice. That’s where the picture above was taken. I know, you can’t see all seven of them.

To start 2023, American Crappie Trail tournaments only drew 22 teams on D’Arbonne and 25 teams on Grenada in Mississippi. In an apparent CPR effort, ACT has totally abandoned it’s catch ‘em all format. Lots of fish were caught in those, but fishermen coming to the weigh-ins and just reading their sponsors names off their partner’s jersey with no fish was about as exciting as a Joe Biden press conference.

Thank goodness, ACT abandoned it’s catch ‘em all format two events in, instead announced they were copying the format of successful local tournaments like D’Arbonne’s Crazy Crappie Cash. To be honest, I’m not sure how that worked out. I quit paying attention.

In the recent National Crappie League Trail event on the Ouachita River, early numbers were so low that they added on Poverty Point Reservoir at the last minute to attract a few more teams. Still only 22 teams showed and eight of those “teams” were one man.

There was a spark of life this spring when Crappie Masters drew 70 boats, and Grenada, the lake of three pounders, drew 100 boats. I think that had more to do with wanting to spend a week fishing these lakes for fat momma crappie in the spring than anything else. Since then, numbers have been embarrassingly low. Remember the Fidget Spinner? There for a while everybody had to have one. Now you can’t find one. Sad to say, that’s about the way a decent field is for most professional crappie tournaments.

Looking back, the first ACT event on D’Arbonne in 2017 drew 75 boats. The first Crappie Masters pro tournament on D’Arbonne in 2015 drew 100 boats. Moreover, you could feel the excitement all around the area. Now a lot of people don’t even know the tourneys are in town if they don’t follow the promoters on Facebook.

So who left the plug out?

CM, ACT and Crappie USA have now fallen under one owner, Blake Jackson of Carterville, Illinois. The three tours still operate as three separate tours with three separate paid memberships required. They appear to be trying, but as Jedi Master Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try”.

The new kid on the block is the NCL, but they are struggling to gain ground. Their first event had only 17 boats. Give them credit, they paid the entire $22,000 guaranteed prize payout with no excuses. With a $350 entry fee per team (17 teams x $350 entry fee = $5,950), that isn’t sustainable.

There are excuses…shaky economic conditions, skyrocketing travel costs, and the “elephant in the boat” — the use of forward facing sonar, a.k.a. LiveScope. It hasn’t helped grow numbers of tournament anglers. In fact, it has hurt participation. Deny it if you will, but it’s a fact. There are some good new names and faces in pro crappie fishing because of it, but at the expense of experienced and popular names in the game, many of whom people loved to come out to see, watch and talk to. At the last D’Arbonne event, several of us quickly named 20 well-known teams (some of them GOATS of crappie fishing) that no longer take part.

Pro fishing is expensive. You apparently need an $80,000 boat, big tow vehicle and plenty of time off. That’s not counting electronics and gear, food, and an occasional bucket of minnows. You also have to put up some serious entry dough. In the Crappie Masters Elite series, anglers had to put up a $6,000 cash entry fee for four tournaments and one classic. The first Elite circuit didn’t quite fill up the expected field, but they are committed for the year. Other qualifier tournament entry fees range between $350 and $600.

Read carefully here, please: the fishermen who are entering these events are top-notch guys (and gals); ambassadors for the sport. Most of them feel they need a better shake in the deal and more consistency. As it is, if you don’t finish in the top three, you can’t even recoup your entry fee and expenses. They are struggling to find a circuit worthy of their time, talent and expertise.

Then there are big one-time events like the annual Wally Marshall Big Crappie Classic, but it’s by invitation of the host only. Earlier this year, two “qualifier” events were mysteriously cancelled without explanation. The prize money equals the entry fee anglers pay. The other sponsor, crappie expo and tourism money apparently goes to the promoters of the tournament.

Big crappie tournaments do cost area tourism groups big money — between $15,000 – $30,000 to get a tournament to come to lakes like D’Arbonne. On the really big ones, the state tourism folks help ante-up, too. They have been good about that, I have to say.

Tournament promoters also get substantial income from sponsors who put big money into the tours. Crappie-related fishing manufacturers are stretched thin trying to help everybody.

State circuits, crappie clubs and smaller tournaments with more reasonable entry fees seem to have picked up steam and are drawing more fishermen. Lower entry fees, less travel, etc. are attractive. The Crazy Crappie Cash tourney is an example, and everybody actually had fun and smiles on their faces. And lots of winners won money.

One bright spot the past two years has been the dominance of Hayden and Dan Jeffries. This great father-son team has been whipping the crappie out of everybody. The likeable duo attracted more positive attention to the circuits than any other thing. But the downside is dozens of teams have kept their entry fee and stayed home because of that dominance. Nobody likes fishing for second. Here’s a funny story. Recently after their monster win on D’Arbonne, someone caught a crappie and posted a picture of it on Facebook with a hole it its lip and the initials HJ written on it’s side, meaning that fish had already been caught by Hayden Jeffries.

Am I against pro crappie tournaments? Heavens, no. Absolutely not. I would like to see them all flourish. But they are not.

I was involved heavily with the first ones that ever came to our area. I’ve said nothing but good things about them and enthusiastically encouraged the groups that cut checks to help get them here. I’ve made dozens of great friends around these tournaments and had fun writing about them. I’ve learned a ton. So have others. At one time, writeups about a big tourney could have 5-6,000 readers on this site every day. Now it’s like 100-200.

With that comes the duty to call it like it is today. There just aren’t enough crappie, sac-a-lait or white perch fishermen around to fill up a boatload of pro tournament circuits. Most crappie anglers just want to go fish, catch some for supper and brag a little if they get the chance. Crappie anglers aren’t bass anglers; different breed entirely. There’s no doubt, the development of live sonar, what some call underwater cameras, have helped lots of them catch more crappie. That’s one big bonus.

I’m concerned that if there isn’t some open dialogue about this, it isn’t going to get any better. That would be sad.

Here’s something I really miss. Organizers used to have public events and Media Days where anglers took out media, local officials and sponsors to bring outside publicity to the events and create community excitment and support. Crowds of locals came out, even put on fish fries and the ladies made homemade desserts for lunch, etc. They honored first responders, medical personnel, local celebrities, elected officials, high schoolers and more. They put on a good show around the actual tournament.

I guess “ain’t nobody got time for that” anymore.

It will be interesting to see if pro circuits influence growth of crappie fishing like they have in the past, or if smaller, more fun tournaments are the ones that prosper and grow. By the way, the tourism folks that put up the money to get the big events to town are watching closely, too. You also don’t need an economics degree to figure out that writing a big check to bring 22 teams to town that, in reality, don’t involve the community, may not be as good of a deal as it used to be.


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