It's All About that Bass Fishing in Arkansas

by Sarah Campbell-Miller  on Monday, Oct. 8, 2018 12:00 am   6 min read

Arkansas loves bass fishing, and bass fishermen — “anglers” when they’re using a rod and a reel — love Arkansas right back.

But it’s far more than a hobby in Arkansas. Bass fishing is an industry with a big economic impact in the Natural State, fueling lucrative tournaments and boat manufacturer revenues.

As a sport, it has set off an explosion in high school and college fishing contests.

“Arkansas is special because of the terrain, the mountains and flatlands, and because of the people in Arkansas,” said Forrest Wood, founder of Ranger Boats in Flippin (Marion County). “We have great fishing here in Arkansas because we have a great Game & Fish Commission that takes good care of the resources. We have rivers and streams and dams on the rivers. Arkansas just has a lot to offer.”

Wood, a fishing legend, is namesake of the Forrest Wood Cup, a high-dollar championship. The Cup, whose winner gets a $300,000 cash prize, is the Fishing League Worldwide’s biggest bass tournament of the year. Held in August in Hot Springs, it will return to the same venue next year, the first back-to-back repeat in its 24-year history, and another indication of Arkansas’ significance to the sport.

The 2018 Forrest Wood Cup had an estimated total economic impact of more than $20 million, and attendance reached 68,294, according to Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison.

Those spectators bought bait and tackle and boats from the exposition at the Cup, stayed in hotels and ate at local restaurants, said Joseph Opager, FLW’s director of public relations. The anglers who competed for the cup were in town for 10 or 11 days doing the same things as well as buying gas and oil for their boats and bait and tackle from local businesses, he added.

“The fishing culture in Arkansas is so great,” Arrison said. “For these big tournaments, people just love them. They understand it. They come out in record numbers to watch the weigh-ins. People go out on the lakes and follow the fishermen as they’re fishing, and stay a respectable distance away. There’s just a great enthusiasm for fishing in Arkansas from all the people who live here.”

Arrison hit on a big reason behind the sport’s popularity, in Arkansas and elsewhere, calling it accessible but challenging.

Wood also praised the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission for working hard to accommodate anglers and tournaments, providing on-site staff members to help at events, paying for the weigh-in facilities and maintaining most of the state’s lakes.

Ranger Boats, which was bought by Bass Pro Shops of Springfield, Missouri, in 2014, is a major sponsor of the Cup. Ranger, which makes about 6,000 boats a year and marks its 50th anniversary this year, has a symbiotic relationship with tournament fishing.

“Ranger, a lot of its success is probably due to the tournament fishing industry,” Marketing Director Matt Raynor said.

“So partnerships with folks like FLW and tournament fishing in general and catering to pro fishermen, guys that are looking to fish competitively, that’s who we build boats for every day, for a guy who is looking for a serious technical fishing machine.”

More than 1,000 professional, amateur, college and high school bass fishing tournaments are held in Arkansas each year. “I know the total number is well over 1,000, and may be as many as 3,000,” Jason Olive, assistant chief of fisheries for the Game & Fish Commission, said in an email.

Christie Graham, executive director of the Russellville Advertising & Promotion Commission, said it doesn’t have to seek out tournaments for Lake Dardanelle. The lake has to turn a few away each year for lack of availability.

Although the G&FC knows fishing tournaments are popular, the agency doesn’t track their economic impact. However, some indicators exist. For example, Arkansas black bass anglers invested an average of $11,125 in fishing and boating equipment compared with an average of $8,844 for all of the state’s anglers, according to two 2017 surveys the G&FC commissioned from Mississippi State University.

The surveys found that 133,000 anglers, or 38 percent of residents with fishing licenses, preferred to fish for black bass. Arkansas’ black bass anglers also own about $1.5 billion worth of fishing equipment, or half the approximately $3.07 billion in equipment owned by all of the state’s anglers.

Companies can make more money from bass fishermen, G&FC’s Olive said, and that’s why the bass fishing industry is leading the way in recruiting young anglers through high school and college teams and tournaments.

Opager, with FLW, said it began its college fishing program in 2008 with 90 clubs. Now, more than 700 clubs are registered with the league, and it was a “no-brainer” to launch a high school program in 2010, after seeing that explosive growth, he said.

Keith Daffron, Forrest Wood’s grandson, launched boat manufacturing startup Vexus in Flippin in December because he sees those college and high school teams as an opportunity to grow a company.

Clay Connor, director of marketing for Xpress Boats of Hot Springs, adds that Arkansas “continues to produce our next generation of competitive anglers.”

Daffron also said bass fishing requires an investment of time and money, so it’s best to hook young people early.

His new company employs nearly 100 people and has made a few hundred boats. It started shipping them in June.

Olive said the first college teams in the country were started in the Midwest around 2000, but college teams took off nationwide in 2006-08. In the last five years, high school teams have surged in Arkansas and the rest of the country, he said.

Companies are sponsoring these tournaments, which don’t have entry fees like tournaments for older professionals and amateurs do, and some boat manufacturers are providing boats for youngsters to use, Olive said.

He also noted a slow and steady decline in fishing license sales over the past decade, both in Arkansas and nationwide. Olive suggested that the industry’s support of college and high school teams and tournaments may be an attempt to stem that decline. He suspects fishing license sales have declined because more activities are competing for kids’ time today.

The role of the G&FC in the industry, however, is mostly educational, Olive said. Its Black Bass Program teaches those competing in tournaments how to keep their fish alive to be released unharmed after weigh-ins.

The G&FC has also spent more than $1 million on weigh-in facilities with boat ramps, and it provides on-site staff to help, Olive said.

Tournament organizers “go on and on about” that, he said.

Graham, with the Russellville A&P Commission, added that its weigh-in facility at Lake Dardanelle is one of the best in the country. But that’s not the only reason tournaments are attracted to the area. “People want to come here because we make it easier,” she said. “We’re fish friendly. Our hotels have the parking for the boats. So numerous things as a whole town make the whole concept and the whole package great.”

In addition to FLW, two other major companies organize tournaments in the United States. They are B.A.S.S. (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) of Birmingham, Alabama — also known as Bassmaster — and Major League Fishing of Tulsa.

Each has a slightly different business model, Opager said. Bassmaster focuses more on the top-level professionals, and MLF focuses on television-only events. FLW organizes more tournaments, though both it and Bassmaster have five circuits.

FLW operates more than 300 tournaments from January or February through November and caters to more than 50,000 tournament anglers, he said.

Opager said bass fishing is popular because you don’t have to have a boat to do it. You can fish for bass from the bank of a lake, river or stream with a $20 rod.

Connor, with Xpress Boats, agrees. He said, “Bass fishing spans such a broad spectrum, whether rich, poor, young, old, professional or novice.”

Opager added that you can improve your chances of success by buying a boat, better equipment and better bait and tackle.

Wood, the Ranger Boats founder and an avid angler, said the sport is complex. It requires you to be more active — to figure out which lures to use and where to fish based on the temperature of the water and more — and the fact that bass fishing is challenging is what makes it appealing.

Opager agrees. “Bass are a great fish to fight, for lack of a better term. Some fish, you can go out and catch — crappie or perch or sunfish — you could catch hundreds of them,” he said. “But when a bass tugs on your line and your rod is curled over and you’re giving it everything you can to hoist this bass onto the deck of the boat or onto the bank, it’s absolutely a thrill.”



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