"I actually think that walleye tournament fishing is very healthy right now, but there have been some changes over the last 10 years."
It's a question often found on any fishing forum or discussed around the dinner table at a rules meeting; "What do you think is happening with the pro tournament circuit?"
It's the million-dollar question for many anglers. Many of the seasoned pros have seen walleye tournaments evolve from the original Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) to what is now known as the Cabela's National Walleye Tour, which recently picked up the remains of what the FLW circuit carried for a few years in between. On the surface, the professional walleye circuit may appear to be struggling.
Is it due to a change in interest, lack of sponsorship or is the industry responding in a different direction?
For many years, the PWT managed large payouts while maintaining lucrative tournament angler numbers on the pro-am circuit. Just as any tournament organization, it started out slow and small but didn't take long for the PWT to get its fins and take off swimming. The PWT was not immune to the industry trends nor all the issues that encompass running such events and after a 19-year run, was sold. The PWT was the breaking ground for many anglers such as Mark Martin, Gary Roach, Ted Takasaki and many others and as some of the seasoned vets are still grinding it out while many of the young guns are trying to find their place amongst the crowd of heavy sticks. It has proven to be anyone's game.
So where are we today and where are we going? I spoke to legendary tournament pro and TV host of "The Next Bite," Keith Kavajecz, about his thoughts on the future of the pro circuit.Here is what he had to say:
I actually think that walleye tournament fishing is very healthy right now, but their have been some changes over the last 10 years. There are so many more great local and regional options for anglers (e.g., AIM) that many anglers are choosing not to travel such long distances. However, there are probably more tournament anglers right now than ever.
Since the downturn in the economy, many anglers have found themselves fishing the local tournaments due to the expenses associated with travel throughout the Midwest in pursuit of the title, "World Walleye Champ." The largest contributor of this may very well be the price of fuel and lodging. The impact of these lower numbers is felt within the pro circuit as they begin to lose entries, which in turn means lower payouts. You can see how that chain of events impacts the tournaments.
Over the past couple of years, there has been an insurgence in some of the local team events, as well as the Angler Insight Marketing (AIM) circuit where the catch, record and release format is followed. Team events, such as the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), are popular amongst many anglers, since the experience with a fishing partner is more enjoyable and anglers are able to split the cost of the trip. Even the new young guns, such, as Korey Sprengel, share the same thoughts as Keith on the subject of AIM.
Korey says, "The way the AIM Weekend series is taking off with full fields of 100 boats in almost every event in 2014 means the anglers are still wanting to compete and to have healthy grassroots circuits means good things for the future of competitive walleye angling"
With guys like Korey Sprengle, Bill Shimota and Chase Parsons bringing the next generation on board, the future is looking bright.
Korey stated that, "The National Walleye Tour schedule looks fantastic for great boat numbers and awesome fisheries. I think we will see the Tours boat numbers set an all-time high for the 2015 season" and I hope he's right.
But it's going to take more than just getting more anglers to compete. The walleye world needs continued support from some of the industry leaders, such as Ranger Boats, Berkley and Cabela's. Without these three partners, and many others, the circuits wouldn't be around today. These companies know the advantage of keeping this sport alive, as well as the benefits of having these guys on their pro-staff.
As Korey explains:
I think many companies, like Ranger, are really standing behind the tournament circuits and anglers. They are seeing what impact tournament anglers can have in sales and development of new and better product, as you can see in the new line up of 600 series Ranger Boats. Also, rewarding anglers through the Ranger Cup Contingency programs with increased payout for Ranger owners. Another company that comes to mind is Berkley. Berkley sees the value that tournament anglers have and uses their anglers to develop new and better products that benefit the weekend angler to the everyday guide or tournament angler. If you look at the New Berkley Flicker Minnow, it was developed with anglers input (Gary Parsons, Keith Kavajecz) to catch more fish and then promoted by tournament anglers to create such a buzz that the retailers were demanding the product, which in turn delayed the launch because the demand was so high. All with little to no marketing dollars spent on promoting the Flicker Minnow before the release. Now that's making an impact!"
I'm pretty confident that the future of the professional walleye circuit is ALIVE. With the momentum it has now with the improving economy and decreasing fuel prices, I expect to see the 2015 season to be a success. In order to make things great, it takes great people, such as those found in organizations like the National Professional Anglers Association. These are the people working day in day out trying to make the professional angling world work for anyone interested in getting involved in tournament fishing. But they can't do it alone.
It takes all types of people to be positive and supportive of grassroots tournaments, youth fishing events and being good stewards of our sport. The outdoor industry may dictate how they spend their dollars in promotions, but you have the power to influence those decision-makers investing in the walleye tournaments across North America.
What are you going to do to keep the future of walleye tournaments alive?