As anglers unload their boats at Lake Lansing on a recent Thursday evening, there’s a sense that there’s more going on here than just folks going fishing.
The fishermen pull their boats up the shore, get out, and walk over to visit with Bobby Hutchison, who is holding court at his pickup truck. Hutchison is tournament director of the Get Your Five Bass club, a bunch of guys who get together weekly, throw some money in a pot, then go out and fish.
Three hours later, Hutchison is back at his truck. Anglers carry up bags of bass, and Hutchinson and his tournament partner, Steve Stier, make sure the fish measure the requisite 14 inches, then they weigh them.
Thirty minutes later, Steve Litchfield, a 36-year-old Grand Ledge mechanic and his partner, Jesse Jimenez, a 34-year-old construction worker, are declared the winners of the Thursday night 14-boat event.
The two men walked away with $295, half of the pot. Second and third places win checks, too – ponied up by the participating anglers.
It’s a scene that’s played out countless times in hundreds of places across Michigan every season.
Bass tournaments have been going on since folks started bass fishing, when a couple of guys bet a Coke on who could catch the first or the most or the biggest.
It’s grown into a multimillion-dollar industry with national tours featuring anglers decked out like NASCAR drivers fishing out of $80,000 boats on some of the most storied bass-fishing waters in America.
But this year, there’s one significant difference to Michigan bass tournaments. The Michigan Natural Resources Commission declared last fall that all bass tournaments were required to pre-register with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and then report results of their tournament to the state.
“The purpose is to answer some basic questions about tournament fishing and then apply the information learned to future management decisions,” said Tom Goniea, the DNR fisheries biologist who’s been tasked with monitoring bass tournaments. “How many tournaments are there? How many people are involved? What are the most popular venues? How many bass are handled? These are all important questions to have answered.”
Bass tournaments can be somewhat controversial.
Some folks complain they are harming the resource, though the vast majority of anglers return their fish to the lake after the weigh-in. Others say tournaments crowd out other anglers, though data indicate otherwise.
“Looking at tournament registrations so far, the average number of boats associated with each tournament is about 14,” Goniea said. “It’s very different than what you see on TV. It’s really about localized groups of anglers and friends who get together on a regular or semiregular basis, throw some money in a pot, and go out for a morning or an evening.”
Participants say tournament fishing is kind of like playing a friendly game of poker or being in a bowling league.
There are a number of characteristics that make tournament fishing fun, according to Troy Sika, a 52-year-old Lansing auto repair shop owner and lifelong fisherman who’s been fishing bass tournaments since he was 17.
“I love to bass fish,” Sika said. “And there’s the competitive factor – the guys around here are very, very good fishermen. There’s a big group of people from this area who are very good fishermen, so I always feel good to finish in the top three. When you do, you can say, ‘I beat some really good guys and girls.’”
Sika said it’s also about the camaraderie.
“Some of the guys are second- and third-generation bass fishermen,” said Sika, who also fishes weekly with the “Lansing River Rats” club. “It fills a lot of niches. I love pretty much everything about it.”
So far, the DNR has been surprised by just how popular bass tournaments are. Through early June, more than 1,850 events have been registered with the department by a little over 200 different groups.
“We’ve had a voluntary system in the past, but there wasn’t an emphasis placed on it, either in terms of financial resources to develop the program or staff time for comprehensive analysis,” Goniea said.
In this new effort, the first thing the DNR Fisheries Division did was to develop an all-inclusive, online registration and reporting system.
“We worked with multiple tournament directors and internal staff as well the Michigan Department of Information and Technology to develop a system that was functional and as user-friendly as possible,” Goniea said. “So far, the response has been tremendous. Under the old voluntary system we were getting fewer than 300 registrations per year. In 2016, registration has far exceeded any expectations that I had as to the amount of tournament activity occurring annually in Michigan.”
Goniea said the information, when analyzed, will not only help the DNR understand the tournament bass fishing phenomenon, it also will help the DNR promote Michigan’s bass fishery.
“We are interested in promoting fishing in Michigan – understanding catch rates, size of fish, popular destinations will only help raise the state’s profile,” Goniea said. “We’re just now starting to get reports coming in from tournaments that have taken place since Memorial Day.”
The first half of the year was about getting tournaments registered and the second half will be about working with those tournaments to report their results.
Goniea said there’s a value to the public, too.
“The Michigan Fishing Tournament Information System online is searchable – by lake, by county or date. It’s really meant for the public to find out where a tournament is scheduled to occur and then plan their recreation accordingly,” Goniea said.
Additionally, when analyzed, the tournament results should help the novice as well as more the experienced anglers decide where they might like to try to fish in the future.
“As a biologist and lifelong Michigan angler, I’m really excited about the promotional potential of this program,” Goniea said.
The registration and reporting requirements have been largely accepted by the bass fishing fraternity.
“I think it’s a good program,” said Hutchinson, a lifelong bass angler who’s been involved in tournament fishing for two decades. “I think in the past, bass fishing’s been kind of neglected, so it’s a good thing the DNR’s getting involved.”
Stier is a 60-year-old construction contractor from Bath who’s been fishing bass tournaments for 40 years and fishes a circuit on the west side of the state, as well as the Get Your Five Bass events.
He says the competition and the camaraderie are the allure.
“I like all the people you meet,” Stier said. “And it kind of shows you how you did.”
Dan Kimmel, conservation director for Michigan Bass Nation – the state’s affiliate of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, America’s largest bass fishing group – says he has mixed feelings about the registration regulation.
“The key is convincing the anglers to do it when we never had to in the past and we didn’t get anything new out of it – we didn’t get more opportunity, like a catch-and-release tournament season,” Kimmel said.
Kimmel has been pushing for the opportunity to hold tournaments outside the last Saturday in April to Jan. 1 framework of bass season.
Because the Michigan Natural Resources Commission had recently decided to allow catch-and-release bass fishing year-round, some bass clubs have developed paper tournaments – where fish are photographed, measured and immediately released.
But Kimmel argues the weigh-in is a big part of the event.
However, aside from that, Kimmel thinks there may be some value to the program.
“It’s really a voluntary success story if you think about it,” Kimmel said. “I think it shows that the tournament bass anglers care – the driving reason for our existence is to promote and preserve bass fishing. That’s why BASS promotes keeping bass alive.”
Indeed, most tournaments impose a penalty – often a pound – on anglers who bring in a dead fish. One dead fish can mean the difference between winning and not cashing a check.
There’s also a benefit to the bass clubs.
“Knowing who is where and scheduling around each other,” Kimmel said. “And it’s nice to have a place for anglers to go and see where tournaments are being held. Everybody and his brother is running a bass tournament now.”