ABOVE Donna and Spencer Lynn weigh in big in May at Neely Henry Lake — a segment of the 77, 000 miles of streams and rivers and 480, 000 acres of publicly owned lakes that make Alabama a fishing dream.
The official state seal of Alabama is about as basic as it comes. There are no screaming eagles or Romanesque shields or blaring banners. Instead, the design consists simply of the outline of the state, with flowing lines depicting all of Alabama’s major rivers.
That is appropriate, because even 200 years ago, when this seal was created, it already was apparent that one of Alabama’s most valuable assets was the state’s abundant waterways. With more than 77, 000 miles of streams and rivers and approximately 480, 000 acres of publicly owned lakes and reservoirs, Alabama is a water-rich state.
This has turned out to be a form of liquid gold for Alabama in terms of tourism dollars, and not just from people who want to spend time in the water or lounging on the shore. Fishing has become a major financial generator for the state. According to a report from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, fishing-related expenditures in Alabama total approximately $456 million per year, and the overall annual economic impact is estimated to be close to $1 billion.
This fishing market led to the creation in 2012 of the Alabama Bass Trail, a cooperative effort among the governor’s office, the Alabama Tourism Department, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourist Association. The organization initially was designed to promote the state as a year-round fishing destination.
ABOVE A cool morning with 450 anglers being greeted by a little fog.
“We were started to be the marketing arm for the state that reached out to anglers across the country, to entice more people to vacation here and spend their dollars here, ” Alabama Bass Trail Director Kay Donaldson says. “It was strictly tourism marketing. But in the fishing industry, when you call something a trail, 95 percent of the people assume it’s a tournament trail. So we started getting a lot of calls about our tournament schedule.”
As a result of all this interest, the ABT decided to begin an annual fishing tournament series in 2014. It didn’t take long for Donaldson to realize that the organization had made a major catch. She says last year’s tournament series — which ran from February through October — had 11 events at lakes throughout the state, generating an estimated economic impact of $3.1 million. Spots for this year’s series sold out last November, with 900 anglers scheduled to compete.
“It will be our largest participation yet, ” Donaldson says. “We have anglers coming in from all over the Southeast and into the Midwest. We’ll have people from Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, even Idaho. It’s gotten bigger than just a Southeastern regional tournament.”
The impact is certainly appreciated by the communities located near the lakes that are used for the tournament. Since these are mostly rural areas, fishing tournaments are among the few major income-producing events the communities can attract.
ABOVE 406 anglers prepare for blastoff on Neely Henry Lake, beginning beneath Etowah County Memorial Bridge in Gadsden on the Coosa River that feeds into the lake below.
“These anglers come in and bring their families, and they’re staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants, ” says Linda Lewis, Chamber of Commerce president for Walker County, which includes ABT tournament stop Lewis Smith Lake. “While the anglers are fishing, the family members will shop in our stores. It’s a huge economic boost to our community.
“I’ll take these tournaments any day, because of the economic impact that they have. And it’s not just for that weekend, but for the entire year. There is a carry-over (beyond the tournament). People see our beautiful lake and they want to come back. We have a lot of real estate on the lake. So not only does it help with tourism, it might entice some to buy a home on the lake.”
Donaldson says the tournaments also help improve access points to the various lakes, since parking and boat ramps have to be able to handle hundreds of professional anglers, who will be reluctant to return to a site that has inadequate facilities.
“The thing that helps us is the involvement we have with the Department of Conservation, ” Donaldson says. “They’re developing new boat ramps and facilities, and they include us in those conversations. Because if you can handle an Alabama Bass Trail tournament with all the boats we have coming to an area at one time, you can handle anything.”
ABOVE ABT Champions Josh Butler, Jeb Tate and their spouses enjoy the Grand Prize boat at the 2017 ABT Championship.
Indeed, putting on a major fishing tournament is an elaborate undertaking, involving much more than simply having anglers get in a boat and go fish. ABT Tournament Director Clay Baldis, who is the organization’s only other full-time employee along with Donaldson, says preparation for an individual tournament begins weeks in advance.
“Before each tournament I’ll call and talk to the local game wardens or Fish and Wildlife officials and ask them about any water hazards that might be on the lake, so we can cover that with the anglers, ” Baldis says. “Then on the tournament weekend, we basically live out of a 48-foot semi-trailer that’s been converted to a stage trailer. We roll on site Friday morning and get everything functional by Saturday morning.”
Donaldson says the ABT hires about a dozen temporary workers for a tournament weekend, and often uses another dozen volunteers provided by the local communities. Saturday wake-up is as early as 2 a.m., so everything can be ready when the anglers show up before sunrise. Weather is always a factor, from the cold of a February event to the scorching heat of an Alabama summer.
“One year we had 11 inches of snow at Lake Guntersville, ” Donaldson says. “When it’s cold, the ramp freezes, so you have people out there putting down salt. In the summer if there’s a drought, the water is going to be down. So are you going to be able to get boats in the water at that ramp? There are a lot of things like that to think about ahead of time and prepare for early on.”
The anglers will fish all day, and then there is the official weigh-in followed by the awards ceremony. Baldis says they usually don’t leave the site until about 9 p.m.
“It makes for long days, ” Baldis says. “It’s almost like a traveling show, like roadies. We’ll put everything up, have the tournament, tear everything down, go to the next site and then put it all back up. It’s a tough job, but it’s a fun job. It’s a labor of love.”
Cary Estes is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Birmingham.