Bass Tourney Snarled In Tangle Of Red Tape

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The Payson Town Council hopes to cut through a fishing line snarl of red tape that could make the region look a little fishy during a nationally televised bass tournament this fall.

The town council recently directed Payson Mayor Kenny Evans to appear before the Arizona Game and Fish Commission to plead for an exception to the current fishing restrictions on Roosevelt Lake during the September FLW Bass Fishing Tournament, which will draw the nation’s top professional bass fishermen, a national television audience and maybe a million dollars worth of business.

“We’re up against a system of red tape that takes forever to make a change,” said Evans, “so we have to take it to the commission.”

For years, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has required Roosevelt Lake anglers to immediately put back any 13- to 16-inch bass, since they’re of prime breeding age.

That caused headaches last year when local officials lured another, less prestigious bass tournament to Roosevelt Lake. That tournament generated an estimated $600,000 in business from the nearly 300 contestants and hundreds of fans, spectators and family members.

Bass tournaments usually add up the weight of fish caught over the course of three or four days, with each angler allowed to keep just five fish per day. The FLW tournaments take elaborate precautions to keep the fish alive and return them to the lake, including temperature-controlled live wells in the boat and a special release boat to let the last fish go after the weigh in. As a result, FLW tournaments have a roughly 98 percent live release rate.

If the fishermen can’t keep any fish in the 13- to 16-inch category, they sometimes end up without five fish to weigh at the end of the day. That usually doesn’t affect the big winners, since anglers probably have to have all five fish bigger than 16 inches to have a chance at the top prize money. However, the slot limit last year resulted in a number of fishermen weighing in with only two or three fish, which contradicts the attempt to depict Roosevelt as one of the top bass fisheries in the country to the national audience.

“It’s been a real problem for them,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “Here’s the No. 3 bass fishery in the United States and these professional fishermen that make a million dollars a year are coming up to the weigh-in with three little fish.”

The September tournament is expected to draw 150 boats and 300 contestants. The top one-third of the pro anglers will get at least $5,000 each in prize money, plus a $50,000 top prize. The top amateur angler will win a Ranger bass boat. The event will last for four days and generate several major fair-like events in Payson, intended to involve the whole community.

The tournament organizers appealed in vain for an exception to the slot limit for the tournament, since almost all of the fish would be released alive anyway.

Game and Fish staff refused to bend the rule, afraid other tournaments with a less impressive live release record would also want an exception. Slot limits can play a major role in boosting fish populations if properly enforced.

This year, tournament backers met repeatedly with Game and Fish staff, but once again failed to win an exception to the rule.

The town then got involved, anxious to protect a national event likely to inject serious cash into the local economy next September, by bringing the top names in professional fishing to the region and linking Roosevelt Lake to Payson before a national audience of passionate fishermen.

Evans said the issue has proved vexing already, noting that town officials have already had four meetings lasting about 20 hours trying to figure out how to win an exception to the rule for the tournament.

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