Payson Hits The Big Time With Bass Tourney

Bass fishermen spend $3.2B annually, and Roosevelt tourney will focus world attention on Rim Country

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Ah, those wily westerners.

They be messing with bass fishing.

Don’t take my word for it: Just check out all the professional bass fishermen using drop shots on Roosevelt Lake this week.

“Huh?” you say.

Well, see, that’s the whole point. Bass fishing has become big business — with a national following and its own strange vocabulary. Professional bass tournaments vie with NASCAR as a cultural event in much of the country — notably the southeast.

But the phenomenon has only lately made its way out west, and this week will touch down in Payson as some 300 anglers compete for a top prize of $50,000 — with a bass boat thrown in for laughs.

Top western anglers like Payson’s own Clifford Pirch hope to take advantage of Roosevelt’s clear waters and drowned shoreline peculiarities to claim a home court advantage in an intensely competitive field.

The four-day tournament will inject an estimated $600,000 into the local economy — but just as importantly, the contest will generate hours of Sports Channel coverage that will air in a billion homes worldwide.

That means this week will represent Roosevelt Lake’s debut on an international stage, since the TV shows and articles and word-of-mouth buzz on tournament lakes now feeds a $3.2-billion annually bass fishing industry.

Payson and a band of volunteers have been preparing for the tournament for months, wanting to make the best possible impression on the FLW Outdoors organizers and the international audience.

So far, it’s working — but much will depend on how many big fish the pros pull out of the lake between Wednesday and Saturday.

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Trace Taylor waits patiently for a bite while fishing at the GVP lakes. Scattered to his right are the poles, tackle and assorted fishing gear of a few of his friends. The Arizona Game and Fish Department loaned fishing rods and bait to many eager children Saturday. The Fun Day was the kick-off event for this week’s FLW Bass Tournament at Roosevelt Lake.

“I’d like to comment on the support we’ve gotten from the Town of Payson and the grand support we’re getting from the community,” said David Simmons, national sales director for FLW Outdoors.

“I’d like to say we get this level of support everywhere we go — but I’d be telling you a story.”

Simmons said the support from the local partners, the participation by the local residents at the various events connected to the tournament and the success of the fishermen, all determine whether a lake earns a consistent spot on the national tournament schedule.

Roosevelt Lake has a chance to earn a spot on a short list of major western bass fishing tournaments, since the sport remains dominated by big, shallow, murky, reed-choked lakes in the south.

Western fishermen have had a big impact on the bass fishing world with techniques developed on big, clear-water reservoirs with fluctuating shorelines and complex underwater environments. Other lakes on the western tour include Lake Shasta, the California Delta, Clear Lake and Lake Meade. But currently, the FLW Western Tour includes just four events annually — compared to nearly 200 for the eastern tour. The tour is sponsored by the National Guard, among others, and has become a major public image and recruiting tool for the guard.

The rules

Western bass fishermen broke into the club a decade ago and have been interjecting innovations ever since. Professionals at a tournament can keep just five fish a day, so they’re going for the biggest fish they can get.

The angler with the greatest weight of fish at the end of the four days goes home with the $50,000 and the bass boat — with a 90-horsepower outboard. Each professional angler will have a randomly selected co-angler also fishing on the same boat. With $50,000 hanging in the balance on virtually every fish caught, the competition is intense.

As a result, new techniques spread quickly through the ranks of the pros — and then out into the general bass fishing population through the articles and TV shows.

Consider the evolution of the drop shot, as one telling example.

For years, tournament bass fishermen had a bewildering array of lures they could flop down on the bottom and jiggle —imitating some stricken creature presumably irresistible to a prowling bass.

Such a rig works especially well in murky water where the bass hunt by vibrations in the water as much as by sight.

But in the deep, clear reservoirs in the west, fishermen took an idea from Japanese fishermen and adapted it to local conditions. This rig relies on a weight to set the line on the bottom, with a yummy looking plastic worm on a bit of extra line tied on about a foot off the bottom.

“People wanted to brush it off as a fad, since they were all using 20-pound lines and pulling the bait through brush. But if you weren’t using a drop shot, you were getting beat,” said Simmons.

“At this level, ounces make the difference between first and second place.”

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Pictured above: Lou Papke and professional bass fisherman Brett Hite talk about lures during the FLW Fun Day, Sept. 18.

Western anglers

As soon as the western anglers began winning tournaments with drop shot lines, the practice spread — first throughout the professional circuit, then throughout the country.

The western anglers generally used more sophisticated electronic fish finders with a great variety of more specialized — and often more expensive — lures and artificial baits. It set off an arms war in the ranks of tournament fishermen — to the delight of the fishing industry.

For instance, the FLW’s bass magazine breathlessly details in sometimes mind-numbing complexity — the rigs and tactics of the big-money tournament winners.

So local backers and the team of volunteers who have spent hundreds of hours in the past six months getting ready for the major leagues, hope Roosevelt Lake will follow through — with lots of big fish.

Simmons thinks the winning angler will end up with at least 65 pounds of fish in the course of four days. All those will be kept alive and returned to the lake at the end of each day’s weigh-in.

The lake is ready

In theory, the lake is ready for its closeup. The lake has dropped from its record-high levels in July, but still has lots of the sort of submerged brush bass love. Moreover, the lake has huge populations of the most important bait fish — both threadfin and gizzard shad.

Of course, an abundance of natural food will produce record numbers of monster fish — but could make it rougher on anglers, since the bass aren’t particularly hungry.

Anglers say that a hot, dry August made fishing tough, driving the bass and bait deep. Conditions improved sharply for a couple of weeks in, but then seem to have slowed again in the past week.

Of course, fishermen who normally just love to tell a story have largely clamed up — determined not to give a competitor the slightest edge.

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FLW Outdoors and the National Guard hosted an FLW Fun Day at Green Valley Park Sept. 25. Loaner rods and bait were provided for free fishing at the lake, and professional anglers signed autographs and met with fans.

“I was talking to a lot of fishermen (about how to fish Roosevelt) two months ago, but all of a sudden the talk started to slow down and get more general. In the past month, no one will say anything,” said James Goughnour, who makes custom fishing rods and has been one of the local organizers for the tournament. However, he noted that anglers have switched to bigger, heavier rods this year, to deal with the need to fish in among tangles of submerged brush and trees.

Simmons said everything is finally ready for Roosevelt Lake —and Payson’s — big league debut. “The field is mowed, the lines are chalked — it’s time to fish,” said Simmons.

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