Jul/Aug 2016Bring Home the Basstext and photos
by David Lucas
For some South Carolina communities, investments in fishing and boating facilities capable of attracting national tournaments are paying off in more outdoor recreation tourism dollars.
It was kind of a crazy moment; more akin to a rock concert than a typical peaceful Sunday down by the river. All day long, the excitement in front of the main stage at the Bassmster Elite Series, Winyah Bay professional bass fishing tournament had been building, as fans listened to rock and country music and watched videos of their favorite anglers. When the music stopped, signaling time for the final weigh-in to begin, and the crowd finally cut loose, the cheers were so loud they may have been heard all the way over on Front Street, where visitors to Georgetown go for some shopping, a stroll along the waterfront or a fresh seafood dinner. County tourism officials estimate that the tournament and the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival held last April brought at least 27,000 visitors to the Georgetown area, and the crowd at Sunday's final weigh-in was packed shoulder-to-shoulder around the stage.
Large groups were there to cheer on one of South Carolina's own, Lake Wylie-based angler Britt Myers, and when the final scores were announced and Myer's family joined him on stage for the trophy presentation, the crowd went wild, waving "rally towels" emblazoned with the B.A.S.S. (Bass Anglers Sportsman Society) tournament logo and yelling at the top of their lungs. Myers' friendly demeanor and regular-guy charm had completely won over the fans, elated to see a "hometown" champion finish ahead of some of the world's most accomplished freshwater bass anglers. It was tailor-made for the television cameras there capturing every moment and projecting it right back onto a giant screen, larger than life.
Myers was hugging his family, beaming his one hundred-watt smile, and his energy level was through the roof, despite his having just finished four incredibly grueling days of tournament fishing that involved nearly as much high-speed boat travel across miles of open salt water as it did casting for bass. In third place after the first day, Myers never dropped out of the top ten. His fifty-five-pound, nineteen-ounce total over four days of fishing bested fellow pro Brett Hite by just four ounces.
"I'm beyond proud to win this event in my home state," said Myers. "It's just hard to accurately describe what I'm feeling right now."
Off to the side of the B.A.S.S. stage, Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway was also smiling. Hemingway had kept up a pretty grueling pace over the long weekend, too. He was a constant presence at the Carroll A. Campbell Marine Complex, radio and cell phone at the ready, wrangling small problems and ensuring that everything went smoothly at the tournament (officially the "HUK Performance Fishing Bassmaster Elite at Winyah Bay Presented by GO-RVING") and the two-day Winyah Bay Heritage Festival, which was held on the open fields adjacent to the boat landing.
The majority of the people crowded around the tournament stage Saturday and Sunday had probably already spent a few hours at the festival, enjoying the weather, browsing among the vendor stalls and checking out the exhibits and activities offered. The DNR's Take One Make One trailer, where youngsters could try their hand at shooting a bow or a rifle was a big hit for kids, as were the agency's boating and offshore fishing simulators.
Hemingway had good reason to be happy. The event was obviously an unqualified success, a win for the county on many levels. And it was no accident, but rather the culmination of a plan, executed by Hemingway and other county leaders, that began back in 2008. The idea was to build a boating facility close to town that would be capable of competing for national and regional fishing tournaments organized by B.A.S.S. and Fishing League Worldwide (FLW), as well as professional saltwater tournaments like the Inshore Fishing Association (IFA) Redfish Tour, which would visit Georgetown two weeks after the Bassmaster show left town and again in September.
"There was a coalition of sportsmen in Georgetown who worked to promote outdoor activities and opportunities and monitor legislative action and that type of thing," says Hemingway, describing how the plan came together. "That group was constantly encouraging county council to build a marine complex such as this close by (to downtown) - something that would be capable of hosting tournaments down here. Their vision was that if we had a facility like this, then the fisheries - both the saltwater and the freshwater fishery - would attract the type of venues we are seeing now."
The feeling was that with Georgetown being situated on the coast and at the confluence of several major freshwater river systems, the town would be uniquely situated to attract both salt and freshwater tournaments. It seems to be working.
On the Water
It's 8 a.m. on Friday (Day Two in tournament lingo), and after a twenty-minute, fifty-knot-per-hour run up the Intercoastal Waterway and the Waccamaw River in David Carroll's bass boat, we enter Little Bull Creek on a falling tide.
Carroll's a member of the "B.A.S.S. Nation," a nationwide network of amateur fishing clubs that hold their own series of local, statewide and regional competitions. The members also serve as volunteer tournament marshals at Bassmaster professional events like this one, helping with the weigh-ins and performing the thousand other tasks necessary to make tournaments of this scale work. Carroll is a serious bass angler himself - one of the founding members of the Conway B.A.S.S. chapter. This morning, his gig involves taking members of the media out to get some up-close views of the action. Aggressively promoting these tournaments through television, magazines and through the tournament organizer's own websites and social media accounts is a big part of a successful formula that has created a boom in the popularity of professional bass fishing during the last decade.
Heading upriver, we're looking for one of the more than one hundred anglers competing in the tournament, which is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, a big chunk of the tournament field has headed south on a long run across Winyah Bay into Charleston Harbor and up the Cooper River, where pre-tournament scouting and practice trips have convinced them the most consistent catches of large fish will be. For another, the area encompassing the three major rivers draining into Winyah Bay is huge and wild (and beautiful).
Consistency is important in tournament fishing - one bad day can sink you. Take Casey Ashley, another of the sport's up-and-coming young stars and a popular figure in and around his South Carolina hometown of Donalds, where he has regularly been involved in helping promote the DNR-sponsored Youth Bass Fishing League. Ashley finished Day One skunked, with no fish to weigh in. In fact, he told his dad back at the dock, he only caught one fish all day - and that one not large enough to keep. Like many of the other anglers in the tournament, Ashley made the two-hour run to the Cooper. The strategy didn't pan out for him this time, but Ashley, who won an FLW Walmart tour event at Lake Hartwell in 2014 and has won more than $230,000 in his career, will be back. The strategy proved successful for Myers though, who made the long run each day of the tournament to fish abandoned rice fields along the Cooper and took home the $100,000 top prize plus bonuses.
With the money involved, the competition at this level is fierce. The competition among communities hoping to land a "big one" - a major tournament - is also fairly intense. No surprise, given the dollars that flow into local businesses when one of these shows rolls into town.
Back in March, Lake Hartwell and the city of Anderson Convention and Visitors Bureau played host to an FLW Walmart Tour event that featured 170 of the world's top bass-fishing professionals competing for a first-place payout of $125,000. The tournament was held at Green Pond Landing, a "mega-ramp" that, just like the Carroll A. Campbell Marine Complex, was built with the goal of attracting major tournaments specifically in mind. Funding for the Green Pond ramp came mostly from the 2010 settlement of a PCB contamination lawsuit. Rebuilding local fishing access was at the heart of the plan for the settlement money. Like Sel Hemingway and the folks in Georgetown, local leaders in Anderson are hoping for a financial and tourism boost from getting into the tournament fishing game, and like Georgetown, they have enjoyed some success. FLW estimates that its March tournament accounted for more than $1.5 million in economic impact in the region.
"As far as tournament fishing goes, Lake Hartwell ranks as one of the best destinations in the country simply because of its wide variety of options for catching bass," said FLW Senior Director of Tournament Operations Bill Taylor. "It's well-populated with both largemouth and spotted bass, and that's what makes it great for our anglers."
Back in Georgetown
Hemingway is hopeful that Georgetown's proximity to well-known tourist destinations in Myrtle Beach and Charleston will help give them an edge in landing their share of big tournaments. The Campbell Marine Complex was built in 2008 using state Water Recreation Fund dollars, money shared by counties and administered by the DNR and earmarked specifically for projects that provide public access to the state's waterways for fishing and boating and additional state funding secured by the county's legislative delegation. As it does with many boat ramp projects around the state, the DNR's engineering office pitched in to help with construction planning. After the facility was built, Hemingway had to put on his salesman's hat to finish the job.
"We were kind of looking around (after the facility was built) and saying, 'OK, where are the tournaments?' " recalls Hemingway. "We started with a redfish tournament. Somebody led me to the IFA and got me a contact name. I made a call, and that's basically where it all started."
"My motto all the way through this process has been 'I'm gonna beg you to come, but if I do the job that I should, and the community does too, you're gonna beg me to come back.' So we kind of took that approach and that got the IFA in here in August of 2014. And sure enough, they came in here and had a great time, a good turnout, and on his way back home, the tournament organizer called me and said, 'Hey, let's talk about next year.' "
That strategy relies on a generous helping of local hospitality, and rolling out the red carpet in Georgetown's lovely, historic Front Street waterfront area for visitors is a big part of the plan. The residents and businesses of Georgetown are glad to extend their unique brand of Southern hospitality for tournament goers. They know how important these events, and the media attention that surrounds them, can be in attracting other visitors.
When the tournament airs on the ESPN 2 cable channel, viewers around the country will get an extended look at the scenic beauty, charm and history that Georgetown has to offer. It's basically impossible to buy that kind of exposure, which comes with major sporting events like the RBC Heritage golf tournament down in Hilton Head. It would cost millions of dollars - "way more than our entire annual marketing budget," says Georgetown County Tourism Marketing Director Lauren Joseph.
This kind of coverage provides an enormous boost to the county's efforts to reach a segment of the tourism market that is interested primarily in outdoor adventures and visiting historic places, which is key to expanding visitation to the county beyond the traditional summer season and that has been the county's bread and butter for generations.
Most of these guys look like NASCAR Drivers, with splashy signs for five or six different sponsors plastered on every available surface - boat, truck and angler. It takes A LOT of financial support to tournament fish at this level, and most of the anglers don't miss an opportunity to thank their sponsors and praise their equipment, which is another big part of what makes the whole spectacle tick.
By now, the sun's up over the trees and the scenery where we are, in the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, is just amazing - endless stands of cypress draped in Spanish moss and herons and egrets around seemingly every corner, like they are posing for just the perfect picture in a "Come to South Carolina" magazine ad.
It's easy to imagine whiling away a summer day just floating and fishing here, surrounded by budding green trees and tea-colored water, but professional angler Mike Iacobelli is all business - working up and down a stretch of creek, casting towards a bank and underneath overhanging branches. Eventually we move on, stopping for a minute to shoot the breeze with our friend in the bream boat. He says he's only had a few bites, but he's happy just to be on the river on such a beautiful day. Amen, brother.
On Day Three (Saturday), I'm again paired with David Carroll, and again we turn left after leaving the landing and head up the ICW toward the refuge, trolling for anglers still in the hunt. The field is down to fifty now, all "in the money" and guaranteed at least a $10,000 payday, but feverishly hoping for a big bag that will take them into Sunday's showdown between the top twelve. Myers and most of the other leaders have again headed south to the Cooper, but not everyone. Carroll suggests we try an area he calls "The Fingers," which turns out to be a series of canals lined with river houses - totally unlike the wild landscapes we experienced the day before, but still pretty.
Eventually, we find pro Cliff Prince, working a lure up and around some of the docks and boats that line the canal, but eventually we move on to an area called "Oatland" Flats, and it's wild territory again, a myriad of small creeks and sloughs. A row of cypress stumps guards the entrance to the flats, where multiple small creeks come together and form an area of slack water.
"I've sat right there and caught fish as fast as I could put them in the boat," says Carroll, pointing at a steep muddy bank next to a wide expanse of lilly pads. "Fish," meaning bass, he does not need to add.
Weighing in on Economics
Back at the boat landing, the first day of the Heritage Festival is in full swing, and with the weather cooperating - not too hot, nice breeze - the crowds are beginning to swell. I wander around, taking pictures of the "Dock Dogs" competition, the duck calling contest and a guy demonstrating old-time blacksmith skills. Lots of neat stuff, though nothing steals the show quite like the folks from the Center for Birds of Prey, with their great-horned owl and plastic box full of fluffy white juvenile barn owls. A little boy in a hat peeks over the edge of the barn owl box and looks for a long time and finally walks away, shaking his head in six-year-old wonder.
Vendor Christie Harcourt's selling antique decoys and artwork and other neat things, including something called the "Pawley's Poker," which she says was invented by her partner Dave Lake. The poker is a nice piece of work - picture a fireplace poker on steroids, cast iron and about five feet tall, perfect for fiddling the logs at a Lowcountry bonfire.
"How's business?" I ask.
"It's been great," says Harcourt. "We've sold a ton of pokers." Harcourt tells me that she and Lake have attended every Winyah Bay Heritage Festival since the first one, and this year's has been the best so far. The venue at the boat landing and the partnership with the tournament are perfect, says Harcourt, and she hopes they are able to do it again this same way next year.
Despite the success of these tournaments and the growing bustle of downtown, no one's looking to tourism as a "magic bullet" for economic revival, cautions Hemingway. Rather, the way he sees it is that tourism is just one aspect of a multi-faceted economic development strategy. "Just like any investment professional will tell you, you have to be diversified," says Hemingway. "It's not a replacement for more conventional types of economic development such as industrial recruiting - it's just another piece of that diverse pie. Here we are running a fishing tournament that depends on the ecology and water quality in these rivers and in the bay, and there's commerce right there in the background."
For Georgetown and other communities marketing themselves to visitors in search of a little slice of the outdoor good life, or to companies looking to relocate to a place where their employees can enjoy the natural amenities South Carolina is known for, forming partnerships with local governments, state agencies like the DNR, and corporate sponsors and organizations like B.A.S.S. and FLW that understand the value of those natural resources to their bottom lines, will continue to be an important piece of the puzzle for a long time to come.