I know all about the one-two punch. I’ve heard of kicking someone when they are down, but the combination of COVID-19 travel restrictions and social distancing could have been a knockout combo for 2021 kayak fishing tournaments. According to the directors of the big three tournaments, the beat down may have actually turned into a buildup.
Kayak Fishing Tournaments Stay the Course
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” laughs Joe Hector, host of Extreme Kayak Fishing Tournaments (EKFT). Despite the tough times, holding two tournaments during a pandemic taught Hector valuable lessons he says will make EKFT better.
Like PT Barnum and Muhammad Ali, Hector is a showman. During normal times, he throws up a tent and holds a wild party. “I thought people came for that stuff,” he says. Truth is, Hector realized anglers come for the competition, the experience is what they take home.
Parties are Off the Agenda
Last year, EKFT held two tournaments and no parties. At the shotgun start, Hector placed glow sticks six feet apart. While he struggled with the city and heard some criticism, Hector is proud of his sponsors’ continued support. “SA Company designed a tournament mask that has sold off the shelves; I see them everywhere.”
In 2020, Hector was forced to cut back to three tournaments. He realized fewer events were easier to organize, and he could focus on improving the quality. So, this year he is only hosting the Sailfish Smackdown, Exotic Bass Roundup and Summer Slam. “I’d be happy with three tournaments,” he says.
For Hobie’s Bass Open Series (BOS), 2020 was a bump in the road. The up-and-coming series was in its third year when COVID struck. Tournament director AJ McWhorter gives credit to the anglers. “With all the restrictions and issues, people still came out,” he says, “That says something about the anglers.”
Like EKFT, Hobie BOS cut the parties and made every effort to avoid gatherings. “Camaraderie is as important as the event,” McWhorter says. After suffering through last year, he says anglers are used to the changes. He points out tournament anglers often fish in terrible conditions just to scratch out a few bites, so a pandemic isn’t going to stop them.
McWhorter commends the grassroots fishing clubs where most anglers first enter local tournaments. “Everyone started fishing these events,” he says, adding that he was looking forward to fishing his club event the next weekend. With so many new anglers, he emphasizes local clubs will be a funnel to national events.
Surviving and Thriving in 2021
After surviving 2020, Hobie Bass Open Series has picked up where it left off, growing with each event. “We’re always trying to improve,” McWhorter says. When I ask about future events, he admits, “It’s hard to say things will ever go back to normal.” And with numbers rising despite the challenges, McWhorter is hopeful. “If it ever goes back to normal…,” his voice trails off.
Even the biggest show in town experienced ups and downs. But in the face of adversity, Kayak Bass Fishing founder Chad Hoover is expanding his network. In addition to national and statewide tournaments, he’s adding college, high school and saltwater events. “Anglers are loving this shit,” he chuckles.
Hoover noticed 2020 saw a rise in the number of anglers who participated in more than one tournament. “We saw a 50 percent increase in anglers who fished more than five events.”
To expand his formula, Hoover plans to consolidate other elements of his program. He laughs, “Kayak fishing used to be the Al Bundy of the tournament scene.” He plans to step-up the competition and attract the best anglers. Instead of hosting hundreds of anglers at the national championship, he wants to cut the field to a smaller group of elite competitors.
The Future of Fishing Tournaments
While last year was a challenge across the board, tournament directors are positive about the future. “We learned a lot of lessons and, in the end, became better events,” Hector says. With popularity growing as fast as the prize money in 2021, kayak fishing tournaments aren’t the outsiders anymore.
“It’s our time to shine,” says Chad Hoover. The future is looking bright.
This article was first published in Kayak Anger Issue 45. Subscribe to Kayak Anger and get the magazine delivered to your front door. Download the Kayak Angler Magazine+ app to seamlessly glide between the digital archives, the latest articles and videos.
Something to celebrate, lessons from 2020 tournament season pay off. | Feature photo: Courtesy of EKFT