October 3, 2012 10:20:18 AM
A visit to the visitor's bureau Tuesday evening to meet a few of the contestants in this week's Crappie Masters National Championship confirmed for me one of life's great truths:
Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will blow the rent at BassPro.
Even a cursory look around the CVB parking lot on Tuesday reveals that fishing at this level entails a fair amount of expense -- trucks, trailers, boats, elaborate electronic equipment, tackle, even uniforms. And those requisite items don't even include the expense of travel, from food to lodging to gasoline.
The two-day tournament begins Friday. Of course, many of the teams -- officials estimate between 150 and 170 qualifying teams will compete -- have been in Columbus for days now, scouting for the best places to fish. So the expenses add up.
Ronnie Capps and Steve Coleman are sort of the New York Yankees of Crappie Masters. They've won seven championships on the circuit, easily more than any other team, and have been fishing in these events for more than 30 years. In fact, Capps wasn't even old enough to drive when his partnership with Coleman started.
"Steve had a driver's license, so he drove us everywhere,'' Capps said.
Over that span, no team has been more successful than Capps/Coleman.
"Our taxable income over that time has been $1.7 million in cash and prizes,'' said Capps, who turns 46 next month. "So we're almost to the point of breaking even.''
Unlike the high-profile BassMasters circuit, where most, if not all of the regular competitors, are backed by big sponsorships, no one on the Crappie Masters can actually make a living catching fish.
Most are retirees. Others have jobs that allows them to work around their tournament schedule.
"I'd love to see the day when you could stay out here and make a living doing this,'' said Capps, a state wildlife officer in Tennessee. "We're not there yet.''
It is a dream that others share, among them Dan Dannenmueller who is unique in the respect that he once fished the BassMasters Tour before coming over the Crappie Masters circuit three years ago. He and his partner have won the past two Crappie Masters championships, but the "bigger picture'' for Dannenmueller is building the Crappie Masters into the sort of lucrative, high-profile enterprise that BassMasters now enjoys.
"I think it comes down to marketing and publicity,'' Dannenmueller says. "It's the exposure. Because I think if people really get to know what this is all about, it can be very, very successful.''
There is some evidence that this is more than wishful thinking.
Crappie tackle outsells bass tackles by a considerable margin, mainly because crappie fishing can be done "on the cheap.'' You don't necessarily need a boat. In fact, you really need little more than a cane pole and some bait. The low expense gives crappie fishing broad appeal.
Dannenmueller is among the circuit's great ambassadors. He produces his own crappie TV show and publishes a crappie magazine. At this point, it's helpful to know that "crappie'' is pronounced "croppie.'' Otherwise, it would appear that I am saying something unflattering about the quality of Dannenmueller's TV show and magazine. I am sure that is not the case.
There are at least two other TV shows devoted to crappie fishing. I am sure they are far from crappy, too.
The downside is that all of these shows are cable, so the exposure pales in comparison to the exposure BassMasters enjoys on ESPN.
Admittedly, I am an expert in neither fishing nor marketing.
That said, I do have a pretty good idea about what could raise Crappie Masters profile to rival that of BassMasters: They need crazy people.
Unfortunately, none of the fishermen I observed Tuesday are sufficiently appalling to attract the attention of producers from A&E or Bravo or TLC.
What Crappie Masters has are down-to-earth, genuinely friendly people who are passionate about their sport.
What the Crappie Masters needs are nut cases.
Dannenmueller says there are 6.2 million people in the U.S. who fish for Crappie.
Surely, there's Honey Boo Boo in that number somewhere.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.