They are America's most prized game fish. And today, catching the big one could mean big money for members of the nation's fastest-growing tournament circuit. Forget what you know about fishing: It's a whole new world out there.
"Today the FLW Outdoors is the world's largest tournament organization," according to Charley Evans, president and CEO of FLW Outdoors. "With 249 events covering 13 different tournament circuits covering five different species of fish, some 9,000 tournament entries and handing out almost $40 million in prize money."
The FLW had modest beginnings. The tournament was founded in 1979 as Operation Bass by Mike Whitaker of Gilbertsville, Ky., a former high school teacher and football coach turned electronics salesman. The one-day event was aimed at contestants who couldn't take take time off from work and travel long distances to high-entry-fee tournaments. The event was later renamed after Forrest L. Wood, the founder of Ranger Boats, the Cadillac of fishing boats.
Ten years ago, the tournament was still paying out a little more than $800,000 in prize money. But that all changed when the Tour landed the granddaddy of all sponsors, Wal-Mart.
“Following Wal-Mart's involvement then we had a lot of Wal-Mart's vendors.” said Evans. “And a lot of other people that started to take note. If Wal-Mart's interested, then we're interested, too.”
Now FLW Outdoors has the support of 42 major sponsors. Only five of them are part of the fishing industry. One is Sirius Satellite Radio.
“When you have 45 million people out there that are enjoying the outdoors -- whether it be on the water or camping or what have you -- it just lends itself to exactly we have to offer,” said Eric Pollard, marketing manager for Sirius.
The National Guard is also a hoping to hook a few new recruits by sponsoring the event.
“When we looked at the demographic its got the same demographic as NASCAR had," Sgt. First Class Frank O'Laughlin, marketing director for the Guard. “But the growth potential is substantially faster than NASCAR was.”
That growth is catching the eye of more and more companies hooking into the nearly $40 billion spent every year by outdoor lovers. And for a select few it also means fishing for a living.
“There's a lot of opportunity and there's a lot of money now,” said professional angler and FLW rookie of the year candidate Gabe Bolivar. “So it’s nice to part of something when its actually starting to blossom.”
But it wasn't until Bolivar got his deal with Tylenol that a bad day on the water no longer meant hard times. But what does a pain relief medicine have to do with fishing?
“You don't catch any fish, you get a pretty bad headache,” said Bolivar.
Thirty-year veteran and millionaire angler Larry Nixon, who is sponsored by Chevrolet, said the company’s involvement with fishing is a no-brainer.
“They realize that all fishermen and hunters drive trucks and Suburbans,” he said. “And so they promote the sport and they get involved in the sport.”
The sport is now part of a multimedia juggernaut. Today the FLW is on the Web, in print and — thanks to a number of television deals with Fox and foreign broadcasters — it’s being pumped into 430 million households worldwide. Exposure, said Nixon, makes professional fisherman more attractive to corporate sponsors.
“Do good, wear their jerseys, win with their jerseys on, then you get a lot of airtime,” he said. “And that's a lot of promotion there that didn't cost them much money. “
Promotion that's luring corporate America, hook, line and sinker into the professional side of the sport where paychecks regularly exceed six figures — all for catching a fish.