While it's boom time for anglers — the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) and its Bassmaster Elite Series tournament turn 50 this year, and the new, competing Bass Pro Tour has a total payout of $10 million — the question naturally turns to what growth might be ahead for their bass-fishing brethren who operate out of kayaks? Turns out, it's the top of times for them as well, though maybe not quite at the same tier.

In the bass fishing world, stars like Kevin VanDam, who has 265,000 Instagram followers and such sponsors as Toyota, GoPro, Oakley, and Yeti, have won more than $6.4 million in bass fishing tournaments. That number will grow even more now with the Bass Pro Tour, a new tournament announced by Major League Fishing and the Outdoor Channel.

The kayak fishing tournament world is following suit, just like a bass does a lure. And this, in turn, is helping to grow the paddlesports category itself.

"Fishing kayaks are booming," says Eric "E.J." Jackson, founder of Jackson Kayak, which has 125 kayak fishermen on its team and sponsors local tournaments, the River Bassin tournament and likely 2019's Kayak Bass Fishing tournament.

E.J. points to the company's 2011 Coosa fishing kayak as helping jumpstart the trend, for the boat's high seating position and stand-ability. "It was the first kayak that fishermen wanted to fish from, not just kayakers." Other companies also prioritized fish-first characteristics and the kayak fishing market exploded. "Fishermen became kayakers," he says.

It's a big pool to go after, much larger than the paddling market. According to industry studies, over 49 million Americans go fishing each year, spending some $43 billion on equipment and travel — with participation rates increasing each of the last three years.

Tournaments have followed the sport's growth. Rough estimates place the number of annual local kayak fishing tournaments in the U.S. in the hundreds. Joining these are such regular tournaments as Kayak Bass Fishing and River Bassin. Like the new Bass Pro Tour now competing with the Bassmaster Elite Series, creating two, parallel competing series, the newly formed Hobie Bass Open was also recently announced as a parallel tour to Kayak Bass Fishing for 2019. A USA Bass Kayak team has also been formed, adds Jackson, and April’s 2019 Pan Am Championships and 2020 World Championships are just around the corner.

All this is fueling sales. "Like hockey games assure that skates, pucks and sticks get sold, kayak fishing tournaments assure that fishing kayaks and accessories get sold," says Jackson.

Still, despite the growth in kayak fishing tournaments, it's hard to make competing in them your sole livelihood like bass fishermen can. "Not too many people are making their living by just entering kayak fishing tournaments," maintains Drew Gregory, a boat designer for Jackson Kayak, organizer of the River Bassin tournament and producer of the Hooked on Wild Waters video series. "Most of them only pay out a grand or two if you win."

Nevertheless, manufacturers are happy as clams about the growth.

"It's exciting to see the boom of kayak fishing tournaments," says Old Town Brand Manager Ryan Lilly. "It's indicative of how popular kayak fishing has become and is positive for the industry."

Ron Champion is a veteran of years of tournament bass fishing. Photos courtesy of Ron Champion and Aaron Black-Schmidt.

The downside, Lilly adds, is that it's hard for manufacturers to support tournaments, since there are so many of them. Old Town's approach: support its 80-person pro staff, including tournament anglers, retailers and other ambassadors, by offsetting some of their entry fees. "We look at pro staff as a means to help support our retailers, sales team and the brand," he says.

Confluence Outdoor follows a similar approach. "We have 80-plus anglers on our pro team, and most all of them compete in tournaments every year," says Evan Lyendecker, director of marketing. The company sponsors roughly 10 kayak fishing tournaments every year, with Kayak Bass Fishing the largest freshwater event and Ride The Bull the largest saltwater event.

Lyendecker is similarly bullish on the state of tournaments: "Tournaments will continue to grow if we, the kayak fishing industry, keep attracting new entrants into the sport," he says.

One key, adds Gregory, is getting the big bass tournaments to take notice.

"One they embrace this, that's when people will be able to make a living at this," Gregory says. "You're a lot closer to the money in a kayak fishing tournament than you are in a regular bass fishing tournament. As a kayak fisher, you don’t have to buy a $75,000 bass boat to enter, or pony up as much as $40,000 a year in entry fees. All you need is a $1,000 kayak."

Indeed, even if smaller tournaments fall by the wayside, there's plenty of room for bigger scale contests. "I think we'll see the tournament trend mature in the coming years," says Lilly. "Currently, there's an oversaturation of smaller tournaments, which is good, but the fields and prize purses are small. I think we'll see a handful of regional and national tournament organizations and circuits mature and become larger, which will offer kayak anglers the opportunity to compete at a larger level."

No stranger to the tournament scene, Ryan McDermid prefers his kayak to access hard to reach bass, such as here on Falcon Lake, Texas. Photo Aaron Black-Schmidt.


KAYAK FISHING’S TOURNAMENT MAJORS

Ride the Bull
Held every August on Caminada Pass in Grand Isle, Louisiana, the Ride the Bull kayak fishing tournament is the world's largest live catch-and-release bull red tournament, now entering its 10th year. Sponsored by the likes of Wilderness Systems, Aftco and the Backpacker, the event draws more than 600 anglers every year, with a payout schedule based on participation. With a total cash purse of more than $12,000, and a lot more in prizes, the winner with the heaviest bull red takes home $3,000 and first pick of the prizes, with second place winning $2,000 and third taking home $1,600. The team with the most bull reds weighed in also wins cash.

Hobie-supplied kayaks for each competitor to qualify in the Hobie World’s tournament. Photo by Ron Champion.

Hobie Bass Open
The newly formed Hobie Bass Open will be a parallel tour to Kayak Bass Fishing, adding more lines to the tournament world. "We see angler participation in tournaments continuing to grow," says organizer Keeton Eoff. "The camaraderie at kayak fishing events is great, and we want to support these experiences while increasing the level of competition between anglers." The seven-event series will use a similar platform as June’s Hobie Bass Open Fishing and Fun Fest, held on Kentucky Lake in Calvert City, Ky. Each event will qualify one angler for the eighth annual Hobie Fishing Worlds, to be held in Queensland, Australia, July 20-27, 2019, and six anglers for the Tournament of Champions (a portion of each series' entry will be applied to the Championship payout). With 100 anglers per event, Eoff says as many as 50 anglers could compete for a final first place prize close to $25,000.

River Bassin' Tournament Trail
Started by Jackson Kayak’s Drew Gregory in 2009, this kayak fishing tournament has featured varying purses and sponsors over the years (one year it awarded $10,000 to the "River Basser of the Year"). Sponsored by Jackson Kayak, Bending Branches, Ray Marine, Z-Man Lures and more, last year's schedule consisted of several online tournaments, as well as a final tournament in Waynesville, Missouri, which offered $75,000 in cash and prizes to the winners, with the victor carrying home $8,000 in cash and prizes. Gregory, who also produces the Hooked on Wild Waters TV show, is currently trying to sell the tournament, with the new owners likely to create their own schedule (2019 dates have not been announced). "It's a lot of work," he says. "But it has a lot of potential. More people fish out of kayaks than bass boats, so naturally kayak fishing tournaments will continue to grow. The future seems bright for the tournament scene."

Kayak Bass Fishing
Organized by kayak fisherman and Confluence athlete Chad Hoover, with Confluence’s Wilderness Systems brand as its exclusive kayak sponsor, Kayak Bass Fishing is one of the country's premier kayak fishing tournaments. Starting online in 2009 and adding live events in 2013, its purse changes every year, but last year it served up a whopping $480,000 across 48 live events and 290 online events, courtesy of such sponsors as Torqeedo, NRS, Bending Branches, Bonafide, Wilderness Systems, NuCanoe, Yeti and YakAttack. A portion of sponsorship dollars from Wilderness Systems goes to a Bonus Bucks program for the event. To qualify for Bonus Bucks, anglers must place in the top three in a Wilderness Systems kayak to qualify for the chance to win additional monies. "It incentivizes anglers to compete out of our kayaks," says Confluence's Lyendecker. The tournament draws more than 750 entrants annually, says Hoover, with the KBF National Championships Trails averaging 51 and the Trail Series Championship 104.

“The kayak fishing tournament scene is really heating up, with growth across the country and even in smaller regions,” says Hoover. “We are expanding our series, and Hobie is expanding theirs, so it's growing very well. We are expanding into redfish next year and multi species the following year.” 

Check back for updates on 2019 tournament events, as well as TourneyX’s nation-wide calendar.

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