Bass anglers care about tournaments, and that's why Florida's BASS Federation Nation membership has grown in the past two years, says president Jim Hooven.
"We just tried to build a better fishing program," says Hooven, who is busy organizing the volunteer effort for this week's Elite Series Sunshine Showdown presented by Allstate Boat Insurance on Lake Toho. "Bottom line, weekend anglers don't know or care what their affiliation is, they want to know where and when the next event is and what the prizes are. The average anglers are event-oriented."
In the past, the four qualifying events were spread across the state during a four-month period, forcing some to drive close to the 12 hours it takes to cross Florida. Now there are regional qualifying events within reasonable driving distance of most who want to compete.
"The main thing that we have done is we have cut down the expense of participating in Federation events by putting the tournaments in everybody's backyard," Hooven says. "You don't have the turnouts you have in statewide events, but you have more local people not having to travel, stay in a hotel and learn a new lake."
The new format, two qualifying tournaments in each region plus two-day last chance qualifiers in both the north and south regions, has helped the Florida Federation Nation grow from 189 members when Hooven took over two years to 535 last year. Hooven says he expects around 800 members by year's end.
"Next year, hopefully we'll hit close to 1,000," he says. "Could go the other way — you don't know."
The other major change was going to a pro-am format, basically following the Elite Series where the boaters compete against other boaters and non-boaters fish against other non-boaters.
"It used to be, among 100 boats, five checks might go to non-boaters," he says. "In the pro-am format, we pay back more anglers. We've got non-boaters this year that never dreamed they would cash checks.
"It's so uncomplicated. They want to know when and where, the payouts and do I have a shot? We're on a three-year program. We never dreamed we'd have anything grow overnight. Right now, it's growing just fine."
Listening to the anglers is the real reason. When he first took over, Hooven said he sent letters to club presidents and had 27 people show for a meeting. They talked and analyzed the situation and came up with what was in the best interest of the weekend angler as opposed to what was in the best interest to each region.
"We put the emphasis on the weekend angler, what he can afford to do, what he enjoys doing, so we went to an angler of the year in each of four regions," he says. "The fisherman told us what they wanted, and we listened."
He says it's great that the Federation Nation sends representatives to the Bassmaster Classic, but that long shot is not why most club level tournament anglers fish.
"What we have done is completely ignored the dream fishing and got back to the reality of what can the weekend angler do, and increase the part of the angler above the club-level tournament," he says. "We're playing with new ideas, and if they work, when we go to the presidents meeting I'm going to market them to the max. And if not, I tried. But right now it's working."