One of the largest crappie fishing tournament organizations in the country recently added a popular Kansas circuit to its cadre.
And if Crappie Masters president and owner Mike Vallentine’s vision comes true, some day each state in the continental U.S. will have at least one branch under the Crappie Masters family tree.
"The goal is to expand into more states and introduce tournament crappie fishing in states that have never had it before," said Vallentine, of Clinton, Mo. "This year we started off with 15 different state trails and next year I plan to have 25."
He said some of the states would have more than one state trail in them because of how they’re laid out. After the statewide anglers get comfortable fishing at that level, he hopes they’ll begin to matriculate to the national level.
"Eventually I’d like to see a Crappie Masters state trail in all of the inland states anyways, down the road," Vallentine said. "We operate annually on an overall membership base of around 1,200 active members or so. I’m expecting that this year to be over 2,000 and then next year, up to around 3,000. I hope to increase that by about a thousand a year for about four or five years in a row, that’s kind of the goal."
He knows he’s setting quite a goal for the company, which he has operated for nearly a decade now.
"I been doing it now for eight years. I bought the company from a group of guys who had had it for nine or 10 years, something like that," Vallentine said. "One of the guys was local around where I live, which is here around Truman Lake, and the topic just come up one day and I showed interest in it and we talked about it. Next thing you know it was happening.
"I always wanted to be involved in the crappie fishing business, and to me that was a good way to do something with it."
High school tournaments
Aside from growing at a statewide level on the adult trail, there’s plenty of room to grow with the younger crowd, as well.
One of the big areas in growth in the fishing industry has been the swell of participation in youth bass fishing clubs in recent years, with organizations such as BASS, Fishing League Worldwide and The Bass Federation running competitive circuits now for junior high, high school and college students.
Vallentine said he would like to see a similar path for tournament crappie fishing to take off with students, and has tried to kickstart that initiative in the past.
"We actually formed a nonprofit organization called Kids Fishing and Education and we started doing high school crappie fishing tournaments probably three years ago," Vallentine said.
He said the high school tournaments they put on had some excellent paybacks, with the entries 100% free and payback in the range of $4,000 to $6,000 in college scholarship per events. Despite that, they’d only get 12 to 14 teams, likely partially due to a lack of publicity.
"We ran ‘em for a couple years," Vallentine said. "We had four or five events the first year in different states. Some of the turnouts weren’t that great. ... We’re kinda looking at that and re-evaluating on what to do there. There’s some other organizations who are gonna start some stuff up, so we’re just kinda watching to see what happens."
Getting back on track
One of the overarching challenges for the entire sporting world this year has been the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has shuttered competitions ranging from junior varsity sports all the way to the NBA, MLB and NHL. The fishing world hasn’t been immune from the pandemic’s ill effects, either, though some events have been able to go through as planned.
"It’s made us postpone some tournaments," Vallentine said of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the national trail. "We’re getting ready to start back up here in a couple weeks. We’ve got one in Arkansas, so I guess we’ll see then.
"The only thing that worries me besides any health risks or anything like that — of course, we’ll be taking protective measures — but we got started in February and kinda got the ball rolling for 2020 and then you’ve got this big, long layoff and I’m just hoping we don’t lose any steam that we have built up. I fear that could be a possibility, but we won’t know until we start having the tournaments."
Aside from COVID-19 keeping anglers off the water this year, the spring of 2019 had some chilling effects on the sport of fishing, as well, as heavy floodwaters in the Midwest kept many anglers from visiting their favorite lakes in pursuit of their typical haul of fresh fish. As a result, some already bountiful lakes saw their fish populations enjoy months on end without any significant fishing pressure, giving fish time to breed, eat and grow without being molested by anglers.
Vallentine said that could be one reason why tournament weights seem to be on the rise in 2020.
"Well there’s a lot of reasons I think we’re seeing a lot bigger weights, with electronics and such," Vallentine said. "There are some lakes where it definitely seems to have helped with their big fish population, because these fish basically had a year off to grow without being bothered and harvested and such. I think it’s had an impact on some lakes. You know, not everybody was impacted from flooding like that. It seems like some of those Kansas lakes stayed up for a long, long, long time. It can only have helped them."
No place like Kansas
Kansas Crappie Trail organizer Dylan Faulconer, of Eudora, said the trail’s first year under the Crappie Masters umbrella has gone well for the anglers and has helped bring in a larger tournament field.
"I think it’s been great," Faulconer said. "All that Mike has helped with as far as getting the word out about crappie tournaments in Kansas, we have more boats and sponsors participating this season and I can’t help but to believe it is because of partnering with Mike and the rest of the Crappie Master team."
Wichita’s Derek Kruger, who won the May 23 event on Melvern Reservoir alongside teammate Kalin Caton, of Kansas City, Mo., said he also appreciated the way the club has been run so far under the Crappie Masters guidelines.
"I haven’t fished Kansas Crappie Trail in the past, but compared to the tournament series that I've done in the past, I love it," Kruger said. "Everything is a little more strict as far as the rules go, and I think that is a good thing. Keeps everyone on the same page, safe, and without question about how everything is going to happen."
Vallentine, who took fourth place in the KCT’s May 23 event on Melvern, said he met Faulconer through the tournaments. When he decided to take on a state tournament trail in Kansas under the Crappie Masters umbrella, Faulconer was the natural choice to lead it.
"Everything seems to be going great," Vallentine said. "Dylan says they’ve had higher turnouts this year. I just wonder, if you take COVID away, if it wouldn’t have been even better. But it’s off to a great start, lot of great fishing over there in Kansas. I think there’s some teams that would come from other states once all this stuff settles down a little bit. I think you’ll see some bigger turnouts yet."
He added he’d love to have a national event take place someday soon in Kansas. We’ll hold him to that.