Lake Martin belongs to the fishermen in the off-season, and big-time tournaments kept boats on the water and patrons in local hotels and restaurants last month as anglers came in early to practice and pick up supplies.
“I’m covered up,” Randy Baker of Fish Tales Bait & Tackle in Alexander City said Feb. 19 as the third tournament in as many weeks rolled into the area.
In all, 568 boats and 1,136 fishermen competed, spending close to $3 million in total.
The action began with Russ Johnson and Hunter Schrock who proved that anglers don’t need fancy electronics to catch fish at Lake Martin. The Itawamba Community College competitors took the title at last month’s Bassmaster College Series Southern Conference Regional without a depth finder or fish locator.
“We do not have a single bit of electronics,” said Schrock.
“We fish shallow,” explained his teammate.
The Itawamba Indians team fought misfortune all week to win the title from a field of 214 boats, the largest entry count in the history of the series. The first day of the tournament, the pair locked the boat keys in the truck and had to break in with a tennis racket and a pine branch to launch. Their take from the lake weighed 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
On the second day, a bearing went out on the truck on their way to the boat ramp. Local law enforcement officers Steve Morgan and Quin Daniels helped to get them back on the road to catch 11 pounds, 9 ounces and make the 26-boat cut for the last day’s fishing in 16th place.
On the final day of competition, they borrowed a boat from another Indians team to avoid damage to the new bearing. Though it was outfitted with electronics, the Monroe County anglers didn’t use them for fishing.
“We turned them on to see how fast we were going,” Schrock said. “We were going about 67 miles per hour. Then we turned it off.”
The pair weighed in on Saturday, Feb. 6, with 14 pounds, 8 ounces, taking a lead that had changed hands every day of the tournament.
University of Alabama team members Caiden Sinclair and Hunter Gibson had the lead at the end of the first day of fishing at Wind Creek State Park; they surrendered to teammates John Davis and Payton McGinnis on the second day. McGinnis also caught the tournament’s big fish at 6 pounds, 12 ounces that day.
Itawamba’s winners had never fished Lake Martin before last month’s event, the first Bassmaster College Series tourney to be held here. They arrived in Alexander City the Saturday before the tournament started to practice, find a few fishing holes and test baits.
“We caught a fish on about our 10 cast with KVD 2.5 square bill crank bait, and that pretty much set the tone for the week,” said Johnson. “As soon as we caught the fish, we decided that was what we were going to go with.”
The three-day tournament was a winner for the Lake Martin area as well. Manager of the Carhartt Bassmaster Series estimated the teams from 214 boats spent 862 hotel nights during the event, plus food and gas.
Bethel University’s Coach Garry Mason said his team spent $6,000.
Alex City Marine owner Steven Yearkey said his company worked late all week to maintain and repair nearly 30 tournament boats.
“We were going to Sylacauga, Newnan (Georgia) and just about anywhere to get parts,” Yearkey said.
Throughout the area, fishing teams rented hotel rooms and lake houses, ate out and bought gas, spending an estimated $2 million locally, said Weldon.
The following weekend saw another 192 boats at Wind Creek for the Alabama Student Angler Bass Fishing Association tournament. Among them were local teams from Benjamin Russell (BRHS) and Dadeville high schools. It was the first tournament for the new BRHS team, which finished 15th out of 38 teams, said Coach Jeff Hines.
“I think we were nervous and did not know what to expect, but I was still proud. We had five boats and four of them weighed fish in,” he said.
Though the team is new, Hines said, no one on the team is new to fishing.
“Most of these kids have fished most of their lives,” he said.
The Dadeville team placed 27.
The economic impact of the one-day tourney, though considerably less than the previous week’s event, included hotel rentals for long-distance teams and restaurant tabs.
“They come in with their boats already gassed up and usually stay at most one night.”
Still, the one-day tournaments are a plus to the local economy during the lake’s recreational off-season.