It’s a Keeper: Fishing Festivals Up North

When people talk about value of the North's natural resources, they talk of beauty, recreation, quality of life. But dollars and cents … ? Well, those can be hard to quantify for sunsets, hiking trails, canoe routes and wetlands. Not so with fishing. Between the region's blue-ribbon trout streams and freshwater lakes big and small, there are dozens of festivals and contests for anglers, and all have two major hooks in common: they net big fish – and even bigger money. Here, the TCBN looks at some of the biggest fish in the region's festival and tourney circuit to find out just how much impact they have on the region's economics.

Big Jon's Big Money

TRAVERSE CITY – Salmon Classic in Traverse City will bestow $15,000 in prize money on winning entries, including $5,000 for first place and a charitable Gordie Howe "Mr. Hockey" Big Fish Shootout, according to the Grand Traverse Area Sport Fishing Association.

If the Grand Traverse Area Sport Fishing Association seems to cast a wide net, it's because "Our Mission is Fishin." The association is a growing presence in Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska, Leelanau as well as Grand Traverse counties, with a big catch of events ranging from cold-water to warm-water fishing, annual tournaments to weekly leagues and contests for women to clinics for kids.

"By adding other species of fish, we were able to become more involved in other communities, so they have reaped huge benefits," says Captain Ryan Matuzak, president of GTASFA.

"Until five years ago, we were primarily a trolling club for salmon and trout with one activity, the Big Jon Salmon Classic," he says. But that one tourney alone translated into substantial impact. "I was just looking at some figures and one year it brought-in something like $160,000."

Matuzak feels that a big impact fishing contests and leagues have on the local economy is their ability to bump up mid-week retail sales.

"As fisherman, every night we fill our gas tank, buy ice and groceries to bring on board, even on a Wednesday," says Matuzak.

Big Fish: Ray Stark

BENZIE COUNTY – Ray Stark is a busy man. The owner of Beulah outdoors store Stark's Water and Woods is a semi-pro angler and guide, the Division 31 Director of the National Bass Anglers Association, and he travels across the country year-round to fish. He says he spends 50 to 80 hours a week "either fishing or researching fishing. That's what it takes to get to this level."

Stark sees the economic impact of tournaments from an insider's view. While he's fortunate enough to have a string of sponsors ranging from Garneau Baits to Pure Michigan, he himself spends money at motels, restaurants, supply stores and gas stations while traveling the tournament trail.

Why should northwest Michigan care? Because there are hundreds more like him flocking to this region's tournaments and, more importantly, spending big money while they stay.

"Tournaments around here – that's 50 boats with around $150,000 worth of disposable income," says Stark. "What they are doing on the water is already paid for by their sponsors, so they spend a lot of money locally."

And he sees spectators doing the same.

"It's real similar to NASCAR when it comes to points and watching the weigh-ins. You get crowds," he says. "But where I'm seeing the biggest impact is that I can get guys from other states to come here. They see what we have to offer in Benzie County, and they keep coming back."


KALKASKA – Tom Holka is the owner of the Kalkaska McDonalds. He witnesses firsthand the positive impact a fishing event has on sales.

"Our business tripled during this year's National Trout Festival," says Holka. "From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. that weekend, there was always a vehicle in the drive-through. Sometimes, traffic backed-up all the way to the highway."

"To give you an idea, we normally have seven team members working. During the festival, we had 22. We sold thousands of burgers," he says.

For businessperson Holka, the lure of fishing events in northern Michigan has more pull – and effect – than any other festival going.

"Last year, we had more sales during the Trout Festival than we did during the Cherry Festival," he says.

Good luck, it seems, is a hallmark of the Kalkaska festival.

Every year for the last decade, festival organizers have released one "big money" tagged fish into an area lake – and each year, the jackpot fish has been caught, earning its lucky angler up to $10,000. BN