Group to evaluate future of Big Bass Bonanza

Simmons Bank, the title sponsor of the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza, will pay anglers that caught the biggest hourly bass during the tournament.

Anglers that competed in the tournament complained that the Arkansas Hospitality Association, which hosts the tournament, did not pay cash prizes to hourly winners as it has for the past 30 years. Many anglers compete especially for the hourly prizes, which are not guaranteed.

Montine McNulty, executive director for the Arkansas Hospitality Association, said that a record low 1,200 anglers participated in this year's Big Bass Bonanza. She said the organization paid all of the guaranteed money, including $10,000 to the anglers that caught the biggest bass in each of the five pools of the Arkansas River, and an additional $40,000 to the overall winner. Prizes also were guaranteed to the overall second- and third-place anglers in each pool, as well as the winners of the Willowleaf Award, and to anglers wearing Big Bass Bonanza caps and T-shirts.

"Hourly money always goes up or down depending on the number of fishermen," McNulty said. "We only had 1,200. That's the break-even, but we're still in the hole for expenses."

As stated in the tournament rules, hourly prizes are based on entry fees. McNulty said that the low number of entries did not provide sufficient money to pay the hourly winners. McNulty said Tuesday that Simmons Bank volunteered to pay the hourly winners.

This was the most challenging tournament in the history of the Big Bass Bonanza, McNulty said. Originally scheduled for June, the Hospitality Association moved it to Oct. 11-13 because of record flooding on the Arkansas River. McNulty said she anticipated lower participation in the fall, but other factors combined to drive participation down even lower. Anglers experienced extremely thick fog and high wind. High school and college football kept some anglers away, as did the private lands modern gun antlerless deer season, which opened Oct. 12.

"October was such a dismal failure," McNulty said. "Number one was the weather. Number two was deer season."

A persistent complaint by anglers was that the Arkansas Hospitality Association continued to advertise the hourly money even when the tournament was in progress.

McNulty said radio stations promoting the tournament might have continued to advertise hourly money, but she said her organization did not.

McNulty said the Big Bass Bonanza is not a single tournament, but five. The Hospitality Association must obtain contracts for weigh-in venues at Army Corps of Engineers facilities and Lake Dardanelle State Park. It also hires weigh-in masters for each pool and five polygraphers to administer polygraph tests to potential winners.

Combined tournament operations cost about $25,000, McNulty said.

The advertising budget is $45,000, and postage costs $4,500, McNulty said. The hats and T-shirts cost $6,200. The state Hospitality Association must also pay credit card processing fees.

The three-day tournament encompasses a total of 18 hours of fishing.

"If you run the numbers for hourly money, it's six hours multiplied by three days, times five pools," McNulty said. "It mounts up."

Over 30 years, McNulty said the Arkansas Hospitality Association has distributed more than $3.5 million to anglers in prize money. She said at least 40,000 anglers have fished the tournament.

Bad weather has forced the Hospitality Association to reschedule the tournament before, also at the cost of reduced participation.

"Why did Riverfest go away?" McNulty asked. "The weather. Look at what happened to the State Fair last year. Weather again. Weather plays havoc with events like this, and we were victims of it this year."

Ultimately, the Big Bass Bonanza is intended to be a positive, feel-good event that reflects favorably on the community. If it creates bad feelings and resentment, McNulty said her association must evaluate its future.

"That will happen," McNulty said. "We have been beaten up. If someone wants to step up and sponsor the hourly money, that would help."

Sports on 10/27/2019