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Tourism: Bass tournament draws pro anglers to county

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Fish stories travel fast, even among the pros.

“Last year, somebody caught five bass weighing 42 pounds in the Cooper River in one day,” said Chris Wells, chaplain for the Bassmaster Elite fishing series that will compete in Georgetown this week. “That was not a Bassmasters tournament, but they heard about those fish.”

The second tournament of the Bassmasters Elite season opened today from the Carroll A. Campbell Marine Complex in Georgetown. It represents a step up in class for Georgetown County officials who have pursued an event like this for the past few years. County Administrator Sel Hemingway said Bassmasters Elite represents the equivalent of a PGA golf tournament. A total of 110 of the world’s best bass fishermen will compete for a purse of $638,000. First prize is $100,000.

The Georgetown tournament — its official name is the Huk Performance Fishing Bassmaster Elite at Winyah Bay — will allow competitors to fish the obvious rivers Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Santee and Black but also the Cooper River in Charleston.

Robert Wiggers of the Marine Fisheries Division of the S. C. Department of Natural Resources said the trip from Georgetown will be 91 miles for the fishermen. “Bushy Park is the freshwater-saltwater dividing line,” he said. “They will have to come down the Intracoastal Waterway, under the Cooper River Bridge, through the harbor and upriver toward North Charleston. I’m very interested in what’s going to happen with this tournament.”

Wiggers said Bassmasters competitors are professional boaters as well as anglers. “These boats can run 70-80 miles per hour, but in the Intracoastal there’s not a whole lot of room to run that fast,” he said. Plus, you’ve got to pass big boats with big wakes. It will require a lot of slowing down.”

Wells, the chaplain, said the pros race for fishing spots all the time, and that past champion Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas, has decided to fish the Cooper after a practice session there.

Today’s forecast of high winds might cause some to change their plans. The choppy waters of Winyah Bay would be an inconvenience compared to those in Charleston Harbor for a bass boat, Hemingway said.

Bassmaster Elite competitor Michael Iaconelli of Pitts Grove, N.J., said he’s still trying to decide where to fish after a day on Winyah Bay. “This place is massive,” he said. “I didn’t realize how big it really was until I got back on it yesterday. Trying to make a decision as to whether or not to make long runs to the Cooper River, one of the other rivers, or stay closer to home is killing me. I can’t decide, and I’m running out of time.”

Hemingway is hoping the winner comes from a Winyah Bay tributary, but secrets are hard to keep among fishermen. “If Day 1 somebody comes in with a big fish and they know they fished the Cooper, they’ll all fish down there,” he said.

John Proctor of Conway, son of Georgetown County finance director Scott Proctor, won a B.A.S.S. Nation divisional tournament last year by fishing the Pee Dee. He had a three-day total of 34 pounds, 11 ounces with a 7-pound, 9-ounce largemouth bass that was biggest of the tournament.

Proctor said an average bass from the Pee Dee weighs about 4 pounds with a 6-pounder possible. The lure of those 8-pounders in the Cooper makes the Georgetown tournament a risk vs. reward deal for the pros. Fisherman Davy Hite of Ninety Six said winners take chances. If they can’t get back to the weigh-in by 3 p.m., they face disqualification.

A new locale like Winyah Bay has been an attraction for the pros. “I firmly believe that the unknowns of a fishery like this levels the playing field, which will make the outcome very interesting. I think having an Elite Series tournament at a destination like Winyah Bay was a great idea,” said competitor Marty Robinson of Lyman.

Hemingway said Georgetown County will roll out the welcome mat for fishermen, their families and visitors this weekend in hopes of becoming a regular tour destination. He went to the tournament last weekend in Palatka, Fla., and said Georgetown has its advantages, beginning with the beaches. “The fishermen don’t care,” he said. “They fish for eight hours and can’t wait to get cleaned up and rested so they can get up at 4 o’clock the next morning.”

For fans, there will be room to enjoy the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival near the marina and plenty of room to park. There’s a big stage for the weigh-ins and excitement near the river’s edge. He said Palatka, Fla., had a beautiful waterfront on the St. John’s River and good dockage for the bass boats, but sponsors and vendors were cramped for space. Some had to put tents on a hotel construction site. He went to an event on Chesapeake Bay that had an expansive waterfront and park. “Each one of these venues I have been to I made a list: ‘I wish we had’ and ‘I’m glad we have.’ I feel we can measure up with anywhere I’ve been,” he said.

Bassmasters and Winyah Bay Heritage Festival schedule

The Bassmasters Elite tournament and Winyah Bay Heritage Festival arrive at the Campbell Marine Complex in Georgetown this week. Here is the schedule.

Friday

7 a.m. | Boat launch. Open to the public.

1:30 p.m. | Beer and wine tent open at marine complex until 4:30 p.m.

3:15 p.m. | Weigh-in begins at main stage.

4 p.m. |

Palmetto DockDogs site opens. Free trials until 6 p.m. All breeds and sizes of dogs welcome.

6 p.m. | Music in the Park begins on Front Street with opening act Solid Gold Country. Main artist Jason Michael Carroll takes the stage from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

Saturday

7 a.m. | Boat launch. Open to the public.

9 a.m. | Palmetto DockDogs onsite registration/practice begins.

10 a.m. | All festival exhibits and sites open until 5 p.m.

10 a.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Big Air Wave Competition No. 1 begins.

• Children’s duck decoy painting site open until 4 p.m. $10. Purchase decoy at ticket booth.

10:30 a.m. | Beer and wine tent open until 4:30 p.m.

11 a.m. | Youth duck calling clinic session 1 at main stage. Ducks Unlimited leads and instructs Duck Calling 101 for ages up to 12. Registration at the ticket tent, $10.

• Taxidermist Jimmy Hortman displays mounts of native species in the downstairs gallery of the Georgetown County Museum, 120 Broad St., until 3 p.m.

11:30 a.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Big Air Wave Competition No. 2.

Noon | Bassmaster Expo opens.

12:30 p.m. | Youth duck calling clinic session 2 at main stage. Registration at the ticket tent, $10.

1 p.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Big Air Wave Competition No. 3.

• Birds of Prey Demonstration. Birds may also be viewed before and after.

2 p.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Speed Retrieve all-in-one finals.

• Turkey Calling with John Tanner on the main stage. Through storytelling, he leads an imaginary turkey hunt, demonstrating different calling techniques.

3 p.m. | Semi-finals tournament weigh-in begins on the main stage.

4 p.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Big Air Wave Competition No. 4.

5:30 p.m. | Music in the Park begins on Front Street with opening act Will Ness. Main artist The Embers take the stage from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Sunday

7 a.m. | Boat launch. Open to the public. Top 12 anglers take off for the final day of competition.

9 a.m. | Palmetto DockDogs onsite registration/practice begins.

10 a.m. | All festival exhibits and sites open until 5 p.m.

• Palmetto DockDogs Extreme Vertical all-in-one competition begins.

• Children’s duck decoy painting site open until 4 p.m. $10. Purchase decoy at ticket booth.

10:30 a.m. | Beer and wine tent open until 4:30 p.m.

• Birds of Prey Demonstration. Birds may also be viewed before and after.

11 a.m. | S.C. Duck Calling Championship begins on main stage. (End scheduled for 2 p.m.)

11:30 a.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Big Air Wave Competition No. 5 begins.

Noon | Bassmaster Expo opens.

1 p.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Big Air Wave Competition No. 6 begins.

2 p.m. | Youth duck calling clinic session 1 at main stage. Ducks Unlimited leads and instructs Duck Calling 101 for ages up to 12. Registration at the ticket tent, $10.

2:30 p.m. | Palmetto DockDogs Big Air Finals (divisional finals format).

3 p.m. | Final tournament weigh-in begins on the main stage.

For rain locations, updates and additions, go to fishgeorgetown.com.

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