Tommy Skarlis Looks at Tournaments
Sep 27th, 2012 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Sep 27th, 2012 at 12:00 AM
Author’s Note: The status of the walleye tournament world with a vision for the future will be explored throughout this series. Industry leaders, observers, participants (past and present), sponsors, professional and amateur anglers, host communities, marine and tackle manufacturers, and tournament organizers will offer their opinions.
Part Five deals with what has been, what’s happening now, and a glance ahead from Tommy Skarlis. He fishes all levels of tournaments, from the local and state circuits to the national team circuit to the major pro-am tours. He’s been very successful at all levels.
Since the demise of the PWT where he won four tournaments and an Angler of the Year title, he won the 2008 FLW Championship, and claimed the Red Wing tournament this past April. He earned Ranger Cups in 2004 and 2005. He also won the inaugural AIM pro-am on Saginaw Bay in 2009. In the Full Throttle series, he was part of the Team of the Year in 2010, and set their all-time record that year with five walleyes weighing 41.63 pounds (and winning Red Wing).
Being a pro walleye angler is his full-time career, and has been for 15 years. He
walks, talks and sings walleyes. That is, until deer season, when his brain turns to another skill that has been richly rewarded, locating and killing the biggest bucks in the woods.
After living through the heydays of walleye tournament product innovations, new tactics, and being on the creative end of several key developments, Tommy said, “There’s more to be learned now with cooler lines and lures coming on the market than ever.” In just the past two years, he’s been amazed at sonar and mapping advancements, hand-held Aqua Vu cameras to show him quickly and easily what’s down there, rods and reels that fit every fishing niche, and an E-Tec that saves him money with its fuel economy.
“I feel the reason the walleye industry has stumbled has been because spending for promotions and advertising has been severely reduced,” he said. That brought the discussion back to the economy, but not before he acknowledged that he could learn much from the computer about a Ranger boat, but a computer won’t sell him a Ranger. He declared, “People sell boats!” He continued, “People with experience with Ranger boats sell Ranger boats.” He was adamant saying, “It has been and will continue to be important for companies to have solid pro staffers as this industry grows into the future.”
Back to the economy. He feels the country will slowly crawl back. “The ag and oil industries are holding the Midwest together, and the competitive anglers in this walleye-rich region are fishing closer to home. Circuits are pulling in their horns. The $4 gas killed places like Fort Peck, Lake Erie and Arkansas for national tournament consideration,” he said. The increased costs have led to team walleye events making even more sense.
“Team circuits have gotten stronger,” Tommy said. He pointed to circuits that represent states or regions like the Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa team events. “These strong state entities are maintaining through this economy and even growing, because tournament anglers can get their groove on here,” he said. Competitors can learn walleye waters, gear, tactics and make new friends in these team events. And, he feels they will continue to fish them because two friends are splitting costs.
He remains excited about the MWC schedule and format. “Pros and many anglers are coming back. With nine tournaments, and the chance to win Team of the Year with four tournaments and qualify for a no-entry fee Championship, this is one of the most sensible options in the tournament game now,” he said.
In the “Big Leagues” of walleye competition (FLW and AIM), Tommy said, “The numbers have declined.” He cited AIM’s pro-team event that generated interest this season and was a big step towards higher dollar tournaments. “There could be more of these in the future, which combines pros, teams and big bucks.
“People want to fish phenomenal walleye factories at the right time. This should be a regular tournament policy,” he said. “Anglers can showcase their tactics and skills and promote products when they’re really catching fish. The world wins.”
He liked the fact that AIM, MWC and FLW are focusing on “best bites.” He feels strongly that the quality of the bite is key; that the thrill of competing grows on “good bite” waters; and being there at the right time will help tournaments and the industry grow. Considering all the issues facing anglers and sponsors, he said, “I know there will always be a future for honest, hard-working, loyal pro anglers. Companies need their talent to promote their products. These are the ‘heroes’ the public needs to teach them.”
In his case, Tommy said he must work harder and smarter. Instead of running to and from a tournament, he plans dealer in-store promotions along the way, spending more sweat-equity doing more for his sponsors than ever before. He said, “I’ve found that my career must be intertwined with sales. In the past, as a pro angler, I was branding product by using and talking about it. Now, brands are strong and my sponsors need sales.”
He often stops at retailers to walk the aisles, checking product selection and displays. He also gathers as much local knowledge from the people at places like Frank’s Great Outdoors, Thorne Brothers and others to learn trends, hot lures, and best bites to help himself and his companies stay ahead of the curve. “I want to increase sales and see what suggestions the retailers have,” he said. “They see hundreds of customers, and a word of encouragement helps sales down the road.”
As a pro, he decided to go non-exclusive with tackle because he can then fish everybody’s baits. “If I buy the hot local lure and win, I talk about it. Sure, I get help from several companies like Salmo, Berkley and others, but they want me to use their latest and greatest, and I check all of it,” he said. “We need to get pro anglers talking about the line, the lure, the rod, the reel and the planer board again. People want to know.”
He cited the new St. Croix Eyecon trolling rods, from five to 12 feet in length that have been devised for every trolling method. “Top pros use rods like top golfers use their specialty clubs,” he said. The excitement he wants to portray is a focus on new equipment and the thrill of the catch (revealing the little things that lead to big things).
Getting the word out about this “excitement” is a challenge, especially with the tremendous media changes. Tommy said, “The toughest hit was when the PWT went away and anglers and the industry lost the largest media machine (Walleye In-Sider and PWT television). That hurt.”
He recognized that North American Fisherman and FLW were picking up some of the slack with TV and magazine coverage, but said, “We still don’t have the media we did in the early-2000 years. He offered his opinion that it is more difficult to jump on outdoor TV shows due to the exclusivity the shows have with sponsors.
His advice to other pros — work harder to find media sources to promote themselves and the products they use to catch walleyes. YouTube, FaceBook, smaller regional publications, newspapers, social media, and the internet are promotional vehicles. “When doing anything in today’s market,” he said, “Keep it real. Focus on the excitement. Show the fun of fishing.”
“If more anglers work diligently, the sport will do nothing but grow. People are looking for something wholesome, and fishing ranks right up there. Walleyes are an incredible gift from God,” he said.
Tommy’s slate of industry manufacturers and sponsors include Evinrude outboards, Navionics, Ranger boats, Berkley Trilene, PowerBait and Gulp!, Abu Garcia, St. Croix rods, Humminbird, MinnKota, Off-Shore, Otter Outdoors, Salmo Baits, Wing-it Quick Swap, Grizzly Coolers, Optima batteries, Gemini Sports Marketing, Oxygenator, Aqua-Vu, and Wild4Outdoors, a blog about all fishing and hunting activities and tournament high (and low) lights with partners Ross Grothe and Jimmy Bell.