Pro angler Casey Scanlon, who reeled in $135,000 last year, is 'hopeful' about his sport's future

Casey Scanlon.
Courtesy Casey Scanlon

The U.S. economy may be in a recession and dozens of states still have stay-at-home orders in place, but Americans are keen to go fishing.

Five months into the year, nearly 38.5 million fishing licenses, tags, permits, and stamps have been issued across the country, according to figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That's just 2.9 million below the total for all of 2019 and months before peak fishing season in most areas. In fact, several states — Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Texas — already have surpassed the number of licenses issued in 2019. 

While large swaths of the rest of the country have discovered, or rediscovered, this pastime, Casey Scanlon's livelihood depends on it. The 35-year-old professional angler is currently ranked 15th with the FLW, one of the largest tournament-fishing organizations. Last year, he won more than $135,000 in FLW tournaments.

Like millions of other Americans, though, Scanlon will take a hit to his income this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The latter half of the professional bass-fishing circuit is on hold. Tournaments are scheduled to resume in late June. There's still some question about whether these remaining tournaments will occur. The economic slowdown could put sponsorship deals that supplement his winnings at risk. And a revised schedule means he'll forgo earning money as a fishing guide.

"I definitely feel the uncertainty of everything that's going on right now, and I hope my sponsors do well and the whole industry recovers," Scanlon says. "I'm hopeful we'll get things going again."

Here's how this professional angler is navigating choppy waters in his sport.

One fish in a billion-dollar pond

Right about now, Scanlon should have been in the final stretch of the professional bass fishing season and heading into a summer spent as a fishing guide near his home in Lake Ozark, Missouri. He had already turned down "tons and tons" of guide work for the spring in anticipation of being on the road, and now he's shuffled his calendar to accommodate the rescheduled tournament dates.

Professional anglers at these tournaments compete for the biggest bass. At the end of each day, competitors submit their five best fish to be weighed before they're released back into the water. Scoring is based on the highest cumulative weight at the end of the tournament.

Collectively, the major professional organizations host hundreds of bass-fishing events each year around the country for all ages and abilities. As a result, schedule changes can have a ripple effect across a broader industry.

Courtesy Casey Scanlon.

"A lot of those towns, they're fishing towns, and they rely on these tournaments," Scanlon explains. In addition to the 150 professional anglers that descend on the communities, four-day tournaments typically draw big crowds with other events beyond the competition and weigh-ins, like food trucks, sponsorship booths, contests, and educational programs, he says.

Anglers spend an estimated $49.8 billion annually on fishing-related related goods and services, according to the latest report from the American Sportfishing Association, a trade group. Scanlon estimates that between travel, lodging, meals and other expenses, he spends between $1,000 and $2,000 to travel to each tournament, plus registration fees that typically run $5,000. 

While there's big money in pro fishing — at each tournament, anglers compete for a top prize of $100,000 — only half of participants will actually net a prize. Scanlon says most people are shooting for a top 50-place finish, where they're guaranteed to take home at least $10,000, to make the expenses of the trip worthwhile.

FLW had seven tournaments on its 2020 calendar. It dropped one altogether, and three have yet to take place, along with an inaugural title championship in which the top 50 anglers could compete for a $200,000 prize.

So far this year, Scanlon has won $26,000 and has moved up in the rankings from his 2019 standing of 39th in the league. "I'm actually having a good season," he says. He's already qualified to remain at the professional level for 2021.

'Right now, it's pretty stagnant'

It's too early to tell how the rest of 2020 will shake out in terms of his earnings potential. "A lot of it relies on tournament winnings," he says. He plans to compete in the remaining events if they happen. "If we don't fish those tournaments, I will be greatly affected."

In addition to summertime guide work, Scanlon runs a small tackle business that sells fishing lures and other equipment. The pick-up in recreational fishing has helped — "our sales online remarkably have been the best we've ever seen" — but it's not really supplementing his lost income. Tournament winnings represented the bulk of his income in 2019, though he did not share the amount he earns from sponsors, his guide work, or the tackle business.

As a result, a lot is riding on those remaining tournaments. Now in his fourth year as a professional angler, Scanlon says "sponsorship is crucial" to making this sport work long term. 

That's because these sponsors help to defray some of the associated costs with traveling to the tournaments, while providing another revenue stream. Scanlon's current sponsors include Bass Pro Shops, Garmin, and Nitro. 

Courtesy Casey Scanlon.

Securing sponsors in the future could become tricky, depending on how these companies fare during the pandemic. "I anticipate that part of it becoming a lot harder," Scanlon says. During the off-season, he presents companies with a "whole package" and a business plan of what he'll do for them, including tournaments where he'll compete, advertising space on his equipment, in-store events, and social media plugs.

If these companies struggle as a result of the economic slowdown, Scanlon speculates that sponsorship deals could be an area where companies cut back. That's why, with extra time on his hands now, Scanlon has increased the number of social media posts he's doing to still try to drive business to his sponsors. 

"Right now, it's pretty stagnant for me," Scanlon says. "Sponsors provide monthly checks and things of that nature. It's tough, but I try to be a team player and wait for things to bounce back for them and us."

How to make the best of things and 'stay sharp'

Even as the professionals are sidelined, other people are taking to fishing like, well, a fish to water. "I live on a lake, and the boat traffic is crazy here," Scanlon says. "I'm definitely seeing more families around the lake. That's encouraging, and really kind of awesome."

While the downtime has been unexpected, it hasn't gone unappreciated. "Every bit of time you spend on the water can be beneficial," Scanlon says. "Right now, I can stay sharp, work on my tackle, maintain my boat, and go fishing." 

I try to be a team player and wait for things to bounce back for them and us.
Casey Scanlon
Professional angler

Scanlon is also preparing for what's likely to be a new reality. He's been getting calls for his guiding business, figuring out how to do trips while being cautious with the health risks, and sorting out a schedule that still allows tournaments to take precedence.

FLW has announced changes for the remaining tournaments of the year. The field of competitors is expanding because FLW has invited pros from the organization that acquired it in 2019, Major League Fishing (MLF), to participate in the final tournaments. Meanwhile, FLW is encouraging fans to watch tournaments online from home, while expanding live-on-the-water broadcasts. Fishing itself is different in later months of the year, Scanlon adds, which could affect outcomes and payouts.

The above changes will be similar to some of those put in place for the final pre-shutdown tournament in March, like no public crowds at weigh-ins and social distancing guidelines for competitors, Scanlon says.

Even so, the renewed interest in fishing gives Scanlon reason to be optimistic about an industry that, from his vantage point, was "doing really well in general" prior to coronavirus-related shutdowns. "Hopefully things pick right back up where they left off."

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