Nov 2017 Whisker Whackers

Inside Winter Blues on Wheeler Catfish Tournament with Jody Harrison

Catfish, passion, friendliness, fun and conservation

Jody Harrison is no stranger to tournament fishing. He has a long history of staging bass and crappie tournaments. I guess you could call him a tenderfoot in the catfish world, but he catches on fast.

“I started putting on tournaments in 2007,” explained Harrison. “It all started at the time I was running an online fishing forum called the North Alabama Fishing Forums. I actually started the forum because I moved to North Alabama from South Alabama and I was trying to learn how to fish the lakes of North Alabama and meet some other folks who fished in the area.”

catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, tournament, Winter Blues on Wheeler
Well ran tournaments and big fish are attractive to anglers. Harrison is shown on stage at his first Winter Blues. with David Ashby and David Shipman as they show off part of their catch.

After running the forums for a while, and watching it grow, forum members wanted to put on a bass fishing tournament just to give folks a chance to get together and meet one another. Coincidentally, the forum is where he met a strong promoter of the catfish world, Chuck Davidson. Harrison started putting on bass tournaments and it all grew from there.

catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, tournament, Winter Blues on Wheeler
Jody Harrison

Harrison recalls getting started with a set of scales on a concrete picnic table. It was simple, but it worked and his interest in tournament fishing was growing.

“I can still remember when I got my first pop up tent,” reminisced Harrison. “I thought I was in the big leagues! We eventually moved on to running our own team trails, a collegiate trail, and also did some of the largest events in the state.”

As Harrison engaged in the tournament process an important issue kept haunting him. Being a conservationist at heart, he just couldn’t ditch it.

“The conservation issue kept tugging at me.  I kept asking myself what I could do better, what I could do to help the fish survive? I hated seeing dead fish floating on the water following the bass and crappie tournaments.”

The Fishlife Water Weigh-In System was developed from his tournament experiences. The major benefit of the system is the improved survival rate of the fish. That was Harrison’s goal.

“In the beginning people laughed at me,” offered Harrison. “They said it was all just a gimmick. Now I am the top tournament provider in Alabama. We have built, and supplied, equipment to the largest tournament series in Alabama. At the same time, I started working on developing my fish care products and now our products are sold nationwide and demand is outweighing my ability to produce.”

“Primarily we have always done bass tournaments, but we have also done crappie tournaments.  Now we are in the catfish world. The way things are going I am not actively pursuing anymore bass tournaments. I still do the annual events I have done for years and will add some others occasionally due to who or what they are, but my focus now is trying to help catfishing grow. I want to do all I can to help it out.”

Conservation

Harrison’s interest in Winter Blues on Wheeler comes from both his passion for tournament fishing and his personal commitment to conservation.

“I want Winter Blues to help bring legitimacy and credibility to tournament catfishing in the State of Alabama,” said Harrison. “Bass fishing is what Alabama is known for, even though we have one of best catfish fisheries in the US right here in our state. There are very few people here in the state that ever heard of people fishing for catfish in a tournament. When tournament catfishing is mentioned people look at you like you are crazy. For some reason most folks think only bass can be fished for in a tournament.”

Harrison’s huge passion for conservation goes beyond tournament mortality. He thinks about the bigger picture from an economic point of view. He believes that making catfish a game fish would end much of the controversy that exists in the catfish community, benefit catfish populations, and benefit the state and local communities close to the sport. Many people agree that game fish regulations for catfish would strengthen and improve the fishery. Harrison believes that as the fishery improves, more revenue would be attracted to the states that adopt the game fish provision.

“I would like to see Winter Blues used as an example of why catfish need to be classified as a game fish on the Tennessee River,” explained Harrison. “This would end gill netting for good. There is nothing good about a gill net, but unfortunately it boils down to what is more profitable to the government. Is it the license fees for commercial fisherman or the revenue that is brought in due to recreational anglers and events like Winter Blues?”

“Well run and well attended events, like Winter Blues, can help,” declared Harrison. “If we can show the government that it is more profitable for catfish to be reclassified as game fish they will support it. If the state and local economies can make more money due to the tourism involved, then it can be done.”

Winter Blues on Wheeler

Harrison’s increased involvement with Winter Blues on Wheeler was one of the easiest things he has ever done. It started for Harrison at a small Alabama tournament many years ago and then kickstarted in year two of Winter Blues.

“The concept of Winter Blues was originally developed by Chuck Davidson,” recalled Harrison. “Chuck used to be on Catfish Weekly. He had this idea to put together a tournament where folks could come together in the winter time and beat those ‘Winter Blues’ by getting out on Wheeler and fishing together. This is especially true for the folks up north who get frozen in during the winter.”

catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, tournament, Winter Blues on Wheeler
Daniel Parsons (left) recruited Harrison for Winter Blues year two.

“Chuck took this idea to Daniel Parsons and he ran with it,” continued Harrison. “I think the first year he had 30 something boats in it, but he quickly realized that it was going to have huge success as it grew.

Daniel Parsons contacted Harrison to help out on the 2nd year of Winter Blues. Harrison had staged one tiny catfish tournament up to that time. He had never even heard of a catfish tournament being done on a large scale.

“I knew Daniel from a small tournament that Chuck Davidson did many years ago,” explained Harrison.  “Chuck had asked me to be a part of that tournament when we were first getting started. I think he had 5 boats in it, and honestly that was my perception of what a catfish tournament was all about.”

Harrison accepted Parson’s request and brought his set up to the 2015 Winter Blues on Wheeler event. It had something like 70 something boats in it. It was a big success with plenty of big fish.

“We came in with the big set up we use,” said Harrison. “We really knocked the tournament out of the park. I don’t believe that there was ever such a large set up and air of professionalism as what we brought to the event. The fisherman had never been a part of what we brought to the table so it was a great success.”

“In our eyes we could not believe the passion, friendliness, and in general all of the fun that we had at the event. WE HAD A BLAST doing it. The big fish, the great people, and seeing something totally different than what we had knew in the bass world was just awesome.”

“The biggest thing that impressed me was the level of conservation that these anglers went to,” offered Harrison. “It was the first time that I had seen oxygen systems being used, water filters, and homemade aeration systems. I was just so impressed! I saw that these folks had the same passion that I had for conservation. We loved every minute of our experience with Winter Blues.”

“Year three rolled around and Daniel was covered up personally with work and home life,” explained Harrison. “He was trying his best to prepare for year three but he just couldn’t dedicate the time needed, so he canceled the event. I didn’t see the cancellation immediately. Some of the anglers start making other arrangements to fish other events.”

“When I finally saw it was cancelled, I called Daniel and asked him what the heck he was doing? He explained the situation to me and I understood. I have been there. Heck, I am there, but this was just too good of an event to let go. There is just too much potential to leave it laying on the table, so I asked him if we partnered up, would he be willing to do a year three?”

Parsons agreed and made the announcement that the 3rd annual Winter Blues was back on. It was another success for Winter Blues, for Parsons and for Harrison. There were 78 boats and more than twice as many anglers participating in year three. That success set the stage for 2018.

“So here we are leading into year four,” stated Harrison. “Daniel called me right after we wrapped up year three and told me that he could not continue on. He asked if I would take the tournament over completely. He said he felt like I should have it because he knew that I would take it and grow it to its full potential. I was very honored that he asked me and had the faith in me to turn it over.”

“Once the announcement was made, that I would be taking it over, the support we received from the community was humbling to say the least. It makes me feel so good that the community is supporting me the way they are and it makes me want to give 110% back to show my appreciation.”

Winter Blues on Wheeler Catfish Tournament– 2018

Harrison has been hard at work planning and organizing for the January 6, 2018 event on Wheeler Lake. He is planning to have a staff of 10 to 12 people organized and ready to help make the event run smoothly.

catfish, blue catfish, flathead catfish, tournament, Winter Blues on Wheeler
Harrison is shown here with some of his crew at the Mississippi River Monsters tournament in September 2017.

“Most folks don’t understand what it truly takes to pull off a 200 boat, professionally ran, tournament,” explained Harrison. “There will be a lot of man power needed for this to work. The stage alone requires 5 people for it to work right; then we have 2 people back stage moving fish; 1 person taking fish back to the water; another person putting them in the water; a person directing traffic at the stage; someone checking fish in the line; a couple of folks helping with traffic; someone doing fish care back stage for any fish needing attention; someone checking boats back in; and I am sure I am missing some other duties too.”

He even has something special planned for Boat #1 at blast off, but that he won’t reveal. “You will have to wait and see,” teased Harrison.

He also plans a live stream of the event on the website. Crews will be shooting plenty of video during the tournament for publication after the tournament. Various venues will be approached about airing the tournament videos in a further effort to promote the sport of catfishing.

Harrison has also announced that the voice of FLW Outdoors and FLW weigh master Chris Jones will MC the event. “Having Chris Jones from FLW working with us is going to be huge boost to the excitement of the weigh-in. He has worked some of the biggest events in the fishing world and he will add a whole other level to this event,” added Harrison.

Harrison’s thoughts never stray far from conservation. It is his passion and he makes it his business. The emphasis on conservation will be obvious at Winter Blues? “

Having this event during the winter helps reduce the stress that the fish have to endure in a tournament setting,” explained Harrison. “The water temps are cooler. Cold water holds oxygen much better than warm water does and oxygen is the key to keeping fish alive.”

“Also, this tournament is going to be the first time that many anglers are exposed to a staggered weigh-in time,” added Harrison.  “We will have 25 boat flights coming in 15 minutes apart. This staggered weigh-in time is all in the interest of fish health. Many tournaments bring all of the boats in at one time and this leaves the fish sitting in live wells for up to 2 hours. The water starts heating up, losing oxygen, and the fish start getting restless and stressed even more. The staggered flight process will help alleviate some of this stress. The process also helps with traffic and anglers getting antsy because they are sitting in lines too long.”

“Anglers will see many things done a little different at this event. I have been doing 200+ boat tournaments for years and you have to implement controls to help with safety, fish health, and proper coordination in order to make it professional. These anglers want a professionally ran tournament and that is what we are planning to give them. Things seem a little different at first look, but there is a time tested and proven reason why we do the things we do.”

Harrison has recognized that the tournament will be challenging due to the location. The facility at Joe Wheeler State Park in Rogersville, AL is actually only designed to accommodate 100 boats, so it takes a lot of coordination to pull it off efficiently.

“If we want to grow this sport like everyone says they do, then we have to have big events like this where ever we can. Once we have a big event like this one is going to be, we establish our legitimacy and credibility. Then, we can attract the larger venues and continue growing. There are a LOT of people watching to see how this tournament is going to turn out. There will be people from other cities, potential sponsors, and a bunch of spectators coming to see what this catfish stuff is all about.”

“We have to work together to pull this one off and then 2019 will be even bigger and better. This will be the year that we collect data, create marketing plans, and show the world how awesome catfishing is. I am so thankful that Daniel Parsons brought us into this sport and I want to show my thanks by helping to promote and grow the sport all that I can.”

“The catfish community attracted me to this industry,” revealed Harrison. “Plain and simple. “Since I have become involved in the sport I have met some of the nicest, most sincere people. Now I want to do all that I can to give these folks a tournament that they are proud to be a part of. Without the anglers, us tournament organizers cannot exist. You can have the biggest and the best tournament if you have all of the money in the world, but if you don’t have the anglers show up then it means nothing. The anglers are our customers. If you don’t make them happy then they will not come back. If they don’t come back then you don’t have a tournament.”

“A huge thank you goes out to all of the anglers participating in Winter Blues on Wheeler,” concluded Harrison. “It has been so awesome seeing the team list grow and seeing the anglers sign up from all over the country to fish this event. I am truly humbled by it.”

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