Originally created 02/25/02

Fishing for profit



The shoreline of Thurmond Lake is a parched-clay beach where piers go unused and boat ramps fall short of the water.

Some say the view is a reflection of the drained economy that has resulted from low lake levels.

But after three years of drought, some people still have high hopes of luring spenders back to the lake.

The hook? National and regional bass fishing tournaments.

"You have a loss of money from weekend anglers that's not being replaced," said Bill Tinley, the park manager at Mistletoe State Park in Appling. He said some boaters have stayed away from the lake because low water levels threaten to damage their boats with exposed rocks and other debris. "If we get these tournaments, that will replace that."

Mr. Tinley said he believes major tournament participants are more likely than everyday anglers to take their chances in low water. His goal is to attract that group by having major bass fishing tournaments at his park.

"It's going to make money," he proclaimed.

Mr. Tinley said anglers in 1996 spent an average of $436 per fishing trip to Thurmond Lake. By 1998, when the drought hit, the amount spent fell nearly 60 percent, he said. He added that although spending has begun to improve, profits still remain below predrought figures.

To offset the losses, Mr. Tinley wants to build a larger boat ramp and several new parking spaces at Mistletoe. The cost for these improvements has not been totaled.

Already, the park has approved extending its existing boat ramps by 50 feet. The plan has gained support from state Rep. Bill Jackson, R-Appling.

"I have contacted the Department of Natural Resources in the hopes of trying to improve a landing there," Mr. Jackson said. "That's where this is coming from. They're trying to improve it where there would be easier access there. And that's good for our economy."

Mistletoe officials aren't the only ones hoping to cash in on the lake.

Columbia County officials are working to bring regional and national fishing tournaments and other water events such as sailing to Wildwood Park, about five miles east of Mistletoe.

"We're trying to fast-track this project because we've already started talking in negotiations to a number of large outdoor water events," said Frank Neal, the county's community and leisure services director. "Not only is it a major benefit for the tourism aspect of Columbia County, but it's a major economic impact."

Mr. Neal said more than $1 million - including special local option sales tax revenue - has been approved for improvements at Wildwood. The money will be used to build rental cabins, several boat ramps, floating docks and more parking. Construction is expected to begin within the next year.

"Right now, what we're doing is trying to fill a void that's present," he said. "Unfortunately, there's nowhere really to hold these events. That's why we really haven't been able to attract them."

Mr. Tinley is seeking support from politicians and local businesses for the changes to Mistletoe.

Epp Wilson, the owner of White Columns Inn in Thomson, recently met with Mr. Tinley and said he supports bringing big fishing tournaments to the lake.

"It represents the greatest potential market increase," Mr. Wilson said.

He said that bass fishers make up a majority of his inn's clientele and that more tournaments would help him offset his losses since the drought.

Gerald Baygents, the tourism director for the Thomson-McDuffie County Chamber of Commerce, said such events would be good for his county.

"When the tide rises, all the boats come up," he said. "It helps all the people."

Mr. Tinley said that although he's sure higher lake levels will eventually return, he's just looking for a way to buoy the area's economy in the meantime.

"This is like the stock market," he said. "And these major tournaments will replace the people we're losing in the bad times."

LAKE HISTORY

Major droughts at the lake:

1967: Lake reached 14 feet below normal.

1988: Lake reached 17.2 feet below normal.

2002: Lake levels are 12 feet low.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 110, or prestonsparks@newstimesonline.com.