Unique format tournaments: The future of crappie fishing?

September 12, 2022

By Greg McCain

Some new takes on tournament formats are opening up unique possibilities for the crappie world.

While traditional tournaments, both single- and multi-day, still dominate the tournament scene, Crappie Masters stepped outside the box with a unique format last month on the Ouachita River. The organization held what is thought to be the first bracket-style tournament for crappie fishermen.

Three teams from the ACC Crappie Stix pro staff competed in the event, and without exception, all voiced their enthusiasm for the format. Two of the ACC representatives, Wesley Miller/Justin Smart and Nick DeWolf (fishing solo), advanced and fished the final day of the tournament while Craig “The Crappie Cowboy” Nichols also participated.

Justin, who only fished the final day of the event after Wesley advanced through the winner’s bracket over the first two days, said he had fished bracket-style bass events spread over several weeks. Never, however, had he experienced anything similar in the crappie world. Justin and Wesley, both from north Louisiana, eventually finished fifth.

“The format was cool,” Justin said.

Competitors drew from a hat their opponents for the opening round. Craig, the long-time Oklahoma pro, faced off with another tough tournament veteran, Frank Haidusek. Nick, from Louisiana, drew the hottest current competitor in crappie fishing in Hayden Jeffries on Day 1 and actually spent most of his fishing time towing and helping Hayden with motor issues.

Despite the tough draws and dropping into the loser’s bracket, both Craig and Nick liked the format.

“That’s the first tournament I’ve ever fished like that, and in the crappie world, I think it’s the first time they’ve ever done anything like that,” Craig said. “I love the format, but the fishing was absolutely horrid on that river.

“I like the one-on-one format. You’re not focused on trying to beat 100 other people. You draw competition and go head-to-head with somebody. It’s good and bad. I consider myself one of the top anglers, and I found myself matched up with one of the top anglers. You have to step your game up.

“On the bad side, one of those guys is going to be eliminated.”

Added Nick, “I loved the style of the tournament. There was a lot less pressure, just a different style. You got to a point and asked yourself, ‘Do I do this or do that?’ There really is so much strategy involved.”

Nick earned his final-day spot by coming out of the loser’s bracket on Day 2, when he finished second. The top three in the loser’s bracket advanced to the final round along with the bracket winners from Day 2.

Various issues, including a late start, a broken seat, and a broken trolling motor, kept Nick from a high finish on the final day. He did manage to earn quality points and will go into the Crappie Masters National Championship later this month in the top 10 in the Angler of the Year standings.

“I just really liked the set-up of it,” Nick said. “It was a different style.”

The unique format sparked conversation about what’s ahead for crappie fishing. Will more bracket-style competitions be held? What other out-of-the-ordinary formats are available?

Certainly the bracket style is one possibility. Craig mentioned another unique tournament held on Grenada Lake in Mississippi a few years ago. The MLF-style competition required competitors to catch and immediately release 1.5 lb. crappie in the same manner the organization uses for bass fishing. The angler with the most legal fish won.

“I was supposed to go fish the MLF format and didn’t get to fish it,” Craig said. “I’m really interested in fishing a format like that. I think it’s a great deal. You have a boat marshall in every boat, and you have a target weight, which at Grenada was a pound-fifty.

“I think they called it Boat Flipping Freaks or something like that, no nets allowed. I would love to see another tournament like that. Boat flipping is kind of my thing.”

Hourly big fish tournaments, like the one sponsored by ACC Crappie Stix/Crappie Cove on Watts Bar the last two years are another possibility. Nick said he had fished an event like that on Lake D’Arbonne and likes the strategy involved in weighing at just the right time.

He also mentioned CrappieFest on Lake Fork, which started as a big-fish event but also includes exact-weight categories. While a one-lb. even crappie would never win a big-fish contest on Lake Fork, the exact-weight categories add intrigue to an event and allow a greater part of the field to win money.

“It gives the average guy, maybe the guy without LiveScope, a chance to win some money,” Nick said.

Justin said he was not sure if the bracket-style format will ever gain a foothold in crappie competition, but he does predict tournaments will continue to evolve. He said one twist on a normal tournament would be to shorten the time frame.

“Maybe something like a five-fish, end-at-noon shootout,” he said. “Wesley always says if we don’t have them by one o’clock, we’re not going to catch them.”

Craig said much of the focus for 2023 will be on the first season of the Crappie Masters Elite Series. The American Crappie Trail also continues to expand as well. Eventually, more unique-format tournaments are likely to surface.

“I think you’re going to see different types of tournaments the next couple of years that are outside the box,” he said. “They are going to be really interesting.”