Last modified: Wednesday, October 10, 2007 10:43 AM CDT
John Felsher, editor of the Florida-based Sport Fishing Magazine, covers local outdoor guide Tommy Cauley during the Southeastern Outdoor Press Assocation conference that drew hundreds of outdoor writers to central Arkansas last week. Bass fishing is a $60-billion-a-year industry and Arkansas claims more than a couple of world record catches.

The nature of business: SEOPA effect will ripple for years to come

Fishing lures and conferences have something in common when it comes to the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association — they both create ripple effects in Arkansas.

Last week, approximately 300 writers, photographers and venders converged in North Little Rock at the Wyndham Hotel for the annual SEOPA conference, which means big bucks for not only North Little Rock, but for the entire state.

In 1999, Fort Smith officials wooed the conference to their city, and are still reaping the dividends.

“It’s like dropping a rock in a pond. It ripples for years and years to come,” said Ramona Moon, of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Nobody can have an advertising budget big enough to afford this kind of coverage and publicity. It never stops. It’s still benefiting us eight years later.”

According to Moon, Fort Smith had already drawn the attention of three writers ready to hunt and fish and do articles on the region by the time their booth was set up on the first day of the conference last Wednesday.

“We can track the value of advertising in column inches, but there are still stories being written and some we never know about,” she said. “It’s an ongoing thing.”

Last Wednesday, Florida-based Sports Fishing Magazine editor John Felsher and Arkansas fishing guide Tommy Cauley trolled past the USS Razorback submarine — part of the Inland Maritime Museum on the North Little Rock side of the Arkansas River.

The writer and the guide both understood the economic value of the state’s natural resources, like the Arkansas River that links Fort Smith to North Little Rock and points beyond.

“This river right here is a world class bass fishery,” said Felsher. “It runs the entire length of the state. Bass fishing has made this river famous and bass fishing alone is a $60 billion-a-year industry.”

According to Cauley, known for his expertise around Greers Ferry Lake, Arkansas holds the world’s record for hybrid bass and Walleye bass (Greers Ferry), and a world-record brown trout was caught in the Red River, just below Greers Ferry Dam.

Casting lingo like Fire Tiger bombers, clear Azera topwater puppies, square-billed crank bait and jig and spoon as much as their fishing line, the two talked the business of fishing as they made there way from their North Little Rock launch point to Murray Lock and Dam

Cauley read the silent signs in the water, maneuvering his craft to target areas around currents and jetties. It’s his second language - one not easily understood by fishing-illiterate types.

Cauley’s expertise has earned him sponsorships from Hummingbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Cocoons, Johnson Outdoors, Right Bite Baits, Excel Boats, Fig Rig Rods, PRADCO, Pure Fishing and Jay’s Marine — to name a few.

Fishing tournaments have made millionaires out of Arkansas fishermen. It’s big business and Arkansas needs to capitalize on it, according to Felsher.

“Arkansas has every kind of fresh water game fish there is,” Felsher said. “It’s far enough south for crappie and catfish, but far enough north for small-mouth bass, trout and other fish.

“People can fish just about 365 days a year. It’s not known as the natural state for nothing.”

Felsher, an outdoor writer since the age of 16, has built a career around writing about hunting and fishing, hosting his own TV and radio talk shows in Louisiana and writing about outdoor sports for various print publications. Felsher and his family moved to Cabot in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita devastated the Louisiana coastline.

It was in Arkansas that Felsher discovered Cauley’s Fish Finder Services, penning an article that ran in state and regional publications.

“I’m still getting calls two years later,” Cauley said. “It’s just about the publicity, I read the magazines and the articles to learn from them. You have to keep up on the latest, greatest thing or you get out of the loop, which could cost me opportunities. People are starving for knowledge and there just isn’t enough printed material on this state.”

According to Felsher, to buy an ad in a national magazine equal in size to the column inches of an article would cost upwards of $25,000.

Cauley, who works 250 days a year and teaches seminars around the U.S., estimated that he gains at least 60 of those days from a single magazine article.

“Work picks up and the phone rings off the hook,” said Cauley, who is known as an expert on Greers Ferry Lake.

The SEOPA is a nonprofit professional organization consisting of members -which include magazine and newspaper writers, book authors, photographers, radio and television personalities, lecturers, editors, artists, industry representatives and others in the outdoor communications field -from 14 southeastern states.

Last week’s conference drew visitors, vendors and officials to North Little Rock from Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana and California.

Carrie Stansbury, of Cajun Coast Visitor and Convention Bureau in Louisiana, said the conference was scheduled to be held in Louisiana in 2005, but Hurricane Katrina interrupted those plans, causing Louisiana to miss out on profitable publicity.

“The real value is found in the best site stories that come after the conference,” she said. “As writers, when spending your personal time and money at a conference, you are going to get as many as five or six stories that you can posture to certain sectors. “

Outdoor writers may get six different articles from a single conference, but they can adapt each story for a different reading public and sell it three or four times over a period of several years.

Jessica Hawkins, a Harding University graduate, represented the Shreveport-Bossier Visitors & Convention Bureau.

“We definitely have economic multipliers that help us estimate the economic impact — each person times the costs of lodging, plus money spent on food and shopping, but there is an indirect economic impact that isn’t so easily tracked,” Hawkins said. “Conventions like this, in general, are a big boost to the economy, but this is a writers’ conference, so you are getting not only the economic impact, you are getting invaluable coverage.”

According to Sharon Alford of Houma, La., a written article by a credible writer can do more than a full-page advertisement for a city, region or state.

“A well-known writer, who has built a loyal following definitely has more clout than advertisement, because it’s coming from an expert and has more credibility than a paid ad,” Alford said. “This is a great chance for Arkansas to promote itself. Wait and see the long-term economic impact will continue.”

According to Elizabeth Elizandro, of the North Little Rock Visitors Bureau, it took years to get the conference to central Arkansas — three years to be exact.

With partners, like the Wyndham, the Heart of Arkansas Travel Association, Fort Smith, Little Rock, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the state offered an attractive opportunity and conference coordinators took the bait. Apparently, the group was pleased with their experience.

“This has been a great experience,” said Stan Kirkland, of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and SEOPA board member. “We’ve enjoyed the city and we appreciate the way Little Rock and North Little Rock has treated us.”

For Fort Smith, manufacturing has been the city’s main industry. With manufacturing jobs leaving the country at an uncomfortable rate, the city is looking to capitalize on its historical and natural assets.

“With our area, tourism is the best answer,” Moon said. “We’re situated much like Little Rock and North Little Rock.

“We’re across the river from VanBuren and like North Little Rock and Little Rock, we share a similar history, but we’re not attached.”

City officials from around the region packaged tours, fishing and hunting opportunities around the state while the SEOPA writers were in Arkansas. Many will return as seasons change to experience hunting and fishing adventures based on the knowledge gained during the conference.

“Reputable writers will tell about their experiences here,” said Felsher. “It would take $100,000 to buy a six-page, full-color ad to get the same impact as one magazine feature.”

While Fort Smith still reaps the benefits from the 1999 conference, the rest of the region and guys like Cauley, who make their living on the bounty of the “Natural State,” will just have to sit back and ready their nets.

“We won’t know until well after the fact,” said Elizandro. “Many of the articles won’t hit right away, so it may be a couple of years before we get a multiplier, but we are expecting good things.

“This has been a wonderful thing for North Little Rock, and we’re thrilled to have it here.”