Feeding hamburgers and hot dogs to more than 300 people at the conclusion of last weekend’s Hmong community bass fishing contest was a no-brainer for tournament director Meng Thao.
At its core, the annual gathering along the St. Croix River in Hudson, Wis., is a family affair. But after this year’s blow-out attendance of 102 boats and hefty prize money, the so-called J4Bass Tournament also has come of age on the merits of competition and angling passion.
The Joe’s Sporting Goods team of Kee Kong, Xuv Kong and David Kong won the tourney’s $10,000 first prize last weekend with six bass that weighed 15.59 pounds. The second-place team, Super 7, received $5,000 in prize money while 13 other teams also got paid for a grand total of $27,000 in winnings.
The payouts were covered by entry fees of $350 per boat.
“We’re up there,” Thao said. “The Minnetonka Classic? We’re right there with them.”
Indeed. Participation in the J4Bass Tournament (J4 stands for July Fourth) leaped 33 percent this year after five years of drawing an average of 75 boats. Brad Parsons, regional fisheries manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said most metro area bass fishing tournaments tend to draw between 25 to 50 boats.
“That’s pretty large to get 100 boats,” he said.
Ten years ago, when the J4B was first held by Thao’s Midwest Hmong Outdoors organization, Hmong anglers fielded about 35 boats. About 25 percent of those boats were designated bass boats. Now, he said, 95 percent or more of the boats are professional, fiberglass models and many of the team members don uniforms.
With its success, the tournament is starting to outgrow Hudson as a blast-off and weigh-in center even as the founders encourage more participation, including invitations to Hmong anglers from communities in California and Georgia.
But Thao and David Heu, the two leaders of Midwest Hmong Outdoors, say the success goes hand-in-glove with keeping the focus on families. Any surplus from the tournament generally goes to promote fishing and hunting among Hmong youth. Last year, the group gave away 400 fishing rods and reels to kids on Harriet Island at a fishing demonstration that included boat safety instruction and a DNR fish tank that taught species identification.
“It’s not about a bunch of guys going out fishing,” Thao said. “This is major in our community. We want to create something where all the anglers come together with their families. And then we give back.”
Tom Zeuli, Hudson’s director of parks and public works, said this year’s J4B tourney needed two auxiliary boat ramps to handle all the traffic. Well before 6 a.m., all 40 parking spots at the public launch were full, he said.
“Things like this are great for our community,” Zeuli said.
He said the tournament trailer, weigh-in stage and high-density of boats made for a festive waterfront on the Friday leading into July 4th weekend. The crowd was very orderly and the event ran cleanly, Zeuli said.
If there was a negative, he said, it was that non-tournament boaters were crowded out of the public launch area on a popular day to be on the river. He said the tourney might be outgrowing the site if it continues to be held around the 4th.
Thao said Midwest Hmong Outdoors has been approached by a couple of fishing industry companies as sponsors, but he and Heu prefer to carry on with a handful of local sponsors and tournament supporters who have been close to the event over the years.
“We want humble people. We want ungreedy people,” Thao said.
Frankie Dusenka, owner of Frankie’s Live Bait & Marine of Chisago City, said he’s amazed by the tournament’s growth and continuing emphasis on families. He said nearly 400 people turned out for a pre-tournament dinner at Far East Bar and Restaurant in St. Paul, where parents, grandparents, teens and children ate dishes made from goat, roasted pig and chicken.
“What strikes me is the heavy involvement of family,” Dusenka said. “We’ve all got to get back to that. Kids are not involved like they used to be.”
Dusenka, whose company is a sponsor of J4B, said anglers in the tournament show professionalism and class. Despite the large number of fish handled and weighed on shore this year, not one fish died before being returned to the river. He said the group closely adheres to rules borrowed from professional bass leagues. Anti-fraud regulations include polygraph testing of the winning captain by an independent company based in New Prague, Minn.
“There was no fish mortality and everything went very, very smoothly,” Dusenka said. “The guys are competitive. I was very impressed.”
Thao said J4B’s field of anglers is heavily dominated by Hmong men. The next big challenge is to diversify the fishing ranks, he said.
So far, entry fees have been waived for women, seniors and children (when accompanied by an adult). In addition, the tournament has relaxed its ethnicity rules. Previously, teams could have one non-Hmong person for every two who identify as Hmong. Now, for a two-person team, the ratio will be 1-to-1 Hmong and non-Hmong.
“Eventually we would like to integrate and be open to all,” Thao said. “But for now, it’s 1 to 1.”