Kayak bass fishing’s $100k tournament

Kayak bass fishing’s $100k tournament

Mar 20, 2018

Torqeedo and the $100k KBF Championship: how we got here

By Mike Pehanich     

From niche sport to prime time event with a $100,000 jackpot, the KBF National Championship has catapulted into the U.S. sporting scene. Here’s how KBF and its leading sponsor, Torqeedo, got us here.

On March 14, 2015, the KBF Open tournament on Kentucky Lake concluded with kayak angler Nick Lester holding a billboard-sized check. His $10,000 first place award and bonus money sent him home $16,000 richer. A total of 158 anglers from across the country had competed for what was then the largest winner’s payout in American kayak fishing history.

It seemed a big moment for kayak bass fishing, but much bigger things lay ahead.

One year and six days later, kayak anglers returned to Kentucky Lake where Matt Ball hoisted a $20,000 check as KBF’s first official national champion, taking home $32,700 with contingency bonuses. The first place prize money had come compliments of a new sponsor – Torqeedo, the German manufacturer of groundbreaking lightweight lithium battery-powered electric motors. Kayak bass fishing had turned a corner.

Kurt Smits took the crown in 2017, topping a field of over 300 anglers and taking home a $35,000 winner’s purse from lead sponsor Torqeedo and a total $40,500 with bonus money.

A mere 12 months later, 755 accomplished kayak anglers from across the United States and Canada are preparing to compete for a monumental prize that has caught the attention of anglers everywhere and even the broader world of competitive sports.

The $100,000 first place award that will go to the 2018 KBF National Champion following the competition on Kentucky and Barkley lakes March 23-24, 2018, catapults kayak bass angling into the sporting arena’s big time. In addition to that six-figure winner’s take, KBF will award a $20,000 second place prize, $15,000 third place prize and payouts to the top 75 finishers.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of elements have had to come together like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle to bring sportsmen to this landmark moment. But were it not for a confluence of circumstances and events and the foresight and commitment of a few key figures, these pivotal moments in kayak tournament history might have passed with relatively little attention.

Timing is (almost) everything

Environmental awareness had become a global phenomenon by 2004, and the marine industry was increasingly feeling the pressure of the “sustainability revolution.” In Germany, restrictions on the operation of gasoline-powered motors on Lake Starnberg prompted Dr. Christoph Ballin and Dr. Friedrich “Fritz” Böbel to brainstorm. Noting worldwide attention to global warming, limited oil supply and general concern over air and water pollution, the visionaries saw global market opportunity in electrically powered outboard engines – and little or no market competition.

They set to work developing a high-tech solution, an electric outboard powered by a lithium battery, a technology with enormous potential though not without its challenges.

Flash forward five years…Torqeedo electric outboards have captured technology awards and gained a market foothold in the sailing industry. But plans of company co-founder Dr. Christoph Ballin reach further. He casts an eye toward the rapidly growing kayak industry and the kayak fishing market, its sparkplug segment.

Research and industry connections lead Torqeedo to U.S. Navy Lieutenant Chad Hoover, a passionate kayak angler with his own vision of the sport and emerging market.

Serendipity sets the table.

Torqeedo personnel in Crystal Lake, Ill., track Hoover down and make a fortuitous discovery. Hoover is stationed at the U.S. military base in Stuttgart, Germany, a modest drive from Torqeedo headquarters.

“Torqeedo sent a car to pick me up on a Saturday morning and brought me to the original company headquarters in Sternberg where I met the owner, Christoph Ballin,” recalls Hoover. “They were very nice. They showed me the motor and asked what I thought of it. I told them I wasn’t interested in a kayak motor myself, but that I could see a future for motors for people who might really need one. I told them that because I was an influential person in the industry, I would help promote motors by making sure they were available to disabled veterans and other people who could really benefit from them.”

The Torqeedo team thanked him, then pulled out its ace card.

“They asked me if I would like to try the motor(s) out on the water that afternoon,” recalls Hoover. “I said, ‘Sure.’

Lake Starnberg was about a mile away. Torqeedo had a kayak with a motor waiting there.

“I jumped in it, and my opinion on whether I would like it pretty much changed that afternoon,” Hoover confesses. “It was way better than your standard trolling motor because it wasn’t a trolling motor at all. It was an outboard.”

The advantages a motor like the Ultralight 403 could bring to a kayak angler were obvious to Hoover – ability to size up structure with electronics in a fraction of the time it took with paddle or even pedal; improved boat control, particularly in wind and against current; the safety and convenience of an alternative means of propulsion; and more. Cost of operation would be minimal, and the motor was in line with environmental concerns and growing objections to combustion engines.

The men spoke for hours that afternoon. The conversation gained momentum as Fritz Böbel, architect of the Torqeedo motors, learned that Chad Hoover was an engineer himself. Before the meeting had ended, Hoover had contributed several thoughts on design improvements for the motor, several of which Torqeedo has since gone on to implement.

The encounter was enlightening for Hoover and ripe with promise for Torqeedo. Hoover had only three months left on his navy enlistment. At meeting’s end, his new German friends promised to have a motor sent to him when he returned home.

And they did.

Market timing

The seed planted during that initial meeting grew roots, but, on the surface, little seemed to develop for years.

“Torqeedo was far ahead of the evolution of the sport,” Hoover says today. “It was the industry that wasn’t ready for a high-end motor yet. Most kayaks were selling for $650 to $850. It was a big deal when kayaks crossed that $999 threshold. Now at $2,000 and up, nobody takes notice of those prices. But at the time, the idea of putting an $1,800 motor on a kayak – a motor that cost three times what the kayaks cost – was problematic.”

Torqeedo kept an eye on the kayak fishing market and an ear open for news of change.

“I remember Chad saying time and time again that the timing wasn’t right yet, that the kayak fishing world wasn’t ripe for the motor yet,” recalls Steve Trkla, Torqeedo president. “He kept saying, ‘One day there will be a paradigm shift.’ But it wasn’t happening yet four years ago. Chad literally guided us through the market development period.”

Three years ago, however, changes in kayak fishing had mounted. Major improvements in fishing kayaks, growing sophistication among kayak anglers, and increasingly large pots at kayak tournaments painted a different backdrop.

“Chad saw a shift occurring, a changing tide,” recalls Trkla. “He came to us and said, ‘Now’s the time.’”

Game on!

One of the most significant barriers to Torqeedo in the kayak market was the concept of a kayak motor itself. As a whole, club anglers didn’t seem to want them in competition, though many did like the idea of having them as pre-fishing tools.

“Since I started the Kayak Bass Fishing tournament trail, I could define what we permitted in KBF tournaments, and KBF permitted motors. But we were the exception,” Hoover explains. “A lot of the blowback at the time was that zero tournaments other than ours allowed motors. The next season, two tournaments allowed motors, and then those two buckled to pressure and pulled back. It was three years more before anyone else allowed motors in tournaments.”

The turnaround occurred in 2016 when Kayak Bass Fishing staged the first official KBF National Championship. Torqeedo had come aboard as lead sponsor. Matt Ball led a field of 230 anglers to earn the $20,000 winner’s take along with an additional $12,700 in bonus money. Kayak anglers saw tournament winnings reaching envious numbers, and Torqeedo, the first motor manufacturer to tailor its kayak propulsion system to the craft itself and the needs of the angler, was putting significant money into the game.

New sponsor money and a major national championship event didn’t immediately change attitudes toward kayak motors. But with bigger stakes, broader payouts, and events playing out on sprawling waters where an electric motor made for more effective and safer fishing, anti-motor sentiment began to wane.

The 2017 KBF National Championship on Kentucky Lake was a watershed event. Run concomitantly with the KBF Open, it drew over 500 anglers and event supporters to the Henry County Fairgrounds in Paris, Tenn. More than 300 of those attendees competed for the title of “national champion.”

Motors factored significantly into the event. With more prize money on the table and a larger field of proven talent vying for the crown, more anglers sought advantage over fish and foe.

Of course, there’s nothing quite like catching fish to spike tournament interest, and the fishing proved to be as impressive as the size of the field in 2017. By 9:30 AM of Day One, the number of bass caught and submitted for verification already had topped the total catch of the prior year’s event. Judges labored deep into the evening to validate Day One catch submissions.

The final tally found Kurt Smits topping the field with a 10-fish total of 188.5 inches. He went home significantly richer, too, taking home Torqeedo’s $35,000 first place award along with an additional $5,000 in Bonus Bucks and an extra $500 from Strike King.

Smits called the event “life-changing” in post-tournament interviews and acknowledged that he was riding a bigger wave as well. “This is way bigger than me,” he told Kayak Angler magazine. “This sport is growing, and it is going to be huge. I see nothing but massive potential for this sport.”

Indeed, the 2017 KBF National Championship had been a game changer. The “paradigm shift” that Chad Hoover had anticipated had occurred. Collectively, kayak anglers had a new outlook on their sport, and sponsors and event cities waxed wide-eyed with the opportunity that suddenly seemed to spill out before them like a holiday cornucopia.

Year of the motor

The changes didn’t end there.

“2017 was the year of the motor,” Hoover reflects. “Forty tournaments allowed anglers the use of motors last year. Those who objected to the use of motors in competition once were in the majority. Now they are less likely to object.”

The event resonated through the sporting world. Kayak anglers mounted ambitious plans, their distant dreams of a kayak bass fishing career suddenly seeming like a reality only an arm’s length away.

With the 2018 KBF National Championship and its $100,000 first place prize only days away, kayak tournament fishing has become an event that sportsmen everywhere are keeping their eyes on.

Hoover is quick to point out that the kayak bass fishing community has many to thank as his 755 competitors converge in Paris, Tennessee. The success of the anglers and KBF itself could not have occurred without the support of dedicated sponsors like Wilderness Systems, Bending Branches, NRS, and, leading the list, Torqeedo, the electric outboard manufacturer that added its weight to make the KBF National Championship one of the biggest events in outdoor sports.

“Torqeedo knew kayak tournament fishing was growing and where it was going,” recalls Hoover. “Torqeedo helped make the $100,000 winner’s award guaranteed. And with more than $50,000 going to the top 10 anglers alone and abundant Bonus Bucks winnings available, a lot of fishing careers are growing hopeful.”

 

Why Torqeedo?

While motors no longer stand out in kayak bass fishing competition, the types of motors in use do.

Many kayak anglers have rigged standard transom-mount trolling motors to their kayaks, complete with the added 50-pound-plus load of a lead battery.

Torqeedo motors stand out for reasons that have nothing to do with the company’s bold orange logo and unusual spelling.

“Torqeedo’s Ultralight 403 motor is the only system developed from the ground up to motorize a kayak,” explains Steve Trkla, Torqeedo president. “We have the Cadillac of the field, and that’s because the motor is so feature-rich.”

Some of those highlights include:

Safety – Torqeedo motors come with multiple safety features. “Few realize that there’s a chip in motor that triggers a shut-off if the motor tilts past a 45-degree angle,” explains Trkla. “It’s like the chip in your phone that shifts the screen. Also, you can tether the magnetic key required to operate the motor to your vest. It serves as a kill switch to shut off the motor if you get separated from the craft.”

Waterproof (IP67) design – All parts of the Torqeedo motors, including the battery, are certified IP67 design and have the ability to withstand pressure under water up to three feet deep for up to one hour.

Weight – The lightness and maneuverability of kayaks account for many of their advantages, and kayak anglers are in constant hunt for ways to reduce overall weight. The Torqeedo Ultralight 403 motors weigh between 16 and 22 pounds – a fraction of the weight of a single lead battery required to power a conventional 12-volt trolling motor.

Maximum speed, performance – The Torqeedo Ultralight 403 enables maximum potential speed with most kayak hull designs. “We provide the power for a kayak to move through three-foot-plus waves and conditions where a standard kayak might not even make it back,” says Trkla.

Lithium battery protection – Kayak fishermen need not fear thermal runaway with Torqeedo’s lithium batteries. “A big acid battery needs to vent,” Trkla explains. “To put a lead battery in the cubby hole of a kayak can be very dangerous. The kayak could catch fire. But the lithium battery of the Torqeedo is completely safe, even when it is stored in that cubby hole.”

Onboard computer display – The Ultralight 403 employs GPS information to provide real-time information on battery charge status, speed over ground, input power and remaining range.

Maintenance – Torqeedo maintenance is simple. Just keep the battery charged, clean vegetation and fishing line from the propeller and its base and check connections. Occasional spray with WD40 helps keep connections clean. A general maintenance check is recommended every four to five years.

Torq Trac App – This innovative Torqeedo app links the motor to a smartphone. It provides a color map of the lake or stream and indicates the boat’s real-time position. “It traces a circle from your current position that allows you to get back to your starting point and never stray beyond the reach of the motor,” explains Trkla. “Just stay within the circle! It can do map plotting, too, and tell you the speed to travel to have the range you need.”

Torqeedo, a member of the Deutz group, today offers 32 electric boat drives ranging from the 1HP Ultralight 403 and 403C that propels kayaks to the 80 HP Deep Blue, with more powerful and interesting engines slated for release.

 

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