By Mark Hicks
One of the biggest challenges every bass club faces is that of increasing its membership. This task is even more daunting in these tough economic times. Many anglers have fewer dollars to spend on recreation. You must convince them that your bass club is a worthy investment.
This is a twofold process. First, you must get a potential member’s attention. Then, when a rookie joins, your club needs to be sure he feels they are benefiting from their membership. Do that, and the rookie is more likely to be an active, longtime member.
New York’s Michael Cusano knows something about how to attract rookies. He joined the Salt City Bassmasters in 1996 and was soon elected president. The Salt City Bassmasters, founded in 1974, had shrunk to only 18 members. Four years later, its ranks had grown to 80 members.
Cusano, who is now president of the New York B.A.S.S. Chapter Federation, initiated several changes that bolstered Salt City’s roster.
“We made a serious effort to get our club’s name in out front of the public,” Cusano said.
One strategy was to contact local outdoor writers and help them gather information for their stories. This includes taking writers fishing and providing fishing information about local lakes. The writers often mention the club in their articles, which attracts new members.
“We also started working local sport shows, which is something the club used to do,” Cusano said.
This entails renting a booth at a sport show and setting up a display that promotes the club. Club members share time in the both to talk to show attendees and answer questions about club activities.
Some type of raffle also draws people to the both. One raffle item that has worked well for Salt City is a tackle box filled with lures donated by club members.
“Our club also needed to refocus on what we were all about,” Cusano said.
To attract rookies, Cusano knew the club had to be about more than simply holding tournaments. That might be enough for diehard tournament anglers. However, newcomers are often novice fishermen that are intimidated by tournaments. Many don’t own boats.
The club members worked together and wrote a mission statement that focuses on fun, sportsmanship and learning, with an emphasis on learning. Some of this stemmed from Cusano’s own experiences. When he was a rookie in the Salt City club, he fished as a boater.
“I got crushed by the more experienced members,” Cusano said. “I was dying to learn from our best fishermen. That’s true of all members, especially rookies.”
Cusano encouraged the better anglers in his club to step up and give seminars at meetings. The top finishers in club tournaments regularly discuss how they caught their bass. This includes the productive baits, key cover and structure elements, and their thought process during the tournament. However, information about specific fishing spots is off limits.
“Even a short 15 minute seminar brings more members to the meetings,” Cusano said. “That really appeals to guests that come to check out the club.”
Any fishermen that are interested in joining the Salt City club have an open invitation to attend a club meeting. When they see that the club strives to teach its members to be better anglers, it’s often the incentive they need to sign up.
“The majority of our new members join because they want to learn about bass fishing,” Cusano said.
Many rookies don’t have boats. Not only are they welcome, but they normally make faster gains than rookies that fish tournaments with their own bass boats.
That’s because the club’s tournaments pair boaters and nonboaters via a random draw. The nonboaters usually wind up fishing with a different boater in each of the club’s six tournaments. This exposes them to a wide variety of fishing tactics and gives them the incentive they need to experiment with something new.
As Cusnao pointed out, if a rookie has never tried a jig and pig, he’s likely to stop fishing it if he makes a dozen casts and doesn’t get a bite. It’s a different story if that same rookie is fishing with a boater that is catching bass on a jig and pig. The experience gives the rookie enough confidence to stick with the jig and master it. The nonboater can also ask his boater for tips on how to rig and fish whatever bait the boater happens to be fishing.
By being paired with different club members, rookies can learn more in six tournaments than they could in years of trying to figure things out by themselves. To make for a friendlier atmosphere, the Salt City tournament format eliminates competition between the boater and the nonboater. Each event is two separate tournaments, one for boaters and another for nonboaters.
When the club’s yearly tournaments are over, the top eight boaters and the top two nonboaters qualify to fish the B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Eastern Divisional.
The Salt City club also supports the Salt City Junior Bassmasters. It is a separate organization. The junior club provides wholesome activities for young people. When these anglers grow older, they are likely to become members of the regular Salt City club. Some of the parents of youth club members wind up in the club, as well.
Given that this is the electronic age of communication, the Salt City Bassmasters makes good use of the Internet. You can view their website at: saltcitybass.com. The site’s initial statement reads like an invitation to new members:
Salt City Bassmasters
Is an organization dedicated to helping its members become better bass anglers through discussion, seminars, and interactive learning. Salt City strives to provide a competitive bass fishing tournament trail that encourages sportsmanship, fun and learning. Lastly, Salt City Bassmasters wants to improve the knowledge of all anglers, promote ethical behavior and sportsmanship, and increase environmental awareness.
“The website is a great recruiting tool,” Cusano said. “We get a lot of questions from anglers who are thinking of joining.”
The site includes information about the club’s bylaws, tournament schedule, rules, tournament results, photos, and more. It also invites anyone who is interested in the club to come to a meeting.
David Canestrare, who lives near Syracuse, New York, took advantage of the web invitation two years ago. Canestrare was thinking of joining a bass club. He did a Google search and found the websites of Salt City and a few other clubs. He had heard of Salt City, and he liked that the club stressed learning.
Canestrare didn’t own a boat. His fishing experiences were mainly outings to Oneida Lake with his parents. They would catch an occasional bass, walleye or bluegill, but they went hours between bites.
“I would read about guys fishing tournaments at Oneida and catching 30-40 bass a day,” Canestrare said. “That’s what prompted me to look into bass clubs.”
Canestrare was impressed when he attended one of Salt City’s monthly meetings. The top five finishers from the previous club tournament discussed the baits and techniques they had used to catch bass.
“It was exactly what I was looking for,” Canestrare said. “I wanted to learn how to catch bass.”
After joining Salt City, Canestrare was pleased with the friendly atmosphere and the information sharing. He fished as a nonboater the first year and learned from every angler he was paired with. When he mentioned that he was new to bass fishing, the members were even more generous with their fishing pointers.
One of those events happened at Lake Champlain. There, Canestrare caught two 5-pound largemouths on a Senko, a bait that he had learned to fish from another club member.
The next year, Canestrare bought a bass boat and competed in the club’s tournaments as a boater. He also fished three New York B.A.S.S. Chapter Federation tournaments. The first of these tournaments was at Lake Champlain.
Canestrare returned to the spot where he had caught the 5-pounders the year before and went to work with a Senko. He proceeded to stuff a five-bass limit into his livewell that weighed 22.76 pounds and won the tournament.
“I felt like I had won the key to Disneyland,” Canestrare said. “I have to thank Salt City club member Brandon Schwoeppe for teaching me how to fish a Senko.”