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Operation Bass says the $100,000 first prize in its Red Man All-American, which begins today, is the richest purse in tournament fishing.

It pays out another $50,000 to the next nine anglers in the 41-man field.

More than that, the event has brought all those fishermen, 65 members of the press and 30 staff members here, putting them all up (plus wives and family members, who pay their own way) at the Buffalo Hilton for five days.

"Excluding prizes, we'll spend $250,000 here for this event," says Brian Sayner, spokesman for the 24,000-member fishing organization. "We figure the long-term return to Buffalo will be in the millions."

That remains to be seen, but who is paying the short-term bill?

In part, Operation Bass, through its $18 annual dues and the money it raises in $60 entry fees in the 124 divisional and regional qualifiers that decide who gets to play in the championship.

In larger part, corporate sponsors are footing the bill.

It's all part of the changing face of fishing, which, for some people, is no longer a contemplative sport or a personal indulgence for a lazy day off.

"American business realizes that fishing is a very viable market with the demographics that they are seeking," says Operation Bass founder Mike Whittaker.

This year, 11 corporate sponsors have a piece of the action:

Ranger Boats and Outboard Marine Corp. (makers of the Evinrude and Johnson outboards that kick the boats along) are a "natural." So are Chevy trucks (the official tow vehicles), Poe's Lures, Dupont (Stren fishing line), Pennzoil, Humminbird fish-finders, GNB marine batteries and Browning rods and reels. And Armour Vienna Sausages' Mike Norman says, "this provides an entree to a huge and very loyal market segment for us."

Each company paid the organization $100,000 to be a "regular corporate sponsor," Sayner said.

Pinkerton Tobacco Co. -- the makers of Red Man chewing tobacco, for which the tournament has been named since 1983 -- pays a lot more.

That figure won't be disclosed, but company President Thomas Guinan told the press this week that the fishing tournament is running very close behind truck and tractor pulling in terms of its commitment. And that he expects to have "even bigger news" about fishing tie-ins later this year.

"I'll also tell you to keep those hats and shirts. They'll be collector's items soon because next year we won't be supplying them.

"The federal government, which likes to run the tobacco business these days, has told us we'll need to put a health warning on our hats that will be bigger than the company logo," Guinan said.

The Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau, which hopes by Saturday night to have locked the event in for next year, also hopes to reap the benefits of highly publicized tournament fishing.

"I rather doubt the $3.5 million figure Operation Bass uses," said bureau vice president Kurt Alverson. "They say each dollar spent circulates seven times, while we use a three-times multiplier. But they are spending $250,000 here this week -- ten times what it cost us to bring them here -- and there should be some real benefits as the word gets out about our fishing."

Not only are newspapers across the country following this, but a television special will air later this year and that, alone could be worth $400,000 in publicity.

"I spoke with Fred David of the Syracuse Herald-Journal after he won the press prize Wednesday," Alverson said. "He plans to come back to write a travel piece, too. He hadn't been in Buffalo in 20 years and says it sure has changed for the better."

And competitor Carl Maxfield of Summerville, S.C., was overheard telling another angler that Buffalo is a "fisherman's paradise" and he plans to bring his family back for a two-week vacation -- just so they can all fish.

"Ever since it was announced the Red Man was coming here, I've been getting calls," said Jim Hanley of Angola, a local bass guide. An Operation Bass competitor himself, Hanley says he's been booked solid by out-of-town anglers right through the summer just on the strength of the mention in the club's magazine.

If the competitors have anything to say about it, the Red Man will be back.

David Fritts, of Lexington. N.C., the only five-time qualifier in the 11-year-old event's history is very happy with Buffalo.

"First, the Convention Center here is the best weigh-in site I've seen in five years, and the launch is just about as good as there is. The hotel is great, the people of Buffalo are just the nicest folks you'll ever want to meet, and the fishing is super.

"I've been to the last five of these," Fritts added, "and never even placed. Now all I'd like to do is take home some green for a change."

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