For about a decade, fishermen lined the shores and roamed the waters of Grand Lake for 60 days each spring trying to catch tagged crappies with names like Piano Pete, Whiskey Reb and Tangle Free Tom.
Catching one of the famed fish could mean cash.
Johnson Reels’ Crappiethon USA, a promotional tournament held throughout the country, sponsored its first event at Grand Lake in 1988, causing a fishing frenzy that attracted anglers of all ages.
The tournament also was a boon for the local economy as participants frequented bait shops, restaurants, drive-thrus and other businesses.
"The popularity of it was huge … people still ask about it," said Dan Manning, who owns The Outdoorsman in St. Marys with his wife, Brenda.
Grown men would get excited when the Crappiethon brochure – replete with cartoon outlaw fish wearing hats and holding guns, nooses, lightning bolts, spears and other objects, some menacing, some not – came out in February, Manning recalled.
"It’s the best promotion the lake ever had," fisherman and Celina City Councilman Ed Jeffries said.
Charlie Huddleston, who served as Grand Lake St. Marys State Park assistant manager from 1978 to 2000, said there was a definite increase in visitors to the lake during the Crappiethon.
"It seemed like folks would come, be it with a friend or be it with an entire family, versus just doing it on their own," he said.
More than 24,000 fishermen entered the Crappiethon in 1988, 5,500 of whom were from outside Auglaize and Mercer counties, according to Manning’s records.
About $4.8 million in revenue was thought to be generated in Mercer and Auglaize counties between April 1990 and April 1991.
"I think the businesses would love to see it come back," Manning said.
Brenda Manning estimates business at her store increased as much as 50 percent during the tournament.
"It was huge," she said.
Customers sought the $5 badges to participate and purchased bait and specific tackle: If a person caught Tangle Free Tom – the top fish – with a certain Johnson reel or rod, their prize money increased by tens of thousands of dollars.
Manning was the local coordinator for the Crappiethon. After Johnson World Associates closed America Outdoors, the parent company of Crappiethon USA, the tournament was cancelled in 1997 but later reappeared briefly in a different form as The South Bend Fishing in America Tournament.
"It drove a lot of people into the area – it gave them a purpose to fish," she said.
Volunteers netted and tagged the fish prior to the tournament.
Manning sought advertisements from local businesses who were asked to sponsor fish and contribute cash, gift certificates or other prizes for those who caught the tagged fish, she said.
The Mannings sponsored three fish in 1996 named after their children: Mighty Max, Slippery Sam and Dangerous Dave.
Brenda Manning estimates that 10 percent of the tagged fish were actually caught each year. Passage of a polygraph test was required for the collection of top-dollar awards, according to the official rules.
The Rev. Richard VanHorn of Celina was awarded $10,000 after catching Tangle Free Tom on May 6, 1994. It’s a moment he remembers well.
He told his daughter he was going to catch Tangle Free Tom before he took off in his pontoon with friend Eldon Grapner on Turtleneck Channel on the southside of the lake, the reverend recalled.
VanHorn said the roundtable – a group of regulars at The Fountain in Celina – had a chance to taste a $10,000 fish after it was fried there one morning.
Tangle Free Tom was caught by Tim Steinbrunner of Celina in 1995, Jack Jones of Rossburg in 1994 and Don Huser of Celina in 1993.
Over the years, the tournament’s annual collective prize total dropped from $420,878 in 1991 to $153,270 in 1996.
"It got old and stale is the easiest way of saying it," Huddleston said. "The national organizers, they just tried to keep a good thing instead of changing it up and create new excitement – it just kind of stayed same-old, same-old."
By William Kincaid, The Daily Standard