As a huge orange sun peeked over the Atlantic's edge, Arthur Smith's voice crackled from the boat's radio. "O.K. now," it drawled, "y'all remember to be back in by 3:30 for weigh-in." Hundreds of boats, 16-foot center consoles as well as leviathan sportfishermen, revved their engines and impatiently awaited the start. Finally, the countdown began: "Five...four...three...two...let's go fishin'." A flare lit the early-morning sky, and 929 boats carrying 5,512 anglers headed to sea to begin the largest sportfishing tournament, of its kind in the world.
Smith, 63, is a country boy turned composer turned businessman turned sports promoter. Although relatively new to fishing tournaments, he has long been a celebrity in the Carolinas, the Southeast and a few other pockets of the country. He was the host of a popular variety show, and his silver hair, blue eyes, quick smile and pleasing voice helped launch local television in the Carolinas during the early '50s. He was twice named guitarist of the year by Ebony, and a story about him in Look was titled "The Sincere Hillbilly." But, although he had some attractive offers, Smith bypassed the bright lights of New York and Nashville to entertain in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.
Smith's fishing-tournament success started unexpectedly and was only tangentially related to his show-business career. In 1977, he wanted to help struggling fishing families on the Little River Inlet. The estuary borders North and South Carolina, serving the small town of Calabash, N.C.
Little River Inlet had been silting up for years, threatening the area's livelihood because fishing and shrimp boats could only pass through to the Atlantic at high tide. It also made it difficult for Smith, who owns a house in the area, to take out his boat. Smith discussed the problem with state officials in Raleigh and Columbia and decided to sponsor a fishing tournament to help raise money for dredging and the construction of a jetty. That first tournament was a remarkable success. Four hundred boats took part, and the event mushroomed in size. After six years, federal and state governments and Smith's tournaments contributed $22.5 million for the dredging and the jetty, which was finally completed last year.
In the meantime, Smith and his 31-year-old son, Clay, knew a good thing when they saw it and decided to promote fishing competitions as a business. There are now three Arthur Smith tournaments a year, at Myrtle Beach in October (king mackerel), Palm Beach, Fla. in late May (kingfish, dolphin and wahoo) and Free-port, N.Y. in September (bluefish). All three follow the same format: You pay an entry fee of $175 to $225 per boat and fish for two days. After each day, you turn in your five largest fish, which become tournament property and are devoured at the last night's ceremony.
Ah, those award ceremonies. There are cash prizes for all sorts of categories, the biggest being $30,000 for the largest single catch. There is a $10,000 door prize and, of course, good food. Lastly, there is music. Jimmy Dean, Mel Tillis and Johnny Cash have all performed during closing events. Willie Nelson has promised to show up next year at Myrtle Beach. But most of all there is Smith himself, playing the guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin or harmonica. On a stage, he is home again.
Although Smith has cut back on his professional appearances, he is still considered a giant in the world of country music. Stars such as Roy Clark and Glen Campbell, among others, credit him with influencing their playing styles. In 1945, Smith recorded Guitar Boogie. "It was almost an immediate hit," he says, "the first song to cross over from the country charts to the rhythm & blues field and into the pop field. It was number one all across. We sold three million records."
Smith had another hit in 1973, but he was unaware of it at first. Wayne Haas, a friend of Smith's at a radio station, heard a new record and recognized the melody as Smith's. Haas called Smith. "I'm listening to Feudin' Banjos, but they don't call it that and it ain't got yer name on it," he said. A few years and thousands of dollars in legal fees later, Smith won his suit against Warner Communications Inc. for damages due to the unauthorized use of Smith's music in Dueling Banjos, which was the theme song for the movie Deliverance. Smith won't say how much money he received from the lawsuit.
Smith spreads the cash and prizes around—three-quarters of a million dollars worth in 1984—making sure that even if a participant leaves empty-handed, chances are he knows someone who didn't. The lure of winning keeps participants coming back. For example, marine journalist Roy Attaway has won the same prize two years in a row. The problem, however, is that Attaway doesn't have room in his Manhattan apartment for the two satellite receiving dishes. "And I have to report the damn things as income," he says. "They're for sale—wanna buy one?"
Typically, the winning king mackerel weighs in the low 40s—about half the size of the biggest ever caught—but the reward—$30,000—is far greater. Smith was the first tournament sponsor to offer a big-cash purse for any fish other than a marlin. What's more, he says he'll pay $100,000 if the winning fish breaks the state record.
Smith reluctantly admits that such rewards bring out the greed in some men. More than once he has had to call an angler's bluff when a potentially winning catch turned out to be frozen. "Some of those fish were so cold on the inside, it stung your fingers," he says. As a precaution, he mans every weigh-in station with a state wildlife department marine biologist wielding a Torry Meter, a device that determines the freshness offish up to the hour.
Smith lives 200 miles inland and runs his tournaments out of a small renovated horse barn behind his Charlotte home. Memorabilia fill the walls, including photos of Smith with golfing heroes he's met—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson. Two gold records, for Guitar Boogie and Dueling Banjos, also are on display. Smith sold his large studio a few years ago and now records in the barn, taping radio shows, commercials and songs. The new venue represents a change in Smith's life. In the last several years, he finds the fishing business has taken up more of his working hours.
The benefits of the Myrtle Beach tournament are sweeping. Not only do the hordes of fishermen aid the marine industry, but they also pump millions of dollars back into sluggish, tourist-dependent regions.
Curious about the impact of Smith's tournament, South Carolina conducted a survey and found that in 1983 the registered fishermen brought along a total of 9,958 friends, spouses and business associates. All told, the group spent $11,976,136. With South Carolina's 4% sales tax, the Arthur Smith King Mackerel Tournament was responsible for injecting the state's public school system with $479,045. Hilton Head's Heritage Golf Classic is the only other state event that comes close to rivaling the event in revenue surge.
That pleases the philanthropist in Smith. But what he likes more is the last day of each tournament, and the moment he takes the stage to duel with his musical instruments.