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Excitement flows along Lanier as tourney begins
Amy Nixon of Bee Branch, Ark., watches the boats at Laurel Park Thursday morning with son Ethan, 12, and dog Scarlett during the first day of the Forrest Wood Cup. The Nixons came to cheer on husband and father Larry Nixon, an angler competing in the tournament. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Everything fell into place for this weekend’s FLW Outdoors’ Forrest Wood Cup.

When the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau began planning for the tournament almost 16 months ago, workers were worried about the lake levels.

“When the levels were down, the Corps of Engineers had to put a moratorium on any kind of tournament,” said Stacey Dickson, president of the Lake Lanier CVB. “We couldn’t have hosted it, and we were frankly very nervous about it. That was a real concern, but thankfully things have gotten better.”

The governor’s office started preparations for the tournament as a part of Go Fish Georgia, an initiative started by Gov. Sonny Perdue in hopes of boosting fishing and boating in Georgia lakes for the benefit of local communities.

“We did a lot of praying for the rain,” Dickson said with a laugh. “The governor must have somebody on his side upstairs.”

Through Sunday, the bass anglers will take off early each morning from the new mega boat ramp at Laurel Park in hopes of making the biggest catch. Maintenance crews prepared the area by ordering new pine straw, mowing grass and cleaning the coves of debris, said Lance Reid, Hall County Parks and Leisure maintenance supervisor.

A main component of Go Fish Georgia is recruiting large fishing tournaments.

“Even though we have really fabulous places for fishing, it’s a promotional issue,” Dickson said. “Georgia doesn’t rank that high on fishing destinations. We’re at 22 of all 50 states, and when people start thinking about planning a fishing trip, they’re going elsewhere.”

FLW, the Lake Lanier bureau and various state organizations worked together for more than a year to fund the project, which would usually cost an area about $1 million. Most of this weekend’s tournament is sponsored.

Dickson is predicting an economic boon.

“The stars are aligning with the lake levels,” she said. “This is the best summer for leisure travel on record. People aren’t traveling as far because of the economy, and people who usually go deep sea fishing in the Gulf (of Mexico) are coming here from Atlanta.”

The tournament is pulling in families, who are also helping to boost local spending.

“We were surprised when we had the kickoff dinner last night about how many people had babies and strollers. We were shocked,” she said. “What that said was dollar signs for the tourism side of things because all the hours that dad is on the water, mom and the baby are shopping and going to local attractions and retailers. We’ve never had anything like this on the lake.”

Some Hall County residents and officials are more excited about the steady lake levels.

“It’s been remarkable that the lake has basically remained full,” said Kit Dunlap, Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce president, who is also a member of the 1071 Coalition. The group, which advocates for high lake levels, released an economic impact study this year that showed May through September visitors to the lake dropped from 5 million in 2007 to 4.2 million in 2008.

“Everybody from the residents to the boat dealers and marinas are excited, and now to have the fishing tournament is great,” she said. With lower lake levels, “lake visitation, boating and fishing — you name it — dropped off drastically because you didn’t feel safe on the lake and parks were even closed to get to the lake.”

Dunlap anticipates feedback from the bass anglers about the lake and the water levels. The higher levels may present challenges, however.

“Lower lake levels actually make fishermen happy with the odds because large fish get trapped in coves and shorelines with shallow pools,” Dickson said. “We’ve already heard the anglers talk about challenges because of the hot weather that causes bigger fish to go deeper. They’re changing their strategies.”