One of the highlights of living at Smith Mountain Lake over the past half-century has been the annual Smith Mountain Lake Fishing Tournament. After being hampered the past couple of years by COVID-19, the event is returning to Gills Creek Marina and Lodge starting Friday, May 6, and running until Sunday, May 8, at 790 Fox Chase Road in Wirtz.
After being organized for decades by the Optimists Club and another 10 years by a local little league organization, this year Gills Creek Marina and Lodge is teaming up with another youth sports organization, the SML Crusaders. The Crusaders are in the process of raising funds and building up their organization so that they can begin participating in the American Youth Football League starting next year.
“Gills Creek Marina, they’ve done an annual fishing tournament every year. We are helping them with it, getting it all squared away, and having our kids out there helping volunteer. A lot of the proceeds are going to go to us, so it’s pretty cool,” said Ryan Hamilton, president of the SML Crusaders.
“This is the 53rd annual Smith Mountain Lake Fishing Tournament. It used to be called the Optimists Tournament, because the Optimists Club in Roanoke ran it and did their fundraising through it,” added Jerry Godsey, owner of Gills Creek Marina and Lodge. “The lake is only about 58 years old, so this is the longest-running fishing tournament at Smith Mountain Lake.”
After peaking at approximately 800 entries several years back, the tournament declined in participation in recent years, down to approximately 350 entries. Then the pandemic hit, resulting in a lost year in 2020. But last year showed signs of life, as approximately 150 entries took part. The team of Gills Creek Marina and Lodge and the SML Crusaders are looking to build the annual Smith Mountain Lake Fishing Tournament back to where it once was.
“We decided that there’s not many things over 50 years old that keep going, so we decided we would take over the tournament ourselves (at Gills Creek Marina and Lodge),” Godsey explained. “The first year was COVID, and we had nothing. The second year, we didn’t know what was going to happen, so we changed the format up a little bit for our second year, and we ended up with about 150 people participating. The changes we made were very positive, and people liked them. For instance, instead of paying out all the money for the top person at the end of the three days, we pay out for the top positions all three days. So it kept people in it, and they liked that.”
“The Optimists were the benefactor of the tournament for 40 years,” Godsey added. “The Challenger Little League was a benefactor for the next 10 years. Going forward, it’s the Crusaders. I love their program. We’ve decided that we’re going to stick to this, because we believe that we can ultimately build this tournament back up to where it used to be, and raise $50,000 for the Crusaders.”
This year’s Smith Mountain Lake Fishing Tournament is offering up to $15,000 in prize money over three days of competition. Winners will be paid out on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with five different fish being weighed and considered for prizes.
“You start fishing at 7 a.m. on Friday morning, and you fish all the way through to noon on Sunday,” said Godsey. “There will be a lot of nighttime fishing and fishermen, because they like that aspect of it. We pay in five different categories — we pay in small mouth bass, large mouth bass, crappy, catfish and striper (striped bass). We pay three places in each one. So if you come in and if your catfish is 20 pounds, the next one is 19, and the next one is 18, that’s first, second and third.”
“At 4 p.m. on Friday, we pay out for Friday,” Godsey continued. “Whoever is top on the board in those three positions for those five fish are paid out that day. And then it starts all over again. The board is cleared, and people still bring their fish in to Gills Creek Marina, and we weigh them. The next (presentation) is 4 p.m. on Saturday. On Saturday, the top three positions on the five fish get paid out. Then it continues. At noon on Sunday, we do it again. Everyone comes to the marina, and we give out prizes and raffles.”
In addition to the main fishing tournament held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Gills Creek Marina and Lodge also is hosting a Youth Tournament on Saturday.
“We have a Youth Tournament on Saturday,” Godsey explained. “We’ve stepped that up. It used to be that if you fished with somebody who had a ticket, we had first and second place for the youth. But this year, we’re going to really try to start building it up. You don’t have to have somebody fishing in the tournament to participate. It could be a grandfather, grandmother, mother and father, or somebody who doesn’t fish but maybe lives near the lake, can go down and dock with their kid and do a little fishing, and feel like they’re in the tournament. It’s a $25 ticket, and all the money is going to the Crusaders.”
“On Saturday, the Crusaders are cooking hamburgers and hot dogs and stuff at the marina,” Godsey continued. “From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, we’re going to have people teaching kids how to fish. So even if they don’t do anything else (in the tournament), they can bring their kids by and just let somebody else teach them how to fish. Hopefully when they do, they’ll leave a little change in the bucket for the Crusaders.”
The SML Crusaders have been born out of the idea that there is tremendous opportunity to provide high-quality youth sporting experiences here in the Smith Mountain Lake region. Along with playing highly competitive football in American Youth Football, the Crusaders are looking to be stewards of the local community, participating in volunteerism, philanthropy and other worthy activities to promote teamwork, leadership and accountability to local children.
“I retired from the Air Force in 2018, and I moved down here to the lake,” said Hamilton. “I have six kids, and I’ve been a youth coach for a while. I love coaching youth sports — predominantly football. I coach at Bedford. After a few years down here coaching, we realized pretty quickly that around the lake itself, there’s not a lot for the kids to do. There really isn’t. You have the lake during the summertime, which is awesome. But if they want to play sports, they have to drive to Rocky Mount. They’ve got to drive to Roanoke, Bedford, wherever, and it puts a lot of strain on the parents.”
“There is a league here called AYF - American Youth Football. That’s a national league. They’ve got 25,000 teams nationwide,” Hamilton continued. “There are a few teams in Roanoke and a few teams in Lynchburg. And I thought we should start an AYF organization. You actually play for a state title, and if you win the state title, you have the opportunity to go to Disney World for the national title. So I started looking into that. A few of the parents, we got together, and we made an organization.”
“It can be bigger than football, and that was really tugging at my heartstrings, which was how to make it bigger than football. So what we came up with, we named ourselves the Crusaders. We’re crusading for change in our community. That’s what we want to do. We want to change our community. We want to get these kids noticed. We want them to come out and say, ‘We’re here.’ This isn’t just a town where tourists come in for three months out of the year, and then they bounce. We’re here year-round.”
All children who will be taking part with the SML Crusaders are required to perform 10 hours of community service before they can play on a team.
“They have to give back to their community through volunteerism and things like that,” Hamilton explained. “We have something called the Crusaders Club. The Crusaders Club is going to run throughout the entire year. It’s a club for young men and women to get off the Xbox, get out there and do team-building things, have fun and do things in the community. We do volunteerism, but we do a lot of fun things (to) create that brotherhood and sisterhood at a young age.”
“We’re looking for the next generation, the next generation of kids, if we can teach them the basics of right and wrong, how to treat each other, and how to be accepting of each other and take each other for what they are, we feel like we can make a lot of change here in our little area of the lake. That’s where the theory of the Crusaders came from.”
The SML Crusaders are gearing up for their first season of AYF competition in 2023 through an aggressive recruiting and fundraising campaign. This weekend’s fishing tournament at Gills Creek Marina and Lodge is one such opportunity for the organization not only to raise a little money, but also to be visible in the community with positive engagement.
“It’s growing like crazy,” Hamilton said of the Crusaders. “We’re projecting our first season to be 2023. We’re still looking for sponsors and donors. We’re still standing it up. We’ve got a lot of legality as far as getting them on the football field, but we’re well on track to have our first season in 2023 as part of the Southwest Virginia AYF Conference. We’re starting with football and cheerleading, because those are the hardest ones to stand up, and they’re the closest ones to our heart. And once we get that up and running, we’re looking for something bigger. We’d like to have all sports up here at the lake, so a kid from Huddleston doesn’t have to drive all the way to Roanoke to play lacrosse or sports like that.”
For more information about Gills Creek Marina and Lodge, as well as to receive more information about the upcoming Smith Mountain Lake Fishing Tournament, visit gillscreekmarina.com.
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