Backstage Perspectives with Kay Donaldson of Alabama Bass Trail

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by Mike Ferman of TackleModZ

Kay Donaldson with a nice Tennessee River Smallmouth

Kay Donaldson with a nice Tennessee River Smallmouth

Roll Tide… It’s not just the answer I was given by our next guest to the question, War Eagle or Roll Tide?!? — It also a fitting representation of the sense I get of that person. Like a rolling tide, Kay Donaldson of the Alabama Bass Trail (ABT) is known to be a passionately hard worker and staunch advocate for fishing. It’s not unusual to see her working 20 plus hour days to see something she believed in come to fruition. She keeps pushing till she’s accomplished what she set out to do, like a tide moving past any obstruction and running out its course. A graduate of community college who went on to spend nine years in finance. She later came to find herself working in marketing and tourism, which eventually led to where we find her now, as the Program Director for the Alabama Bass Trail (ABT) and the Tournament Director (TD) of the ABT Tournament Series…

Please join us as we welcome Kay Donaldson in this edition of Backstage Perspectives:

Name: Kay Donaldson

Company/Affiliation: Alabama Bass Trail

Position: Program Director

Location: Decatur, Alabama

MF: In your words how did the Alabama Bass Trail come to existence?

Kay Donaldson Catching Bass in 2008

Kay Donaldson Catching Bass in 2008

KD: I actually came to work for the Alabama Mountain Lakes Tourism Association in 2006, in doing that I took over the marketing for the 16 counties in North Alabama which basically encompassed eight lakes. Being we have the Tennessee River and the Coosa River, fishing is one of the main reasons people come to North Alabama. When the Governor of Alabama decided he wanted to do a bass trail; it was my passion and I’ve just always loved fishing; so my boss told the governor he really needed to speak with me, I met with him for about 45 minutes and talked to him about what my idea was for the bass trail. When we started it was basically a tourism promotion similar to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, that we would really showcase the state of Alabama and its lakes & communities to the world.

MF: With the original concept for the ABT being tourism and recreationally based, but it now includes a tournament series as well… How did that occur?

KD: When we started the program in 2012, that’s basically what we were doing is trying to showcase Alabama to the world as a year round fishing destination and promote conservation. We did that for about the first 18 months. Then I was lucky enough to have an event where the governor attended and he brought up the idea that he wanted us to do our own statewide tournament trail. Although it was to continue to promote the fisheries in the best light, but it was also a way to create economic impact into some of our smaller communities. Most everyone knows about Guntersville and Pickwick because the Tennessee River Chain is very popular. But, not as many people knew about places like Millers Ferry, The Mobile Delta, Lay Lake, Neely Henry and Lake Jordan. So, the Governor’s idea was to bring more prestige to those areas as well as be able to create some economic impact in those communities. In June of 2013 we went to work on developing the Alabama Bass Trail Tournament Series.

MF: It’s no secret that Alabama is a VERY fishing industry friendly location. But, can you talk about the impact the state and ABT have had on each other and how you think it could work in other states too?

KD: Geographically, the state of Alabama is set up perfectly for something like this, but, it really has to do with the fact that the host cities bought in to it and they believed in it. They’ve gone out of their way to make sure our anglers have THE best facilities. To see the facilities that the cities worked on now to accommodate tournaments like the ABT Tournament Series has been amazing. Mobile spent $1.2M on developing a PRISTINE boat ramp & weigh in facility; it’s absolutely gorgeous with great parking, it’s just ideal.

Being Honored as on of the Top Tourism Professionals in the Nation

Being Honored as on of the Top Tourism Professionals in the Nation

The ABT was very involved in working with the designers to do that. We’re working on another project right now at Weiss Lake, it’s going to add another 250 parking spots and they are widening their ramp from two lanes to four and adding some new docking and things like that because they want to be a part of the bass trail and they want us to come there.

We also have another project in a little city called Camden which is in Wilcox County; the poorest county in our state (37% Unemployment) where we are working with a private donor to spend approximately $1.5 million in that area to develop a great boating and fishing facility as well as some archery and campgrounds and things like that. But it’s because we were able to go in there and identify their needs and work WITH them, the design company and help them get some grants.

So, we have the tournament trail and we have the tourism side of things, but we also have the part where we go in and actually try to help communities grow; it’s been a really good experience. To say that Alabama is blessed is an understatement. We have some very aggressive tourism professionals and a lot of great outdoorsmen that help build interest.

Fishing is very big business in Alabama; to the tune of over $900M. I think had I been in any other state it might have been a little harder than it is here in Alabama. However, I certainly think there are states that could do it and do it well.

For it to work, it’s very important; from my perspective, that you have the mineral-rich resources first of all, and the cities have to be ready for and equipped for fishermen. I do think places like Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida… Basically any of the southern states. Texas has a Team Trail, so I do think that others states could do it. I would just suggest you find someone who absolutely loves it, and then get them three people to help; then just shoot for it.

It’s been a great economic engine for the state of Alabama. I would also say, and I invite you to talk to any of my anglers, they would hopefully say it has been a boost to the outdoorsmen in the state of Alabama as well.

MF: The ABT Tournament Trail has had quite a successful season. What can anglers look forward to in 2016?

Somebodys Gotta do the Dirty Work

Somebodys Gotta do the Dirty Work

KD: Well I think the biggest thing is we’re going to get better. In everything we do we try to get better and improve the experience for our anglers, and have more ways to qualify for the championship. We’ll be inviting college anglers and qualifying the top five college teams. We’ll also be qualifying the top five teams of couples. We’re going to continue to get bigger and grow the fields.

We don’t have any major announcements on this front, but we would love to add TV coverage. That’s something we are going to be working really hard on in 2016 and 2017. Signing a deal for TV coverage would help not only our anglers but our sponsors as well. Our goal is always to try and get bigger and better so we can cater to the needs of our anglers and take care of them as best as possible.

MF: What is your favorite part of your job?

KD: You’re probably going to think this is crazy but my favorite part of my job is boat check every morning. I get to stand there every morning and greet everyone as they come through. I walk through the line and I tell them good morning and thank you for fishing with us. Between that and getting to stand at the edge of the dock and say thank you as they launch that’s easily my favorite part of my job. It’s a special feeling for me because I’ve gone through the hard part; I’ve gotten through registration and set up. By then, all the work is done and Saturday morning is just all about fun and getting those boats on the water and fishing.

MF: As the director of the Tournament Trail you are at every event and deeply involved with everything that occurs. That means a lot of memories; which one sticks out the most?

Doing a interview with Channel 31 before the Bassmaster Classic

Doing a interview with Channel 31 before the Bassmaster Classic

KD: The blast off on the morning of our very first tournament; it was a very emotional time. We were on Guntersville, it was two weeks before the Classic on Guntersville and I knew a lot of eyes would be on us. It was our first tournament and we had 200 boats in the field. It was the first time we had ever done it so I really think that blast off is the memory that sticks out the most. Especially when you’re walking back on the dock after the first blast off of the first event and someone asks you when they can sign up for next year. That makes you feel good and like you’re doing something right. That whole deal was pretty special.

MF: Let’s talking catching fish!

MF: Aside from being the director for the ABT Tourneys you have also fished tournaments yourself… Can you talk about the unique perspective that affords you as both an angler and TD?

KD: I don’t think you can be a TD and do the job I’m doing now if you’ve never fished tournaments. I think that brings a much needed and different perspective into it. I think you’ve always got to be mindful because that’s one of your customers, but, you also need to know the dangers that are out there on the water. We’ve gone from 10 inches of snow at Guntersville to a tornado warning at Millers Ferry to a heat advisory at Lay (Lake). I think you need to know personally what those guys are going through out on the water and the expenses they are going through.

You need to have that all in the back of your mind, so I don’t really think you can truly have an understanding of it until you’ve fished tournaments. I do think that brings a whole different perspective and every morning when I get up I try and keep my anglers in the forefront of my mind. Understanding that I feel like I have four customers: my sponsors, my host cities, my anglers, and my board of directors. But I always try to keep my anglers in the forefront when we’re looking at things like rule changes or payouts, and I don’t think I would probably do that if I hadn’t been on their side of things at one time.

The Alabama Bass Trail Team

The Alabama Bass Trail Team

MF: When did you get the fishing bug and who gave it to you?

KD: I was 12 years old and it was my uncle JC. I grew up without a father and he was sort of my surrogate dad. He had a daughter who is 5 months older than me and we grew up like sisters. He would take us fishing with him all the time, and I remember on Saturday nights he would come in after fishing a tournament and would have a trophy. He had a huge display in the spare bedroom where he would keep the trophies and I always remember how happy he’d be when he came in and had been fishing with his buddies and stuff. Now I’m a full blown fishing addict myself.

MF: What was the first fishing related item you remember buying?

KD: A Cane Pole… There was a little store down from my grandmother’s house that sold them; that’s probably the first thing I ever purchased with my own money. She would make three or four extra biscuits and showed me how to roll doughballs and we’d go catfishing on the bank together.

MF: What lure presentation/technique/style of fishing are you least proficient in?

Speaking to the Anglers of Alabama Bass Trail

Speaking to the Anglers of Alabama Bass Trail

KD: The dropshot. I think it’s the slow presentation part of it. I love to flip and pitch so I like that part of it… But I don’t like to throw at things I can’t see, so the offshore part of it is not my strong suit.

MF: I have one bonus question. There are 13 lakes in the ABT, and while I won’t ask you to pick your favorite child; what is the next best lake not on the list?

KD: Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River chain between Pickwick and Wheeler, it’s an amazing small mouth fishery. But the main reason it was left off the trail is they wouldn’t be able to support our tournaments by themselves. It’s a very small body of water and with 225 boats it would be impossible for them to accommodate our anglers. But, as a far as a great fishery that should be on the trail that would be Wilson.

MF: Time for the Flash 5… Please answer with the first thing that comes to mind.

MF: If you had to choose ONLY ONE technique or lure to use for eternity… What would it be?

KD: Flippin’

MF: Sushi… Yes Please! Or No Not For Me!?

KD: Yes Please!

MF: What’s your favorite lure color?

KD: For soft plastics, Green Pumpkin… In hardbaits, Lucky Craft’s Spring Craw.

MF: Clam Chowder… Red or White?

KD: Red.

The Donaldson Clan

The Donaldson Clan

MF: You are going to be indefinitely stranded on an island and are given one last request… What are you asking for?

KD: Probably a Yeti (cooler) full of Mt. Dew!

MF: Is there anyone you’d like to thank or mention?

KD: From the Alabama Bass Trail perspective, I don’t think I could start anywhere better than to thank Governor Robert Bentley for having this idea and placing his confidence in me and the Alabama Mountain Lakes Association to make the trail a reality. I also have to thank; and I know everybody always says this, but our sponsors and the host cities who support us. Most importantly I have to thank our anglers.

I say it every tournament, without red and green lights out on the water we have don’t have a tournament trail… Those guys are very important to me and to our trail. We also go to some of the best cities and our sponsors are truly fantastic. We are very blessed;

From a personal perspective, I have to than my family for all of their support and understanding and Gerald and LeAnn Swindle. Gerald has become like a brother to me. He calls after every event to see how it went and LeAnn is kind of like our spiritual advisor; they help make this a lot more enjoyable.