Saginaw Bay fishing tournaments and a conference lure international media and tourists here

When it comes to casting a shadow over the local economy, you won’t find tournament fisherman John Gillman sitting on his bass.

Gillman, the owner of Advanced Tex Screen Printing (ATS Printing) on Three Mile Road in Bay City for the past six-plus years, also is a national tournament walleye pro for over 23 years. In early August, Gillman hosted the Outdoor Brand Team (OBT) Writers Conference at ATS. Fishermen, journalists, camera crews, social media teams, and magazines from all over the country were at the annual event.

It wasn’t the first time our fishery was on an international stage. The National Professional Fishing League brought its bass fishing tournament to this area on July 16-22. Then, from Aug. 1-6, Major League Fishing invited the top 80 anglers in the world to participate in a tournament in Bay County. (Learn more about the tournaments in this Feb. 9 Route Bay City article.)

Mark Zona, Gerald Swindle, and Mike Valster talk with vendors, anglers, and reporters during the Major League Fishing Writers Conference held in Bay County in August.The impact of the tournaments and the media event at ATS will be felt for years.

“Multiple fishing brands all getting together was put together by one gentleman, Mike Valster,” says Gillman. “He spearheads it all. We also work with these brands as an apparel decorator for them here (at ATS). We do clothing for Sunline, Gamakatsu and Aftco.”

All three companies and more were set up within the massive ATS printing floor, which saw a who’s-who of bass anglers make the rounds between companies and press.

“Mike brought in the professionals,” Gillman says. “They get some gifts and products from the companies that sponsor them.”

The companies also bring in media, magazines, and more. National publications such as Field and Stream and Fishing Tackle Retailer are represented.

“Photography, articles, stories, these different pros talking about their season. They can get photography for content for social media ads, magazine ads, stories. They can work with a specific pro on a specific lure or specific product that they’ve used through the season and they can do a story on that product.”

Bassmaster Wes Logan, who has never fished Bay City, was here.

“I heard it's good fishing,” he notes. “I think we will be in quite a few magazines as far as this event goes. A lot of internet and catalog stuff. That will be the main focus all this week.”

As a fresh and saltwater fishing advocate from Iowa, Valster moved around ATS like a ringleader, happy to see the success of the first meeting day.

 “We try to highlight local places,” says Valster. “Highlight the community with fishing, Bassmaster, top fishing websites. Most haven’t been to Lake Huron or Bay City. There will be mentions and videos for the next two to three years. The stories lag behind.”

The two tournaments and writers conference drew praise for the fishing opportunities in the Saginaw River and Bay. Experts believe the area is about to get noticed by amateur anglers looking for new places to vacation.The annual event draws international anglers.

“We try to catch the guys when they are finishing somewhere, so they are all in one spot already,” Valster says. “These 14 to 15 professional anglers that are here tonight were just in Detroit. So it was easy to get them all here. We have Jeff Gustafson who is the current Classic Champion, He’s from Canada. He won the Bassmaster Classic this year and he will be here tomorrow. We have four Canadians. We have Masayuki Matsushita who is a Japanese angler.”

Matsushita, speaking through an interpreter, praised the local fishery.

Masayuki Matsushita, a pro from Japan, enthusiastically praised the bountiful fish he discovered in the Saginaw River and Bay.“I like it, good weather and many fish,” Matsushita shares through an interpreter. Then he spoke about fishing in Bay City last year on his own. “No tournament, just fishing. Many fish. Many fresh fish! Catch, catch, catch, catch! Lots of fish.”

Valster agreed, adding “Fishing is a replenishable resource. If the big pro tournament like this comes, the smaller stuff comes along. Gas, food … these guys are from Georgia, Texas, where it’s 105 (degrees) for the 10-day outlook. It’s a huge relief to come up here and wear a sweatshirt in the mornings, it feels (like a) vacation.”

The weather and excellent fishing bring the best anglers here. They’ll share the news with others.

“Some of these guys have 100,000-plus YouTube followers, they will do their thing,” smiles Valster. “Probably 30 to 40,000 will see it.”

Gillman adds: “Gerald Swindle is staying at the campground in Linwood. He didn’t want a hotel room. That’s how his wife and him live their life. He is probably in the top three or four with an incredible following (and) a super funny comedian. He will do a video about a specific garment. He did an Aftco shirt a few weeks ago and will sell hundreds of garments overnight. He’s just a great human being. All these guys are something special. They are the biggest in the world–like we have three or four Tiger Woods’ coming here tonight.”

Swindle praised the event.

The anglers said they were pleased with both the opportunities for fishing and land-based recreation throughout Bay County.“We started working about the end of March (with ATS) and it’s been wildly successful,” says Swindle. “These guys are legit. Now they are doing another one of my social-influencer buddies that is on TikTok, Zach Rushing. He got 8 million followers across the board. They just did a 10,000 run of shirts for him. He’s a Facebook/YouTube kind of guy. He sells his comedy tour out everywhere he goes, packs the house.”

Mark Zona, host of ESPN’s Zona’s Awesome Fishing Show and a Sturgis, Michigan resident, was basking in the glow of the locality.

“I just covered the bass master down in St. Clair,” he shares. “I grew up on tournaments on Saginaw Bay. Last year I taped like three shows out there. I’ve grown up doing media events and they’ve always been all over the country. From a total selfish standpoint, it’s awesome to have one in our state.

During the conference, writers gathered material that will be used during the coming year.“My show is very Michigan-centric and has been around 20 years. Selfishly, I like our Lakes and even though it's a national show, my season is 13 different episodes, and there’s always six Michigan shows.”

Michigan is attractive to many of the anglers. “We just finished in Lake St. Claire in the Elite Series,” Swindle says. “We came here to do the writers tour for Aftco and Sunlight. I’ve never been here. We love traveling up here this time of year fishing because it's so much nicer than where we live.”

Out dining earlier in the day, angler Mike McClelland noted he also was loving the area.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to be here,” he shares. “Just from the little bit of driving around I’ve done, it’s a really cool looking area. I think there’s opportunities to catch both species, as I’ve heard the walleye fishing is incredible.   I’ve always heard about Gillman’s place here, ATS and it’s cool to actually see his facility. I am based just south of Branson, Missouri, in Table Rock. This is totally different for me. Our neck of the woods is the Ozarks. We’ve got lots of hills and valleys and deep, clear, rocky lakes. This is a little different. I’m looking forward to it.”

Glenn May from, the world’s biggest bass website, was in awe of the event.

“We’re based out of Seattle, the Pacific Northwest,” he notes. “I flew in today for this. This is a cool industry event and the third I’ve attended. I’ll shoot about 50 videos in two days on the boats with the pros. We shoot a bunch of ‘how-to’ videos. We feature all the products and all the manufacturers that are here. That’s great content that I can spread out throughout the year.”

During the conference, anglers and reporters browsed fishing gear.The week after the event, Gillman was speed walking, grinning ear-to-ear to wrap up the showcase. Ramming his fist into the table with a smile, he pointed out that there are very few who understand how the economic impact of this event.

“To bring it to the community, they have no idea what it does,” he shares, arms held wide apart. “They had a high school and college event for bass fishing a couple of summers ago. It was insane. 250 boats. Kids from all over the United States with their families and friends. They tell social media and it just explodes. So it makes a massive impact on a community.”

The impetus of fueling this region in the state was recognized the week prior and will continue next year as well.

“Coming on the heels of the NPFL (National Professional Fishing League) Bass Tournament last week, this week MLF, the greatest angler of all-time in bass fishingfrom Michigan, Kevin VanDam, is retiring after this event here in Bay City. It showcased the area huge, with people coming from all over the country and then going back home and talking about the fishery, talking about Downtown Bay City.”

Gillman made sure to note the surrounding areas also benefitted from the event.

“A lot of the guys fished all around the other areas; Sebewaing, Caseville, Port Austin, Quanicassee, Au Gres, Standish, Linwood, Pinconning, all the way around this body of water. And all the way up (the River) into downtown Saginaw – they were everywhere, which helps all the communities here locally. Thanks to Bay City for bringing it in, hosting it and having it downtown, which helps everybody. The residual for years to come is what is key.”

City Commissioner Ed Clements, who has been instrumental in bringing fishing tournaments to the region, says the work is just beginning.

Fishermen, journalists, camera crews, social media teams, and magazines from all over the country were at the annual Major League Fishing Writers Conference in August. “Grand Valley State is doing a survey, sending to all the anglers, all the tournament staff, anybody that came here,” Clements says.  “With that data, they will be able to do their study. It’s like a dream come true. The NPFL guys that were here last week said, ‘You guys are on the brink of being the destination for bass fishing. Obviously fishing is a big part of it, but the other part is guys want to come and bring their families and there’s so much for everybody to do. Fish, golf, restaurants, stuff for kids.”

Gillman agreed anglers are looking for more than just fish.

Several visitors to the tournaments and writers conference have millions of social media followers. They created content praising the excellent fishing here.“Fishing is a big, big part of where we live, along with the concerts and what Mike Bacgialupo is bringing in,” Gillman says. “That downtown area is incredible. It’s such a huge deal. The amount of financial impact on the community is epic. These guy’s trailered, launched, gassed, ate … it’s a gigantic impact for the community this time of year. From the bottom of Tawas over to Port Austin was the cut-off point.”

Clements is already looking at what needs to be done to bring more anglers to the area.

“Next thing we have got to do in the future is invest in our parks and boat launches. That’s the key to the future,” he says.

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Read more articles by Scott Baker.

Scott spent time freelance writing/photography for The Bay City Times and Saginaw News from 1997-2014. He was picked to cover local entertainment before graduating from Delta College, landing cover stories a handful of times. During that time, Scott worked as a head cook for four different restaurants over a 34-year stretch. Married with twins, Scott has freelanced for magazines and blogs as well and continues to photograph, mainly for social media. Taking his own music to the masses in 1999, Scott has put records with his band Muddy Gumbo and his sixth solo record, Purpose, was released in 2023. He frequently plays statewide solo acoustic and with his Scott Baker Band. Scott has enjoyed opening for the likes of CCR, Styx, Blackberry Smoke, Bettye LaVette, Popa Chubby, 3 Days Grace, and more. Scott has recorded/performed with the late Dick Wagner, Adam Levy, Larry McCray, Bob Hausler, Mike Brush, Jeff Yantz, and many others. Scott currently is a Job Developer for local non-profit Do All, Inc, operates a music studio between the shows, and continues entertainment and beyond writing for Route Bay City.