By Robert Barron
CNHI News Service
In 1968, Canton began a fishing tournament that has proven to be a major economic boost for the community: the Canton Walleye Rodeo.
That economic boost is threatened with the recent announcement by Oklahoma City that it is planning to take 34,000 acre-feet of water from Canton Lake.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lake Manager Kathy Carlson said during a Tuesday night meeting in Canton the loss of water would bring the lake level down about 7.3 feet from its present level, which is about 9.6 feet below the normal level — 1,615 feet above sea level. She said Thursday she has not heard anything about when the water will be released.
If the lake is drawn down to the level predicted by the Corps of Engineers, Canton could lose more than $160,000 in economic impact from the Walleye Rodeo, set for May.
The Walleye Rodeo is a weeklong activity and corresponds with the fish’s spawning season. The Chamber of Commerce chose to call the event a rodeo, because the schooling Walleye resembled herding cattle. All prizes initially were provided by Blaine County merchants.
Stan Ralstin, of Enid, was part of a team that conducted a survey by Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service during the 41st Walleye Rodeo in 2009.
He said more than 20 percent of the people that completed it were from outside the state. One hundred thirty surveys were from people outside the state, representing 312 people.
Survey participants were asked to estimate their expenditures for the duration of their stay in several categories, including registration, lodging, food and drink, groceries and boating, along with any additional expenses for recreation, souvenirs and other services.
Visitors to the Walleye Rodeo came from as far away as Guymon, Tulsa and Great Bend, Kan.
The survey concluded visitors to the event have a specific impact on the community, Ralstin said. Visitors from outside Canton and Blaine counties spent about $386,000 at the rodeo.
“That’s new money coming in,” Ralstin said. “That’s a $161,000 payroll income generated from $386,000, just from one weekend.” Many times, the campsites were full every weekend, until the tornado. We know some people stay with friends and relatives, and it’s hard to check them.”
The money is spent primarily on food and drink, totaling about 17 percent. Groceries is the largest retail sector.
Ralstin said the survey was done conservatively.
“I’m not an expert on how drawing down the lake will affect (us) ... the water is already low enough you can’t get boats on the lake,” he said. “People who had houses there probably won’t be back, and the fish hatchery.”
Canton officials catch walleye and take the eggs for stocker fish, but Ralstin said if the water is down below the docks, there will be no spawning area.
Donnie Jenkins, owner of the Canton Hotel, said the situation is a burden on everyone.
“If you let the water out, it will be so low; nobody’s ever seen it that low. This is more serious than ever, because of the drought,” he said.
Jenkins said (the lake) also was low last year. There were only four or five rooms taken at his hotel during the Walleye Rodeo last year, when there normally are 20 taken.
“It’s every weekend, too. It tore us up last year, too. If we didn’t have workers staying here, we couldn’t operate,” he said.
Jenkins once had repeat customers who stayed with him every year because he is located on the lake, but they are not returning now. Every holiday last year, his business was hit, he said.
“It affected the whole community,” he said. “Since the tornado, it seems like that was the stopping point for everything. We’ve seen changes the last two years.”
Business is down for everyone. Jenkins said he knows the lake very well, and people would come to him to get his recommendation on good fishing spots.
“It’s pretty sad. If the lake is taken down 7.3 feet more, it could be devastating,” Jenkins said. “So far, they haven’t pulled anything down; it’s probably a last resource. It has been a burden on us here; we’ve seen so
much, and I know so many people who come to the lake.
“They aren’t coming like they used to.”