KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Like many others, Randy Blaukat is facing the crushing reality of a struggling economy.
Just a few years ago, life was good. Blaukat was competing in bass fishing's major leagues and making a good living at it.
With a full stable of sponsors, he had job security and the money to show for it.
"I was grossing $150,000 to $200,000 a year," said Blaukat, 48, of Jasper, Mo. "I had such good sponsor backing that anything I made in tournaments was pure profit."
But those days seem like a long time ago. This year, for the first time since 1986, Blaukat won't be fishing either BASS or FLW, the sport's two major circuits.
He is essentially out of a job. And for that, he blames the economy.
"There is this illusion that just because you fish the tour level in pro fishing that you are going to make all kinds of money," Blaukat said. "But that's not true.
"You need the sponsors. With the economy like it is, I lost a lot of my sponsors. And the ones I did have cut way back.
"With the high entry fees and expenses that go along with fishing at this level, it's almost impossible to make a living at this right now. It was a hard decision, but financially I didn't have much choice."
Indeed, the sinking economy has dropped an anchor on fishing, much the same way has it has other once-thriving segments of the U.S. business world.
Take a look:
--Major pro-fishing circuits such as FLW (named after Forrest L. Wood, the founder of Ranger Bass Boats) are struggling to stay afloat. FLW, which revolutionized the sport by offering huge paybacks during good times, lost Walmart, its long-time title sponsor. And because of the economy, other well-known companies, such as Land O'Lakes and Kellogg's, also withdrew support.
--Many fishermen were shocked to see fishing boat giant Genmar Holdings go through bankruptcy proceedings. Well-known companies such as Ranger were sold and still are in operation. But boat sales in general are still down. They dropped 30 percent in 2008 and 20 percent last year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
--The lagging economy has hit Canadian fishing lodges hard. With so many Americans struggling financially, many lodge owners report that bookings have declined steadily since 2005.
--The fishing-tackle industry also is having trouble. Sales of imported fishing rods have dropped by almost half (from $40 million to $21 million) in the last year, according to a report by the U.S. International Trade Commission. And sales of reels valued over $8.45 have dropped significantly, too.
--Surveys indicate that people are still fishing -- in fact, fishing license sales are up in many states. But fishermen are putting off big purchases and reverting to cheaper equipment and simpler ways.
"I think these 21-foot bass boats and huge motors will become a thing of the past," Blaukat said. "No one can afford a $70,000 bass boat these days.
"The economy is definitely affecting fishing, and the industry has to face that reality. If it doesn't, I think we're going to see more problems."
When Harold Sharp looks at the state of pro bass fishing today, he shakes his head in disgust.
Back when he was helping Ray Scott launch BASS in the late 1960s, entry fees were low and competition was high. But that has changed significantly over the years.
Today, high paybacks, high television exposure and high visibility have lifted the sport to another level. That worked when the economy was rolling.
BASS, owned by ESPN, gave fishermen plenty of face time on national television, and FLW, supported strongly by Ranger Boats, elevated paybacks to unheard-of levels.
But those were the good times. When the economy started unraveling, both circuits suffered.
Pro fishermen complained that they were being forced to "pay to play" -- that they were essentially competing for their own money. High entry fees are what made purses so high, they argued.
Both organizations have reacted to the tough times. BASS has cut the number of regular-season Elite tournaments from 11 to eight and has reduced entry fees for the season from $57,000 to $41,600. FLW also reduced entry fees and the number of practice days for each event, a move to ease fishermen's expenses.
But that may be too little, too late, according to Sharp.
"I believe pro bass fishing is in serious trouble and will be a dying sport soon, unless some serious changes are made," said Sharp, a former tournament director for BASS who is now retired. "Neither BASS nor FLW seems to care about the sport.
"BASS is selling TV show ads, and FLW is selling high-priced boats. Somewhere, the fishermen have been forgotten.
"Only 15 percent of them make their entry fees back. And in this economy, I don't know how many of these guys can afford to do that much longer."
Both BASS and FLW argue that they have elevated the sport to new levels. Officials say they are sensitive to the realities of the economy and are taking steps to lessen the fishermen's burden. Once the economy rebounds, pro bass fishing will bounce back, too, they say.
But Sharp isn't so sure.
"What's needed is a commission to control and regulate the sport," he said. "That's what the ball sports did. The commissions have done a good job in protecting the sports and players by controlling the greedy owners and TV promoters.
"That's what's needed in pro bass fishing."
Several years ago, Irwin Jacobs had a business empire that was a household name to everyday fishermen.
His Genmar Holdings company owned 14 boat companies, including three of the best bass-boat lines -- Ranger, Stratos and Champion.
Business was good, and Jacobs could foresee it getting better. He founded FLW Outdoors and gave pro bass fishing a new look, while using it as a marketing tool to sell bass boats.
But then came "the perfect storm," as he put it.
As the economy declined, credit dried up, boat sales plummeted, many dealers went out of business and Genmar had to cover loans.
The result? Bankruptcy, a move Jacobs and many others never thought Genmar would face.
"It was a domino effect," said Jacobs, a Minneapolis-area businessman. "Everything imaginable went wrong.
"Sales were way down, credit became tough and the banks were doing some irrational things. I never foresaw this day, but it happened.
"It hurt more than anything in my life to go through this."
When Genmar declared bankruptcy, its high-profile lines, such as Ranger, were purchased by Platinum Equity.
Jacobs and his new company purchased several lines of boats, including Larson, FinCraft and Seaswirl, which are manufactured in Little Falls, Minn., where Jacobs got his start in the boating industry 34 years ago.
"I wanted to save jobs in Little Falls," Jacobs said.
Today, Jacobs continues to manufacture boats but with a different philosophy.
"In the past, the boating industry was reluctant to concentrate on the entry level, because there wasn't enough profit in it," Jacobs said. "But today, that's where the future is.
"People can't afford the big expensive boats. We're concentrating on fiberglass fishing boats that are as affordable as the aluminum models."
Fishing lures that cost $15? Rods and reels that sell for more than $300? Boats and motors that go for more than a new car?
Look no further for the reason the fishing industry is struggling in these economic times, Sharp says.
"The boating and fishing industry forgot who their customers were and priced themselves out of business," he said. "These high-priced lures require a lot of ads and hype to sell.
"Many anglers are promoting these high-priced products that have never won a bass tournament."
Surveys of imports (The bulk of American fishing equipment is made overseas.) indicate that the popularity of such high-priced items may be waning.
Sales of both rods and reels have declined last year from the previous year, though there are signs of a rebound. The most stable sales are being found in tackle such as hooks, sinkers and fishing line.
"People are still going fishing, but I think they are getting back to basics," said Rob Southwick, whose company Southwick Associates, does surveys on fishing and hunting. "They are looking for affordable ways to fish."
Despite the gloom, there are encouraging signs.
Fishing license sales have increased in many states -- Missouri and Kansas included -- despite the tough economic times. Tackle sales started showing signs of a rebound by the end of last year. And boat sales, while still poor compared to the early 2000s, appear to be making a modest recovery.
Yes, things are still bad. But many in the industry say there may have been a lesson to be learned through this ordeal: That bigger and more expensive isn't always better.
"A prime example came during the Bassmaster Classic," Sharp said. "(Kevin VanDam) won a half million dollars using one lure within sight of the launch ramp.
"That shows that bass will still bite cheap lures from slow boats if you know how to fish."
The good . . .
--America's nearly 40 million fishermen spend almost $45 billion annually on fishing equipment, transportation, lodging and other expenses associated with their sport.
--In 2006, the last time a national recreation survey was conducted, fishing helped provide more than $16 billion in tax revenue.
--More than 800,000 people a year buy Missouri fishing licenses and 260,000 purchase Kansas permits. And license sales are increasing despite the difficult economic times.
... the bad
--The struggling economy has had a big impact on the pro game, with sponsorship money drying up for both fishermen and circuits.
--Boat sales have plunged since the early 2000s, as the economy has reduced the number of potential buyers and made credit tough to obtain.
--Sales of imported fishing tackle are down, with rods and reels especially taking a hit.