Jeff Shelton is a Cullman man through and through. He’s lived here almost his whole life, graduated from Cullman High, went to Wallace State and settled back down in the county.
Having been a firefighter for more than 19 years, he’s made it his job to help people. And with his benefit bass fishing series, he’s been able to do that even more.
This is the second year Shelton has coordinated the series, scheduling four benefit tournaments over the course of the summer. Proceeds from the first two tournaments this summer went toward the Cullman County Child Development Center and Andrew Winfrey and his family.
Before hosting the most recent competition with the Winfrey’s in mind, Shelton called Andrew’s father, Bo, to ask for his blessing.
“I talked it over with (my wife) Holly, and we said that was fine and that we appreciated it,” Bo said.
Shelton will host two more tournaments this summer. One will benefit the Cullman Firefighters Association, while the other will go toward Cullman Caring for Kids.
The money raised for the Firefighters Association will be distributed back to the community for different purposes. Shelton said one of its uses will involve sponsoring a family for Christmas.
“We might make $500, and that’s not enough to do a whole lot, but it would surely sponsor a family for Christmas and get a family presents,” he said. “I have three girls, and they’ve never had to go without, so I’m not sure how that would feel. The firefighters, we’re about this community, and what we can do to help is what we’re going to try to do.”
Shelton has picked these causes based on the needs he’s seen around the area.
“It’s basically whichever, whoever might be a good cause,” he said. “Maybe there’s better causes out there that I don’t know about.”
The first two events raised more than $500 each and had a turnout of 26 and 27 boats. The weather for both of the tournaments was less than ideal, but the turnout still wasn’t too bad.
“It looked like it was going to rain all night with the one for Andrew, so we didn’t have as many boats as I would’ve liked,” Shelton said. “The second tournament was when it was 106 degrees, so I think that hurt a little bit. The turnout depends a lot on the weather. Hopefully the weather will be nice the next few events, and we can have a good turnout.”
Shelton’s bass tournaments are typically held at night, both for weather purposes and safety reasons. They run for eight hours and start usually around 7 or 8 p.m.
“When it gets hot, they bite better at night, so you want to fish until the morning,” Shelton said. “Another thing is boat traffic. With summertime boat traffic, most of them get off the water at dark, and you don’t have to worry about someone not having safety.”
The idea to do a benefit series sparked from the lack of larger tournaments around the area. Next year, Shelton is planning on upping the number of events to eight and is more than open to suggestions on what causes to sponsor.
“I was wanting to do more of them next year and have half at the park and half out of the dam, so we can include everyone,” he said. “That’s just a tentative schedule. It’s not firm.”
The winner of each tournament is always guaranteed prize money, which has been around $1,000. A payback fee, which is part of the entry fee, goes toward that prize and has worked to finance the entire prize each time.
Additionally, there is an optional $10 big fish pot, which goes to the angler who winds up hooking the biggest keeper.
For the second tournament, Shelton said 26 of 27 boats entered, so the winner got $260.
There are also door prizes, which are donated from the sponsors.
Fishermen who participate in three of the four tournaments are invited to compete in what Shelton calls, “The Classic.”
“I give people goals to shoot for,” he said. “There’s nothing special about the classic, just if you qualify, you get to fish it.”
Shelton is also planning a second benefit tournament for Winfrey, but it will be an event separate from his series.
“We decided to do another one for Andrew because his rehab is going to go for a long time, and I’m sure his family will need the money for expenses,” Shelton said.
One of the reasons Shelton feels so drawn towards helping the Winfrey family is he was one of the men who helped pull Andrew from his wrecked vehicle in late February.
Bo said the community’s support has been overwhelming in the months that followed.
“It means everything,” he said. “We’ve been able to get Andrew things to help in his therapy that if not for the support from everyone, we wouldn’t have been able to afford.”
This last tournament, the second one for Winfrey, will be the only one of his this summer at Smith Lake Dam. The others have been at Smith Lake Park. He said he made the change at the request of Walker County residents.
“They wanted me to put a benefit on out of the dam to maybe get more participation,” he said.
%Laura Owens can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 258 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.