Billy Hurt won’t win many drag races with the double pickup truck and 40-foot-long trailer he drives to sports shows.
But it still attracts as much attention as any Corvette or Lamborghini.
The reason is simple, according to Hurt, 58, of Jackson, Tennessee.
“It’s the peach,” Hurt said. “People in our country love to fish and when they see me driving this rig it attracts them.”
The “rig” is Mercury Marine’s “Hawg Trough” fishing stage.
The giant portable aquarium and angling education spot was set up Wednesday at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show at State Fair Park in West Allis.
The 81st edition of the show opens on Thursday and will continue until Sunday.
When it began in 1940, the event was known as the “Fisherman’s Party”.
Angling has remained an important part of the show’s features, and this year attendees will again be able to browse and purchase products from exhibitor booths, see the latest gear on manufacturers’ screens, talk to station staff fishing and guide services, buying a new boat and even casting a line for dinner at the trout pond.
And the Mercury Marine Hawg Trough Fishing Stage will host fishing seminars led by more than a dozen angling experts, including Hurt, a veteran of the Bassmaster and MLF pro fishing tours.
Hurt was putting the finishing touches on the impressive display at noon on Wednesday.
The exhibit is 32 feet long and 10 feet high. Its central feature is a Lexan-lined reservoir that holds 5,000 gallons of water.
The bow of a Ranger bass boat, which doubles as a speaker deck, is mounted atop one end.
It’s also the only aquarium in town with its own sound system. Four speakers are installed at the corners of the tank.
The sides are adorned with Berkeley, Abu Garcia, Plano, Push-Pole and other sponsor logos, the equal of any NASCAR ride.
And of course there is fish.
Largemouth bass, yellow perch, bluegill, black crappie and bullhead, several dozen in all. The fish were purchased from a licensed, disease-free hatchery.
“We pamper them,” Hurt said. “If you don’t have fish, you don’t have a show.”
A sign of the care given to the finned attractions, the drinking trough was filled on Wednesday morning with a special load of spring water.
Tap water, with chemical additives injected into most municipal water treatment facilities, can cause problems for fish, Hurt said.
And it’s important to note that the fish must come from a hatchery, not from the wild.
Wild fish are protected by a series of state and federal regulations that prohibit their use in display.
Do not hold their education captive against fish. They still have wild instincts.
Hurt said at one exhibit that an exhibitor walked past the Hawg Trough with a large kite in the shape of a bird of prey. The fish in the tank saw it and immediately sank to the bottom until the potential threat disappeared.
No one knows more than Hurt about outsized aquarium and fishing displays.
A lifelong fisherman who also worked as a full-time welder, Hurt not only gave seminars on them, but designed and built the units from the ground up.
He built the first in 2000 outside his home in Tennessee.
He did it solo, with no one to hold a tape measure, he said.
“I know the neighbors thought I was crazy,” Hurt said. “It worked, though.”
It wasn’t the last either. The design has proven popular at sporting shows and with tackle makers.
Hurt continued to build and sell them as well as take them to shows around the country, a side hustle that supplemented his professional fishing pursuits.
The Hawg Trough has both entertaining and scientific value. It allows anglers to see the action of a lure underwater and the corresponding reaction of fish.
“Does it work straight?” Hurt said. “Do the fish swim towards it or away from it? That’s really an advantage for a lot of reasons.”
Professional bass fisherman Aaron Martens installed cameras on a Hawg Trough and recorded a lure he was developing — now called the Scrounger — for three months before coming up with a final design, Hurt said.
But the big tank isn’t all the work. It’s fun too.
“People who attend shows really like to see how the fish react to the lures,” Hurt said. “And some people love coming to see them in the tank.”
Wednesday’s fish showed patterns familiar to most Wisconsin anglers; perch remained on the bottom of the tank, while bluegills, crappie and bass were mostly suspended.
To protect the fish, anglers use lures without hooks or with set hooks during demonstrations in the Hawg Trough.
After saying the local reporter had an accent, Hurt said the Hawg Trough was a hit all over the country.
“Fishing is truly universal,” Hurt said. “We don’t have north and south in the fishing industry. There are no borders. We all speak the same language.”
Hurt will be giving “How to Catch Bass Like a Pro” seminars at the Mercury Marine Hawg Trough Fishing Stop at 10:15 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Sunday. For a complete schedule of shows, to purchase tickets or for any other information, visit jssportsshow.com.