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Fishing Tournaments Then and Now

by Bill Mitzel


With my recent renewal subscription to TIME magazine I was given a free subscription to MONEY magazine. Talk about a contradiction of life styles.

I can page through MONEY quickly because most of it doesn’t apply to my life. In the recent June issue, though, near the end, was a story “10 Ways to Become a Money Badass.” I reviewed it, but nowhere was there a tip that included making money fishing tournaments.

Fact is, you won’t make any money fishing tournaments, ‘cepting for a few (previously rich) pros who mostly make their money endorsing high level fishing tackle assisted by glowing personalities and Howdy Doody smiles.

As far as the walleye tournament circuit, well, no one was ever given a free subscription to FORTUNE magazine based on tournament winnings.

So what’s the allure to this often difficult, expensive cause?

Mostly, I suppose, it’s the American spirit to compete in everything and anything. Competition is a multi-faceted attraction, chosen mostly by young folks. Hormones rule. You don’t see old guys in fishing tournaments. Or rodeos. Or Nascar races. Or horse racing. Maybe golf, but that’s rare.

In an ordinary contest, there are two opposing entries. One wins, one loses. At that, each has a 50 percent chance of victory. Not so in a fishing tournament, where upwards of 100 one-, two- or three-person teams vie for the privilege of being number one at something, mainly to prove they’re best. And even if they are the best, it’s only for that one day.

 

Who
Started
This
Fishing
Tournament
Stuff?

In the late 1960s, Southern skilled marketer Ray Scott founded Bass Anglers Sportsman’s Society (B.A.S.S.), on the basis of bringing competitive (largemouth) bass fishing to America. He wasn’t a fisherman himself, but he was a promoter. And he had a handful of skilled bass anglers who were more than willing to justify their egos in bass fishing toward making money and fame.

Scott developed the first mega-buck bass tournament in 1982, cash and prizes totaling $100,000, though the process toward that event began 20 years prior.

Nick Taylor, in his book “Bass Wars… a Story of Fishing Fame and Fortune”, trails the lives of professional anglers like Ricky Clunn, Roland Martin, and the wannabes who sacrificed health, pain, even marriage, for the sake of making the big time in the fishing tournament world.

The book, chronicling the lives of these intense bass fishermen through one year is so interesting you can’t put it down. I’ve read it three times, and I marvel at the lives of these people with each reading. Taylor does a magnificent job of writing. He follows the lives of several individuals through broken dreams, divorce… all to make it to the top of the fishing world… just one victory in the next tournament will make them rich, much like the rodeo dreamers, the Nashville guitar pickers, the Nascar racers.

Said author Taylor: “The story could be about any group of people who stake their lives upon a dream and pursue it through hard times and financial sacrifice. These people happen to be fishermen, but they are people first of all, with the same hopes and fears, triumphs and disappoints that uplift an afflict the lives of all of us. And they are Americans, for it is likely that nowhere else on earth could people make a living, as Rick Clunn likes to put it, ‘chasing little green fish’.”

If you’re a fisherman, competitive or not, this book is wonderful reading.

In those early days of competitive fishing, not all was glitz and glitter. Bass fishermen, smelling the glory of victory, hoped their wives would carry them through, either working outside the home and caring for children, while their ego-centric husbands traveled the South looking for winnings. They often struggled beyond their pocketbook. Divorce was not uncommon because of it, as was bankruptcy. But, the professional bass circuit, including promoter Ray Scott, wasn’t concerned about angler problems. That was their business. He had his own goals.

Those who were good enough, anglers like Clunn and Martin, who would win the ultimate prize, the BassMasters Classic, through qualifying events, would become millionaires -- not from tournament winnings, but from subsequent promotion, including TV shows, books, seminars and appearances. All you had to do to make it to the top was win “the big one”, much like finding a hit song.

But, as fate would direct, the competitive bass fishing world would carry over to other species. Including walleyes.

 

Walleye
Anglers
Wanted
Equal
Time

Legendary Al Lindner of Nisswa, Minn. won his share of tournaments, walleye, bass and others, but he didn’t make his millions at the weigh-in. He taught fishermen how to catch fish -- through In-Fisherman magazine, books, videos, seminars and most of all, television. He was a promoter with a unique personality and a strong set of fishing skills he developed on his own with his brother Ron, during their youth. He was sincere, down-to-earth, and fishermen everywhere valued what he said.

Walleye fishing tournaments began in the Dakotas in the mid-1970s with the respective Governor’s Cups. With the announcement of competitive walleye fishing, the contests had no trouble “filling”. In fact, in the early going, there was a waiting list for fishermen in just about all events.

Everyone had a point to prove -- that they were the best, and with that declaration, they would find free tackle, free boats, even free vehicles and cash waiting to endorse them. As then and before, glory was designated for only a handful, those given the skill to not only catch a lot of fish, but the talent to promote themselves and the fishing industry, through a big smile, a winning gift of gab and good looks.

Local walleye tournaments aside, and given American capitalism, walleye tournament fishing hit big time in the mid-1980s when the Manufacturer’s Walleye Council (MWC) formed and created a chain of contests that would end in a championship event to declare (depending on your philosophy) the top walleye anglers in the world.

The first MWC championship event was held on the Missouri River at Bismarck in1986. It was the talk of the town. Partner Duane Keller and I had qualified for this contest through various tournaments in the summer. I don’t recall how many teams were able to fish the championship (50?), but we were among them. In fact, as locals, we were favored to win it by some. But, we blew it. I blew it. Enamored with the glamour of a “world” walleye fishing contest, I overshot the importance of it all. We raced around the river for miles, looking for “the big catch”. Never found it. Looking back, had we run crankbaits in a 300-yard stretch of water north of Eckroth Bottoms, we would have taken it all. But, hype filled my brain. Stupid.

 

Early
Walleye
Contests

In the 1981 North Dakota Governor’s Cup near Garrison on Lake Sakakawea, the shotgun start for more than 200 boats had the potential for disaster.

At the time, as I sat in my 17-foot Alumacraft Backtroller powered by a 55 hp Suzuki, standard boating equipment for the day, with partner Keller, I told him we were either going to be in front of the pack or in the rear. As it turned out we rested in the front at 7 a.m. waiting for a canon to blow on the hill, signaling take-off time.

How no one died in that encounter surprises me to this day.

The few big boats, those equipped with up to 135 hp, quickly passed the runts. As Keller and I rolled our way toward the main lake, waves in the narrow bay ran to shore and back, rocking us like a rubber duck in a bathtub of three-year-olds. Bigger boats sprayed water into our faces as they passed us toward their honey holes, some only a few feet on either side of us. Had anyone had motor trouble in that mess they would have been run over.

Mort Bank and Dave Jenson of Bismarck won every major fishing tournament during that time period. They were good fishermen, plain and simple. They scouted, worked hard, found fish. And often, because of their skills, they always had plenty of company in their honey holes.

“Dave and I each scouted from our own boats during the week,” Bank said. “Before the tournament we got lake maps, compared notes and decided on our hotspots. We learned how to run the boat and stay on fishing spots. We toughed it out, even in harsh conditions.”

Bank said they often had people following them, and it wasn’t pleasant.

“For us, it was the skill factor,” he said. “There were no rules. Many fishermen weren’t skilled at finding fish in those days, so it was much easier to move in on other boats. Other fishermen in tournaments followed us all the time.”

Bank and Jensen, up to 1980, had won every walleye contest in the Dakotas… Chamberlain, Jamestown Reservoir, White Earth (Sakakawea), Pierre, Mobridge, Devils Lake, Garrison Tailrace. The only event they hadn’t conquered was the North Dakota Governor’s Cup out of Garrison. When he and Jensen entered it in 1980, Bank told him it would be his last fishing tournament, after nine years. Win or lose, that was it for him.

Well, they won.

Also back then, there was frequent suspicion of cheating. In fact, in a Chamberlain, SD contest in the mid-1980s, two pre-tournament fishermen were seen putting big walleyes into a wooden box tied to a rope and anchored on shore several miles south of headquarters. Officials were notified and the walleyes were found and marked with clipped fins. When the anglers brought the big fish to the weigh-in, they were not only ejected from the tournament, they were arrested.

There were other events, some involving the ND Governor’s Cup on Sakakawea, where witnesses said they saw anglers injecting water into the fish of walleye bellies. For a time after that, ND Governor’s Cup officials required lie detector tests for the winners. After a few years, that ended with no disqualifications.

 

A
Return
to
Fishing
Competition

Earlier last winter, Jon asked me if I’d be interested in fishing with him and 10-year-old grandson Gavin in the Bis-Man Reel and Rec Derby on the Missouri River south of Bismarck/Mandan in late May. Ordinarily, I’d have declined, but with Gavin in the picture, along with Jon, I had to take the offer. It would be a unique time with family. I didn’t look forward to the tournament congestion, but a chance to spend a solid spring day with family in our first competitive event was attractive.

I’ve fished a lot of tournaments in my time, won a few, lost most, if that’s the term for second place. In my time, in the 1980s, the standard rig was 16-foot with 50 hp outboards. Occasionally you’d see a 17-ft. rig with a 75 hp outboard, occasionally up to 135 hp. High speed for those days. Our rigs were grossly underpowered for big water tournaments, and we all hoped for light winds and blue skies. We played the hand we were dealt, and wind was always the enemy.

We got wet, we often risked our lives, just for the opportunity to compete. I expressed my disdain for competitive fishing back then, and that rejection remains strong today, maybe only because I’m older and things of an adventurous nature no longer hold attraction.

I’d been in several Bis-Man Reel and Rec derbies in the past, quality events, always handled well by club volunteers who rise above and beyond to make sure fishermen and their families are taken care of.

Most fishing tournaments, in fact, are well-run, planned and organized. At my tournament peak in the 1980s, the only tournament I truly enjoyed was the Devils Lake Chamber event. It was a combo northern pike and walleye event, and the fact is, everyone caught fish, lots of fish, and most of us knew each other. Devils Lake was always dependable.

Today, tournament fishing is a bit more “blood and guts”. With 20-foot fishing rigs carrying up to 350 hp outboards, it’s “get the hell out of my way or I’ll run over you.”

That’s no way to enjoy fishing.

But, I digress, again.

 

The
Big
Start

Jon, Gavin and I rose at 5 a.m., drove to the launch, got on the water a half hour early in anticipation of our tournament day. We hadn’t had much opportunity to pre-fish, but we knew the river well, and under the guidance of Jon, who could easily qualify as one of the best fishing guides in the Dakotas, we were going to rely on our intuition and years of river knowledge.

I just wanted us to have a good time together.

We were in the second flight of 25 boats from a list of 85. We slid to the side of the first flight to avoid the flurry. When the sign was called, the rigs powered up, one by one, 3 seconds apart, each like fighter jets lifting off a Navy carrier. Within seconds, the calm water of the early morning Missouri River was a churning, boiling mess.

A few early morning shore anglers must have been both angry and shocked when dozens of high-powered rigs sped past them at speeds approaching 60 mph, rooster tails sending water spray 20 feet into the air.

A half hour after the first flight, it was our turn. Our number was called and Jon accelerated our meager 90-hp Yamaha to race with the rest to the first honey hole of the day. We were quickly passed by the bigger, faster boats, waves rocking us back and forth like a bobber in a tornado. I hollered to Gavin to hang on, which wasn’t necessary since he already had white knuckles searching for every handle he could find.

After a few miles, the rough water calmed a bit as boats spread out and slid into their hot spots. Our trip from headquarters was 10 miles upstream, a ride that took about 20 minutes in 40-degree temps, but fortunately no wind. Everyone arrived in good health, only one boat there to share our honey-hole.

While I treasured the time spent with Jon and Gavin, two things served to dampen the joy of the day.

First, because it was a tournament, winner take (mostly) all, there was little time to visit, to eat, to fuss with tackle, bait or camera. Grab your rod, bait up and fish.

Our first walleye was slow in coming, perhaps a half hour, but when Jon lifted the rod on his jig-hooked fish, it was mild pandemonium. Grab the net, hurry, get out the way, move over here, hurry, he’s coming in, get ready, hurry, get the net in… done. A 16-inch walleye. Not a tournament winner, but the first of the day.

It was the rush of “having” to catch fish, as many as possible, as big as possible, as quickly as possible, that kept the tension higher than I preferred during the 8 hours we were allotted. Gavin did fine through it all, sometimes taking a break to play with his fidget spinner, other times to check his Smartphone. That’s what 10-year-olds do. Even the best fishing doesn’t glue kids to the water for long.

Jon continued guiding us with top-shelf proficiency, analyzing every sandbar, shoreline, slow-current area for potential walleye hotspots. We caught fish. He was doing a good job.

We continued to fish hard through the day, dad prompting young Gavin to focus. Gavin, in fact, landed the third walleye of the day on a jig, a nice 17-incher. We laid the praise on him, the kid in his first fishing tournament, which I wasn’t sure was a curse or a blessing. But for Jon and I it was a proud moment.

Even at that, we didn’t have time for a photo. We needed more fish.

I’ll explain the outcome of all that later.

 

The
Competition
of
Today

Craig Novak, owner of Pierre Sports in Pierre, South Dakota, was also a pioneer of early day walleye fishing tournaments. Today, he says, things have changed from 16-foot rigs equipped with 50 hp outboards.

“The 350 hp 621 Ranger is our best selling rig,” he says, referring to anglers wanting speed and power. “That boat will travel at nearly 60 mph.”

When you’re traveling at that speed on the mainstream Missouri River, amidst submerged (and emerged) logs and sandbars that change sometimes daily, you wonder if it’s a sane process. I asked Novac what happens when you hit something in the river at that speed, vs. a smaller rig.

“Well, you fly just a little bar farther,” he said, referring to the boater leaving the boat.

But anglers, equipped with GPS and more technology, don’t seem to worry about things like that. In fact, when it comes to walleye fishing contests of today, there are no boundaries, including distance. The 111 fishermen competing in the National Walleye Tour event on Lake Sakakawea last May faced a stunted bite in the starting point at Garrison, knowing of a good walleye bite much farther north. The bite was strong many miles northward, even to near Williston, a water distance of more than 100 miles. Yet, 80 of those 111 contestants chose to make the trip, having to stop to gas up at Indian Hills, White Earth Bay or Tobacco Gardens where lakeside gas was available.

Running time to Williston from Garrison was nearly two hours up, two hours back, leaving precious little time for fishing, Yet, if you’re in it for the money, you make the trip, as most did. With today’s high-powered rigs, that’s possible.

J.R. Carter, having grown up in Montana, now living in Mandan and working as a helicopter mechanic for Sanford Health, is a die-hard professional walleye tournament fisherman. He’s tied to it with every breath. He fishes about 10 tournaments a year, since he returned from serving in Irag in 2010. He’s married, no children, but credits his wife, Lori, as being highly understanding of his passion for competitive walleye fishing.

“She’s my best supporter,” he says. 

We asked him why he’s such an avid tournament angler, as he was on his way to the National Walleye Tour championship contest (an invitation, qualifying contest) in Marionette, Wis.

“Number one, it’s the competition,” he said. “It’s knowing where you stand in the whole scheme of things, the world of walleye fishing. The thing I like about the (walleye) tour is that they’re not necessarily held on the best water at the best time of year. It’s a challenge of finding, catching fish. That’s it for me.”

Carter also fishes other professional walleye tournaments, including the Angler Inside Marketing (AIM) events, which is totally catch and release, designed by dedicated walleye anglers tired of catch-and-kill contests.

The NWT held out of Garrison in May resulted in some amazing stats. For instance, Carter, even though he didn’t make the full trip to Williston, stopping at McKenzie Bay a little over half way, used 48 gallons of gas each day at the rate of $3.74 per gallon. So, just for the two days of the tournament, he spent just under $400 for boat gas. If you combine his total expenses for the week-long pre-fishing time, with a derby entry fee of $1,500, lodging, food “and beer”, he expended $2,500 to fish this one tournament.

At Cenex Bait and Tackle in Garrison, from the previous Sunday to Friday before the contest, anglers spent lots of money. According to figures supplied by Garrison Cenex manager Rodger Affeldt, the store sold 15,680 gallons of boat gas, another 5,600 of vehicle gas, and 70 gallons of fathead minnows, comprising 1,750 scoops. That doesn’t include tackle, coolers, ice, food and other by-products.

Just to break even, expense-wise, you had to finish under 20th place. After the first day, Carter was in 23rd place, finishing the tournament after the second day at around 50th place with just under 30 lbs. of fish.

“I really thought 20 lbs. each day in this thing would be respectable,” he said. “The second day we threw back a lot of 16’s, but by that time we had a lot of people around us and it got tough.”

Tournaments like this are also good for the local economy. 

So, when it was over, Steve Kuchenberg of Abrams, Wis., took the top payout with 45.29 pounds of walleyes. After expenses, and competing against more than 100 top walleye experts in the Midwest, was it worth it? Well, you’ll have to ask Kuchenberg, but I think he’d say it was a good investment.

Payouts have gotten complicated, usually involving cash and a boat. In addition, there are side bets that allow anglers to win minimal cash, but fully-rigged boats are on the prize list.

The thing is though, no matter how good you are at catching walleyes, you don’t win these things very often. In fact, you lose money. This kind of combat fishing bears no resemblance to the traditional image of fishing in a solitary world, amidst light breezes, active fish, all at a casual pace. The tournament thing, well, it’s money and it’s ego. It’s the American spirit of competing in anything and everything. Put a dollar on the table and let’s see who’s best.

All these pros have sponsors, of course. They help pay expenses, worked out in varying degrees. But, in today’s technology, it’s not just one man against another. They help each other.

“It’s the competition,” Carter says, “but you also need a fishing team. We share information and time on the water. We figure things out and we have a plan. But social media has ruined it somewhat. Anyone sitting in chair on shore can get free tackle, and they share updates on fishing info as much as 20 times a day. The word “pro” is a loose term today.”

 

The
Finale

Getting back to the Bis-Man Reel and Rec Tournament Jon, Gavin and I fished in late May.

I was the oldest guy in the contest, by far. Most fishermen were in their 30s and 40s. I didn’t belong there, didn’t even want to be there. But I wanted to support Jon and Gavin, sharing the time with them, understanding their desire to compete.

During the day it was hurry, hurry, hurry. No time to chat, eat, sip a pop. Get your line in the water, keep fishing, Work hard. Focus.

I don’t like that when it comes to fishing. Never did, even in my tournament years, so perhaps that makes me a hypocrite of sorts.

We “enjoyed” a good day, pleasant weather, hooking up with 14 or 15 walleyes up to 18 inches. At the weigh-in, our six qualifying fish marked just about 10 lbs. As I embraced the crowd around the tally board, some asked “How’d you do?” Well, we finished 29th among the 85 anglers, acceptable perhaps in tournament circles, but out of the money. Overall, tournament-wise, not good.

But, if we’d not been in that tournament, that day, fishing at a casual pace, and caught those 15 walleyes, we’d have left the ramp with a glorious feeling of a fine day of fishing, three generations. No pressure, just fun, snacks and friendship, amidst a beautiful day on the great Missouri River in the midst of abundant walleyes.

I will compare the two moods until my dying day, but I will relish the latter much more.