“I got no luck. They just weren’t bitin’. We couldn’t find ‘em. There are no fish in dat lake. The weather was total crap.”
This is a partial list of excuses I had ready in case of not catching anything in the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers inaugural fishing tournament on Tuesday, on Lake Bemidji. A guy has to be ready to defend his honor, after all.
Turns out, there was no need—even for me.
As the eastern sky began to brighten, I climbed aboard Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame member Steve Pennaz’s boat. Also fishing on his Skeeter that day were Kent Weil, writer from Illinois, and Mike Schoonveld, Lake Michigan charter captain. There was an air of optimism as we pulled away from the dock, even though Pennaz said he’d never fished that lake before. I knew we were in good hands.
Sure enough, as he demonstrated the morning’s technique, pitching and retrieving a Northland Puppet Minnow, Pennaz hooked into the first walleye of the day. It literally took four seconds.
The rest of us followed his lead and began pulling up walleyes, perch, and rock bass. It almost seemed too easy. Of course, that’s what you get when a pro calls the shots.
Steve kept us on fish for about the next 45 minutes, by which time they had turned off in that spot. We proceeded to cut loose from there, wandering like Moses and the Israelites. I was afraid the walleye bite was already over for the day. It was only 8:00.
Would it be too much to expect a little manna from heaven? Time would tell.
The Wisdom of a Donkey
Only one hour into the morning, our boat had logged several fish into the digital fishing tournament phone app FishDonkey. This was a new one to me, mostly because I don’t fish in tournaments. But that’s not because it’s not getting a lot of attention—and use—in the fishing world. Quite the opposite, in fact.
FishDonkey is a way for tournament participants to enter fish into a contest without inserting them into a livewell. Instead, they open the app, get images of the fish, enter a minimal amount of data, and hit the ‘submit’ button.
Within moments of being caught, that fish is released back to the same part of the lake. This stands in stark contrast to traditional contests where fish ride around in livewells for hours on end, only to be weighed and released in another part of the waterway. This often results in an unfortunate degree of post-handling mortality, which, thanks to FishDonkey, could be a thing of the past.
Company founders and husband-and-wife team Darren and Bonnie Amundson were in attendance at the annual AGLOW conference, and have been extremely helpful for luddites like me who can (and will) screw up anything related to their phones.
Darren told me that, not only does FishDonkey make tournaments easier on the fish, it makes life easier on tournament organizers. Verification of results takes minimal effort because of angler-recorded images. In addition, the app is designed with several safeguards to prevent cheating.
“Running the tournament is pretty easy. In fact, I fished in the tournament. You really only need to check the number one and number two because everybody’s self reporting their score already. In a weigh-in tournament, you weigh every single fish,” he said.
When school after school of fish refused our offerings as staunchly as toddlers turning up their noses at carrot purée, Steve decided we needed to make a change. He began to rig up paddletail swimbaits to cast toward a nearby weedline. Pennaz thought we might find some active northern pike waiting in ambush there.
He was right, of course, and immediately hooked into his third entry in that category. Something bit my bait off within the first couple casts. By the time I could tie another one on, the other three guys had situated themselves on the shallow side of the boat.
Enormous schools of baitfish clouded the sonar screen. Steve repeatedly announced there were “tons of fish” on the bottom. I thought I’d try sending my bait 26 feet down and try to keep it in their faces. For once, my instinct was actually good.
The first taker was a 16.75 inch walleye, the longest our boat would claim all day. We managed to log several others, but our efforts were ultimately not enough to land us in the prizes.
In all, there were 166 fish registered by 39 anglers in the contest in four hours (many more unceremoniously tossed overboard). The largest of over 80 panfish entered was a 12.5-inch rock bass landed by Ken Perrotte. About 30 northern pike were registered, the longest being Kevin Paulson’s 27.23-incher. Almost 50 walleye were registered, with the 24.5-incher caught by Brady Laudon topping the list.
“First City” Fame
Laudon, fishing guide and Assistant Director of Visit Bemidji, went to a lot of work to get over 50 anglers out on the water. He counts the tournament a success in showcasing the quality fisheries around Bemidji, a city well known for its proximity to the Mississippi headwaters, and for being the home of Paul Bunyan.
“It’s huge. Seeing all the social media posts, and that everybody has been doing well [fishing] in Bemidji. And having the FishDonkey owners here in Bemidji is really cool. We use that app a lot, so having them in our backyard and having them as a part of the tournament is so cool,” he told me.
He also credited locals and visitors alike for collaborating to show there’s much more to Bemidji than an oversized, flanneled lumberjack.
Said Laudon: “Having all the different guides come together and help put on this tournament, and the AGLOW members who brought their own boats…for Bemidji, we’re lucky to have all these individuals in town. It’s going to give us great exposure for years to come.”