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Wild Bill and one of his "pre-fish," which says he has a long way to go to get in the prize money. Photo by Mike Newton. BELOW: Mike Newton prefishing and enjoying a beautiful day on Fort Peck Reservoir. Photo by Bill Schneider

The Art of Prefishing

I’ve been fishing for more than fifty years, but I’ve never been prefishing. That’s because I, like most other anglers, have never entered a fishing tournament.

Are you one of the millions of anglers who have watched tournaments on television or read articles about them and wondered what it would be like? If so, please stay tuned for the next three days while I report on my first-ever fishing tournament.

I am officially entered in the Governor’s Cup Walleye Tournament in Fort Peck, Montana. With the assistance of Travel Montana, Missouri River Country, and the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture, I’m hooked up with Mike Newton, president of Montana Walleye’s Unlimited. Mike and I, we’re team No. 40, out of 80, and this is the real deal, not just another day on the lake.

Participating in fishing tournaments is a little like entering poker tournaments. You have to be lucky, but you also have to be good. It’s also expensive, so you take it seriously, which is why I met Mike at the historic Fort Peck Hotel for dinner last Tuesday night, three days before the tourney even started. We had to plan–and spend two days prefishing, which is checking out the fishing, what’s working, where the fish are, how deep, in the bays, on the points, what color spinners or jigs they like, and more, all part of the hundreds of details we try to memorize before the tourney starts.

The purpose of prefishing is not catching a lot of fish. Instead, you try to find pods of fish, catch one or two, and then beat it out of there, leaving them undisturbed so you can come back during the tournament and put them in the net when it really counts. And of course, so other anglers won’t see you catching them, because then, they’ll be there poaching your fish during the tourney.

So, early Wednesday morning, we’re on the lake in Mike’s Warrior, the ultimate walleye boat, 20-feet long, rigged to the teeth with three fish finders at 225-horse Mercury Optimax with a 15-horse kicker, two big dog batteries to run the extra-strength trolling motor all day, and of course, tons of walleye gear. Mike is pushing 50 mph, following a GPS track to his first fishing spot, and I’m hanging on tight, learning what it feels like to ride a rodeo bull.

We go from spot to spot, catch a few fish, but I have to say, embarrassingly small fish. Last year, the winners caught 66 pounds of fish in two days. If we added up everything we caught the first day, well, it would be tough on the manhood to see it on the scoreboard, all three pounds of it, and not too much better the second day, maybe eight or nine pounds.

But of course, that’s part of our plan–to not catch the big fish during prefishing, so we can catch them when it counts. I have to say that we exercised that strategy perfectly.

We watch other anglers, too, both locals just out fishing and the others out prefishing. And they watch us, too, just like they might learn something from me. Hah! Some even have their “Bushnell fish finders” out. Off the water, in the restaurants, saloons, at the boat ramp, people are always talking, always trying to learn more and gain an advantage. I was surprised how open most anglers were, helping us a lot with some key information–and a litle misinformation, too, I suppose. I theorized that when they saw me, they knew I wasn’t a threat.

As I write this, I’m fresh back from the opening BBQ for the anglers, and there was a lot of testosterone in the air. Most people were friendly and all that, but definitely serious.

The last two days when I went to the Fort Peck Marina I could see why. Tournament Serious takes big bucks. Not just the $400 entry fee, but also the gas, bait, all that gear, and of course, the boat. If I had my boat with me, these tournament anglers would think I brought a canoe. These tournament boats usually run $50,000 to $100,000 and you can see fifty of them at once at the marina. Do the math–somewhere north of a million bucks worth of boats will be launching tomorrow morning at 7 am, plus another million in big pickup trucks to pull them around the state. Who said there was an economic downturn?

But like a poker tournament, most of us get nothing but the experience and humiliation. The good and the lucky split up the purse, which is $70,000 for the Governor’s Cup.

Nationally, fishing tournaments are huge business. One bass tournament has a $1 million first prize, and there are at least 2,600 bass tourneys each year nationally. There aren’t as many walleye tournaments, and I couldn’t find the figure, but still a 1,000 or more. Even Montana has eleven walleye tourneys.

I confess to being a bit embarrassed about entering a tournament because I had the impression competitive fishing put a lot of pressure on the resource. Wrong! If the Governor’s Cup and other Montana tournaments are any indication, the opposite is true. Here at Fort Peck and the Governor’s Cup, it’s all about taking care of the fish.

Even though most people keep the walleyes they catch because they’re such great table fare, this tournament is totally catch-and-release fishing. All fish are measured in “weigh boats” stationed throughout Fort Peck Reservoir, then released. Only “releasable” fish count. Many other tourney rules emphasize the importance of caring for the fish. Fish aren’t really weighed, only the length measured and a formula used to estimate the weight based on the length–all so fish can be handled less and given a better chance of survival when released.

This is why the professional walleye anglers don’t come to Fort Peck for the Governor’s Cup. They used to come until a few years ago, when the tourney still tried to weigh fish, but one year during very hot weather, hundreds of big fish died, and “local anglers were so upset that we went to catch and release after that,” recalls Diane Brandt, Glasgow chamber executive director, “and the pros stopped coming here.”

Now, all six tournaments part of Montana Walleye Unlimited Walleye Circuit must follow the same rules, explains Mike Newton. “If a tournament won’t go catch-and-release, it can’t be part of the circuit.”

The pros like to hold up the fish at the weigh in for the cameras and get airtime for their sponsors. Since that isn’t possible at the Governor’s Cup, they stay away, and as near as I could tell, nobody seems to miss them.

During our two days of prefishing, Mike and I talked about other keys issues for his 4,500-member-strong conservation organization. In addition, to making tournaments a positive force for walleye populations, which appears to have already happened, Mike talks up two other hot button issues for his organization–getting the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department (FWP) to give up the ridiculously high 20-walleye limit on Canyon Ferry Reservoir and plans to raise lake trout at the new warm water fish hatchery built at Fort Peck. “As long as I’m president of Walleyes Unlimited, they (FWP) won’t raise lake trout in that hatchery.”

One really bright spot for me in my first prefishing experience is hooking up to four large northern pike while jigging for walleye, which is fairly unusual. One went 36 inches and about 14 pounds, which probably would have won the “big northern” division of the event. Can I do it again tomorrow?

To me, the prefishing didn’t seem to go that well, but Mike seemed satisfied. We did pick up a lot of information watching and talking to other anglers–and some misinformation, too, of course. So who knows, maybe those other guys should be worried about us.

Check back tomorrow night for a brief report.

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