The 1st Time Co-Angler Experience at AIM Pro Walleye Series Oconto 2013

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Having just returned home from the AIM Series Oconto event where I fished as a co-angler, I wanted to share my experience with other fisherman who are considering fishing future AIM events, or who have fished as co-anglers on other tours.  The entire experience was far more fulfilling than I anticipated or hoped for.  From start to finish, everyone involved in the event was friendly and helpful.  They truly went out of their way to ensure that everybody had a great time.

 

This was the first time that I fished in a tournament in any role.  I thought about it for years and never quite felt comfortable enough to sign up.  Even as a co-angler, it was very important to me to be an asset to the boat, rather than somebody who is in the way or causes more stress for the pro/pros.  I have friends who have fished on several other tours and have heard both positive and negative experiences.  I was determined not be the guy who knocked a potential winning fish off with the net. 

 

Some of the things about the AIM event that helped me decide to take the step were the location, the Pro Partner Draw format, the Catch-Record-Release process, and the value for the entry fee.  I lived in Marinette for 5 years and find Green Bay a phenomenal fishery.  Getting the opportunity to pursue trophy Walleyes with the top Walleye anglers in the world is an enticing combination.  The Pro Partner Draw format was comforting because it made sense that there would be far less pressure on a co-angler not to make a mistake if there were two other pros in the boat.  When running six lines on planer boards on lake with a large population of fish, there can be an awful lot of action and no room for error.  I’m quite confident in my fishing skills, but until I fished with the pros there was still a little doubt.  I just figured that the Pro Partner Draw format would allow me to keep out of the way if my skills weren’t quite ready for primetime. 

 

The final aspect that helped me finally decide to enter the tournament was the Catch Record Release (CRR) format.  As much as I enjoy watching tournament results on TV, and following the Walleye tours on Internet, I and most fans are apprehensive about weigh-ins, especially on smaller or less robust fisheries.  Local anglers and fans complain loudly about tournaments that come in and decimate a fish population in just a few days.  There is never any intent on tournaments to damage the resource that we all love, but other formats place the fish at far greater risk than the AIM CRR format.  All tours spend a great deal time and money trying to minimize the harm to the fish, but every site has local anglers crying foul over the number of quality fish floating belly up after the event is over.  The Catch Release Record process is the most effective means for protection the fishery.  The fact that no fish were going to be put in livewells and jostled around in the heat of July was very comforting.

 

The $300 co-angler entry fee was simply a value I couldn’t pass up.  Knowing that I would get to fish with three different pro/partner teams for three full days of fishing for just $100 per day is the best value out there.  A guide costs nearly that much for a single day of fishing and you are typically limited in the approach because of the single day time limit.

 

Having registered in May, I started to get excited around the beginning of July.  I drove up from Aplington, Iowa Wednesday morning and arrived at the registration around 3:00 pm.  There were a few other co-anglers and pros there to register early.  Registration was conveniently laid out at the Bond Community Center in Oconto, and there were plenty of people at the registration desk to help us newbies get through the process.  The Yamaha factory rep was there passing out hats, and Navionics had chips for all of the co-anglers. 

 

Having nothing else to do before the Orientation I sat in the bleachers, met a few other co-anglers, and watched the pros start to arrive.  I enjoyed watching the camaraderie amongst the pros.  They all really seem to get along very well for being extreme competitors on the water.  The orientation focused on the CRR process and announcing the pro/partner and co-angler teams.  There was a video demonstration of the CRR process that made it look too simple.  It turned out that it was pretty accurate because the actual in-boat process was simple and very quick, even for amateurs.

 

After the orientation, there was a dinner for all attendees with food provided by the local Oconto establishments.  The apparently were aware that fisherman like to eat because the spread was impressive.  Nobody left hungry. 

 

After the meal, the mandatory rules meeting for all fishermen was held.  This was informative and less formal than I assumed it would be.  The professional fishing community is made up of very ethical players and they expect the same from everybody involved.  There was an emphasis put on the rules that co-anglers were not to have any influence on location or fishing techniques, but were to be involved in fishing and the CRR process.  It was described sort of as a professional fishing tournament with an independent 3rd party in each boat to verify the fishing.  Each co-angler had the authority to protest the fishing results by not signing the CRR scorecard at the end of the day, if he/she thought they were not given an adequate chance to participate in the fishing and recording process.

 

After the rules meeting, all of the co-anglers were given a chance to meet their pro/partner teams and decide where to meet up in the mornings for the launch.  We exchanged cell phone numbers and agreed we would just meet at the ramp.  All of the co-anglers were allowed to bring whatever they needed for clothing, rain gear, and a cooler for food and beverages.  Some of us brought our own life jackets.  The only restrictions were no rods, tackle, or gps units.

 

I was paired with Joe Newcomb and Kyle Brantner on day 1, Brett King and Jeff Holtz on day 2, and Karl Wenckebach and Mark Kuzniewski on Day 3.  I was only vaguely familiar with Brett King because of his success on tour.  All teams seemed like great guys and were ready to hit the water.  For many of the teams, they had been pre-fishing for five days in hot, humid, and very flat conditions.  They pretty much all looked a bit crispy from all the hours spent on the water.

 

I could hardly sleep Wednesday night.  You would think that 45-year-old would have gotten over the child-like anticipation that comes with a big event or opening day, but for me it is still impossible to get a good night sleep when I’m excited.  Needless to say I was at the dock by 5:30 waiting impatiently for the event to kickoff.  There were a few other eager beavers there and we all talked fishing.  A few of us got together during the weigh-in and discussed how our days went.  Several of us exchanged contact info and made plans to fish together in the future on our home waters.  Bringing people together from different areas that are avid fisherman and providing them an opportunity to arrange to fish together later is one of the coolest fringe benefits from an event like this.

 

I got in with Joe and Kyle and we drifted around near the docks waiting for the opening ceremonies.  For anybody who has never seen it, it’s quite a feat of boatmanship that none of the boats crammed into the harbor bang into each other while waiting.  As we got acquainted I found out their home water was Lake Pepin/Red Wing, which is where I do the vast majority of my Walleye fishing.  It is strange to imagine traveling 6.5 hours to fish with anglers from the same pool.   It was their first time on Green Bay, but they’d been there since the Saturday before pre-fishing.  They had some good days and some rough days pre-fishing, which is about what I heard from most pros.  Joe caught his first 30”er and both of them felt they had some spots that could enable them to compete.  By 10:00 am I was a believer.  The first two fish we caught both measured 27”.  I don’t care where you fish; 27” fish make you feel pretty good about what you’re doing.  Unfortunately the majority of our bites were sheephead and catfish; they are big and put up a great fight, but they sure waste a lot of valuable time.  The sure sign of a quality Walleye fisherman is the ability to tell the species of a fish within seconds of setting the hook after the board goes back.  We were never wrong, even though we were desperately praying to be when a lethargic sheephead that took his time coming in.

 

Late that morning, our bite dried up and it was time to move.  We were all happy with our first two fish, but knew that two fish was not going to get it done.  As we tried a couple of other spots, we were able to pick up another couple of smaller fish, but didn’t quite get the limit.  It’s funny how you start trying to convince yourself that maybe everybody had an off day because of the conditions and maybe we can still contend.  The simple fact of the matter is that elite talent does not struggle as a whole.  Too much talent and too good of a fishery never add up to everybody struggling.  Watching the weights come across the stage let us know that we were well behind the leaders.  It wasn’t because of technique or fishing skills.  We simply were not on the fish.  We recorded 22.14# on just four fish. 

 

I still had a great time.  I learned a lot about running planer boards and spinners.  We marked fish and caught quality fish.  We never lost fish or missed a bite; even the ones we wish would have come unhooked.  We worked great together and gave it our all up to the very last minute.  At the weigh in, I was in awe.  When ten teams came in with a 7-fish limit over 42 pounds, it became clear that to contend in this tournament taking the guide-approach to focusing on a limit was not going to do anything more than perhaps keep you above the midpoint.  This tournament was won by catching top quality fish consistently. 

 

I don’t think I made a fool of myself and it seemed like we all had fun.  Of course we wanted to perform better, but Buster Douglas only knocks out Mike Tyson once in a lifetime.  I’ll get better and I know they will get better on that type of system.  I’m sure there are Great Lakes fishermen who want no part of Joe and Kyle on Pool 4.

 

I arrived just as early on Friday eager to get in the boat with Brett King and Jeff Holtz who had caught a 31.21# on day 1.  For a Walleye fisherman, getting to fish with a former Angler of the Year is pretty exciting.  Brett and Jeff are outstanding fishermen.  They didn’t hope to do well, they expected to do well. The weather for Friday was a drastic change from what the pros had experienced during pre-fishing.  There were storms brewing and wind was blowing.  Friday was the day that let you know why people use large boats on Green Bay.  The ride out was a bit choppy at the beginning, but then it got rough.  There were times when it felt like the whole boat was out of the water.  I was bit surprised that tournament-hardened pros actually slow down and think safety first.  I’d seen too many videos of boats flying through the air and throwing caution to the wind, that I assumed they all drove full throttle all the time.  It turns out Brett drove very professionally.  He knew exactly how to minimize the impact of the waves and controlled ride as well as can be expected in 4-foot waves.  That’s not to say we didn’t bottom out the Smoot Moves seats occasionally, but it could have been a much rougher ride. 

 

I must confess that as an inexperienced rough water rider, I was not exactly nimble on the seat.  In fact, I got Brett’s attention on one landing when there was a large crack from my seat.  It turns out that 300 pounds landing too far back on the seat after a 6-foot drop can actually break the back off the seat.  So now I had broken the seat of the Chairman of the Board of AIM before we even got the first line in the water.  I figured they shove me in a storage compartment and tell me not to break anything else.  It was absolutely not the case.  Brett said it happens and we kept running to our first trolling pass.

 

It took only minutes to understand why Brett had been Angler of the Year.  Every aspect of fishing was precisely performed.  He made it clear that he would talk me through the entire process  and wasn’t doing it to scold, but to make sure everything was being done exactly the way it needed to be done.  This was an education in fishing excellence that had been learned through experience.  There was nothing random about fishing; everything was done with a purpose.  This is the single biggest thing that I’ll take away from the experience in regards to what it takes to be an elite angler.

 

Brett noticed on the way out that the windshield glass had come out of the molding.  He told me to make sure that I was always wearing my glasses while travelling, just in case the windshield shattered.  During the first trolling pass he decided that the windshield situation was just not going to be safe in rough water.  He was worried the glass could shatter.  I was amazed that a super-competitive angler could be so concerned with the safety of his partners during the prime fishing hours of a still highly competitive tournament with a large check waiting for the winner.  He decided that we needed to try to fix the windshield while fishing.  I couldn’t imagine somebody giving crucial fishing time to worry about something that seemed very unlikely to amount to anything, but that’s the difference between a true professional and a win-at-all-cost competitor. 

 

On our second trolling pass, Brett, Jeff, and I looked at what needed to be done and started to disassemble the windshield with tools we could find on board.  I can’t stress enough that the whole time we are repairing the windshield, we have lines in the water on the same trolling run as the leaders of the tournament.  A phillips screwdriver, some needle nose pliers, and a multi-tool allowed us to double as a NASCAR pit crew while desperately trying to catch winning fish.  The repairs took about an hour and half, mostly due to trying to assemble a formed piece of glass into a rubber molding, then into an aluminum channel, all while riding 6-foot waves.  When we finally got done, Jeff and I both admitted to getting a bit sea-sick while trying to focus on small screws and nuts while riding the waves.  After the repairs were completed, we focused all of our efforts on catching a winning combination.  It wasn’t that we didn’t catch fish; we just couldn’t get the right fish to bite.  The graph was loaded with fish and bait and we caught many.  We ended up with a 7-fish limit that weighed only 24.19#.  It was obvious that this was well below what Brett assumed we would catch.  He was convinced that the wind would turn the bite on.  It was funny how I started to try to convince myself again that maybe everybody had a bad day, but Brett knew that was not the case.  Experience told him that his shot at the title was over. 

 

Again, I got to participate in all aspects of fishing, albeit after I had either proven myself to be capable or maybe he just knew it was over and allowed control of the reigns a bit more.  I set lines, attached planer boards, and even netted a fish.  I did all of the recording of the CRR process and took all the pictures.  Brett and Jeff could not have been more accommodating and supportive.  We talked fishing and strategy all day long and they shared their knowledge and experience.  One of the best parts of the day was watching the competitive nature between Brett King and Chase Parsons.  It’s very cool to see pros rib each other in jest, knowing that there’s a bit of serious competition behind it.  I think of it just like hockey playoffs where two teams go after each other in an all-out war on the ice, then shake hands when it’s all over.  Competitors really understand what others go through to reach that level and that’s why that level of camaraderie exists.

 

Feeling bad about the damage I had done to his boat, when Brett and Jeff got back to the landing and were preparing for the parade through Oconto, I went to Matraver’s Hardware and picked up the items they would need to provide a more secure fix to the windshield that could survive another rough day on the water.  Brett offered to pay for the parts, but I was having none of that.  Getting to learn from a pro’s pro and not getting thrown out of the boat for breaking the seat was a fair trade.

 

After riding 6-foot waves most of the day on Friday, I had no problem sleeping that night.  I was excited to see the storm that passed dropped the temperature to around 60 degrees with highs expected in the upper seventies for Saturday.  They also predicted a calm day with winds maxing out at 7 mph.  Hah!  What a laugh!  If we could all be wrong as often as weathermen are, life would be easy.  By the time we left the harbor the winds were blowing about 20 mph. 

 

I got to fish with Mark Kuzniewski and Karl Wenckebach on Saturday.  They had caught 47.30# on Thursday, but only managed 7.63# on Friday in tough conditions.  Mark had expressed confidence on stage Friday that the fish were still there and they would get them tomorrow.  We left the harbor running about 60 mph for about a quarter of a mile, then we me the waves; very large and growing waves.  Curse all the forecasts we had looked at.  We immediately slowed way down because waves were coming over the windshield.  There were a couple that made me wonder if were on Deadliest Catch and how soon we’d be setting crab pots. 

 

We got to the spot in about 45 minutes; the previous day it took them 20 minutes.  We set up and did everything we could to fish the reef the way they had the first day, but cutting across 6-foot waves while pulling planer boards is next to impossible.  A fish would have to be awfully determined to catch our baits as they road up and down the waves.  After about hour and a half of getting pounded, and with the waves starting to stack up, we decided to move to a more sheltered part of the bay.  We weren’t going to win, and it was apparent that the conditions were not going to provide for a catch large enough for Mark and Karl to make the money.  We fished rough water until about 1:30 pm when the wind died down and we made a run to their next spot.  It turns out some of their teammates had gone there first thing in the morning and pounded the fish until about 11:00 am.  Oh well, tournament fishing comes down to choices and the consequences of those choices.  We did catch a nice 24”er, but only two on the day.

 

We still had a great time getting to know each other and discussing our lives off the water.  I learned some more about different techniques for spinner rigs, and was sad to see the tournament end.  My legs were not so sad after riding the large Green Bay waves for two days it felt like I had just rode the Tour de France.

 

The final weigh-in was a huge party.   Everybody stepped out of the competition mode and just relaxed and teased each other relentlessly.  The sponsors did a great job with the large crowd and Oconto made all of the anglers feel welcome.  I stayed for majority of the weigh in, but had to hit the road to be back for work on Sunday.  Next time I’ll be staying for the party on Saturday night.

 

Overall, my co-angling experience in the AIM Pro Walleye Series was amazing.  It went well beyond my expectations.  Everybody involved did a great job.  The pros and their partners were tremendous.  I still can’t believe how much I learned in just 3 days.  I also can’t believe how much I still have to learn.  Upon arriving home it took just two days to put my golf cart up for sale.  I am determined to start tournament walleye fishing next year.  You’ll see me on Pool 4 honing my skills until the ice forces me off.  I’ll also be fishing as many different types of water and trying every technique in the book.  I really want to thank AIM and all of anglers I met in Oconto.  Sign me up for all future AIM events; on the pro side.  I plan on having at least one of my employees register as a co-angler for each event as a bonus for their hard work.  And make a little room on the podium; I plan on earning a spot there soon.

 

 

Kerry Nicolaus