Wacky weather really stirred up tournament

It seems the best laid plans of mice and men—and tournament anglers—oft go astray when the Rainy River throws a hissy fit.
Now that the 2005 edition of the Emo Walleye Classic is history, many anglers undoubtedly are still scratching their heads and wondering what hit them.
Like most of the other teams, my partner, Patrick Langevin, and I were out on the river over the Victoria Day long weekend pre-fishing and thought we had a viable game plan.
We applied what we learned last year, when we finished in eighth place and found ourselves on fish quite easily.
(I know, I wrote a story in last week’s Times hinting we had little success pre-fishing, but that was merely to mislead the competition. It turns out, the only people we fooled were ourselves).
From talking with other anglers, it seems it was much the same for everyone, but none of us admitted that until after the tournament, of course.
As one angler put it on Saturday, “Anybody who wasn’t on fish [over the long weekend] was sitting in front of the TV all weekend.”
Unfortunately, fish caught while practising don’t count for the tournament and it quickly became apparent that strategies developed over the past few weeks proved to be of little use when it mattered.
So what happened?
A combination of circumstances conspired to make this year’s
tournament the most difficult and bizarre in its four-year history. First of all, the river already was running high when the skies opened up last Wednesday.
Rainy Lake already was nudging the top of the rule curve and the ground was completely saturated from rainfall earlier this spring, so there simply was no wiggle room for more moisture.
But that’s exactly what we got—more than two inches of rain, in fact, and by Thursday, the river had risen another three feet with no signs of going down.
By Friday, it was 10 feet above normal, which necessitated tournament officials moving to the western ramp to launch all the boats.
Then to add to the woes, the Littlefork River in Minnesota went into full-fledged flood mode sometime on Thursday, taking out a beaver dam and releasing thousands of tons of mud and debris into an already-engorged Rainy River—turning it to the colour of mud and littering it with flotsam that threatened to the tear the lower units off the boats of unwary anglers.
Downstream, the river looked like a war zone. Branches, logs of every size and description, whole trees with leaves and limbs still attached, picnic tables, fence posts, docks, barn doors, and firewood were coming down the river all weekend (and probably still are).
One team reported seeing a child’s playpen, which caused them some alarm until they saw it was unoccupied. Another reported seeing an abandoned recreational vehicle half-submerged in the raging waters up near Fort Frances.
All of this completely disrupted the fish, as well. Locations that were holding fish as recently as Wednesday were empty by Friday. Almost everyone who went downstream came back with nothing to show for their efforts.
This included us, but as it turned out, we weren’t the only ones. Fifteen teams had no fish to weigh in on Day One and an astonishing 29 duos were skunked on Saturday.
In fact, a total of 11 teams (including the defending champions and the 2003 champs) recorded goose eggs on both days, so we didn’t feel so bad bringing in only one fish for the entire tournament.
Oh, but it was tough sledding. Things got off to a bad start and it was all downhill from there. First of all, as we were waiting for the starting signal from emcee Lionel Robert, an alarm went off in our boat indicating the engine was overheating.
With seconds to go before Robert sent us off, we had no choice but to ignore it until we were well out of the starting zone.
As we headed downstream, the annoying beep turned into a constant shrill like a smoke alarm and just before we reached the Manitou Rapids, the engine suddenly lost power.
At this point, we thought we had toasted the engine and had visions of getting a hefty repair bill from Tompkins Hardware, but it turned out the problem was caused by debris lodging in the engine’s water intake.
It seems the engine has a built-in safety feature to protect it from permanent damage by partially disabling itself when it overheats—leaving you with enough power to make it to shore but not enough to continue running hard.
As soon as we cleared the debris, the engine returned to normal power and we were back in the saddle—albeit, a wet one.
Within an hour, it started to rain again, which did nothing to improve our moods.
To make matters worse, when I decided to have a mid-morning snack, I discovered my Thermos had given up the ghost, so there I was—huddled in the front of the boat—slurping cold soup in the pouring rain without a single fish to show for my discomfort.
It wasn’t pretty, folks.
The unusual conditions even affected our technique. Because the debris was not only at the surface but distributed throughout the entire water column, trolling became a frustrating exercise in futility.
Rarely could you troll for more than a minute without fouling your lure. The alternative was to jig with minnows, but the raging current made it difficult to keep your bait on the bottom.
Chances are, there were no fish to be found there anyway.
So, where were they? The only logical place for them to be under those circumstances was in the few areas of current break. These, unfortunately, also were where the debris collected and piled up in thick mats that looked strong enough to walk on.
Here, the fish found security from the current, as well as shelter from the sun, but it was impossible to get to them through that thick roof without using a wrecking ball for a sinker.
We belatedly concluded the only place to go to have any chance of salvaging something from this disaster was upstream of the junction of the Littlefork, where the water was at least clear.
The only teams to bring in substantial catches on Friday were up that way, so we decided to scrap our game plan and head up there Saturday.
Even here it was no picnic. The current was just as strong and most of the likeliest spots were now underwater. Since we had no previous experience in that part of the river, it was pretty much a guessing game anyway.
We did manage to catch one small one by jigging with a minnow in one of the few areas where the current was relatively mild, but that was all we had to show for the entire weekend.
Fortunately, it was enough to put us in the top 50 and make the cut for next year’s EWC.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for everyone. Two teams brought in more than 10 pounds on Friday, and the winning team of Doug McBride and Steve Ballan blew away the field Saturday when they weighed in over 15 pounds, including one monster that tipped the scales at an astonishing 10.02 pounds.
Obviously, they were doing something right when everybody else was struggling.
“Every year, somebody figures it out,” observed angler Greg Stahn of Team #30.
Two years ago, it was Stahn and his partner, Todd Baker, who figured it out and took home the top the prize when the water levels were extremely low. But this year, they came back empty-handed both days and will have to enter through the draw for next year.
“This game is all about knowledge and application, and they [McBride and Ballan] found the solution first, I guess,” Stahn shrugged.
Looking back, the weekend was far from a total disaster for me, however. True, it was the toughest two days of fishing I can ever remember, but by the same token, I believe I learned more in those two days than I would have otherwise.
Of course, none of it would have been possible without the generosity of our sponsors. The Fort Frances Times and the Emo Dental Clinic covered our entry fee while Cloverleaf ShopEasy gave us $50 worth of gas for free.
Witherspoon’s One Stop in Fort Frances provided us with minnows and worms and, of course, Tompkins Hardware in Emo gave us a great boat to use for the entire week leading up to the tournament.
These people, plus the dozens of volunteers, made it possible for us to be part of one of the most unique fishing experiences ever—even if we fell far short of the goal we had set for ourselves.
But like the debris in the river, the disappointment will soon pass.
Besides, there’s always next year. And maybe we’ll be the ones who figure it out.