West not best this time around

As they prepared to launch Friday morning, each of the 60 teams entered in the 2005 Emo Walleye Classic had a decision to make.
Head east or head west?
A handful, including eventual champs Steve Ballan and Doug McBride, went east. Dozens of others went the opposite direction—and many of those now wish they hadn’t.
“I just didn’t play my cards right,” sighed Denis Barnard, who headed downstream both days with partner Peter Van Drunen but weighed in only a total of 3.43 pounds.
“I should’ve went east and I didn’t do it. And I think there are a lot of anglers saying that right now,” he added.
“The guys that really thought it through went east.”
Defending champs Dan Pollard and Dale Hartlin also headed towards Manitou Rapids when given the green light Friday and Saturday morning. They returned both days with just water in their live well.
And they certainly weren’t alone.
It seemed that nobody—except perhaps for Paul Soucy and Gary McClymonth, who weighed in a total of 7.34 pounds on the first day but then were skunked on Saturday—had much luck west of Emo.
If fact, most teams struggled to land fish anywhere they threw a line in the river. Fifteen entries failed to bring in a fish Friday while 29 returned empty-handed the following day.
Altogether, 11 teams, including the reigning champions and 2003 champs Todd Baker and Greg Stahn, registered zero weight.
The full field of 60 teams combined to reel in only 254 walleye. By contrast, ore than 400 fish were weighed in at last year’s EWC.
“I knew there would be guys coming back with not much, but I didn’t quite expect it would be that bad,” said Pollard, adding many of the anglers were showing obvious signs of frustration.
“That river, she’s a definite challenge,” added Ed Carlson, who was skunked on Saturday, again fishing west of Emo. “She can make you a hero one day and a zero the next.”
As a result of last Wednesday’s heavy rainfall, the Rainy River was more than three metres higher than normal when the tournament got underway Friday—and the water was very muddy.
“It was kind of a shock how fast it did change, how fast [the water] came up and how dirty it got,” Pollard remarked. “Two days before you’re finding some spots, you’re catching some fish, and suddenly, boom, it changes.”
“When the water gets dirty, the fish don’t bite,” echoed Baker. “It got very tough.”
Dale LaBelle, who finished in second place with partner Wayne Angus with a two-day total of 14.54 pounds, said the source of the debris and murky water—the Littlefork River—was obvious.
The water east of that tributary was much clearer, he noted. “It was surprising that more people didn’t think of that and go [east],” LaBelle said.
LaBelle, who now has finished in second-, third-, and fourth-place at the EWC but has never won it, pre-fished near Barwick last Thursday and said he could tell almost immediately it was going to be a tough spot to land fish.
“I didn’t even go there for 10 minutes and I took my boat out,’ he said. “That’s why you’ve got to pre-fish.”
Minnesota angler Mike Svir, who placed third (11.38 pounds) with partner Mike Vacura in his first crack at the EWC last weekend, also said he was surprised so many teams insisted on fishing the west end of the tournament boundaries both days.
He expected more fishermen would go to where the water was much more clear—even if the pre-fishing near the rapids was fruitful.
“The pre-fishing you can pretty much throw out the window,” Svir said. “Fishing in dirty water, it’s just a challenge.”
But many anglers defended their decision to head west, pointing out that heading upriver was simply too dangerous given the conditions.
It’s not a good idea to attempt to learn the structure of the river in murky waters—and a number of those who fish the EWC have never even ventured towards Fort Frances by boat, Baker noted.
“People get into habits, they fish the same places,” echoed Pollard. “It’s a little late to change last-minute.”
And while few of the anglers who fished west of Emo picked up cheques on Saturday, many were able to take positives away from the two days on the oft-unpredictable river.
“We were pretty frustrated but we learned something this time,” said Baker. “Every time you going fishing, if you learn something, that’s good.”
If the anglers learned anything, suggested LaBelle, it’s that there are prize-winning fish up for grabs on both ends of the Rainy River.
“I think a lot of people figured there’s no big fish up [near the dam],” reasoned LaBelle, adding the winners in each of the previous three Classics had fished west of Emo.
“I imagine more teams will look that way next year.”
Next year. That, Barnard said, is a time he and other tournament participants will be anxiously looking forward to, especially after seeing the eventual champs pull a 10-pounder from their live well.
“Each and every angler that sees a big fish like that, they’re convinced, ‘Yep, they’re out there and I do have a chance of catching one,’” Barnard remarked. “And that’s a good thing.”
Organizers are anticipating another full field for the 2006 EWC next May. The top 50 finishers this year earned automatic berths, with the other 10 positions to be filled by a draw.