Affable emcee back for another year

It’s been more than a quarter-century since Winnipeg’s Lionel Robert, a familiar face to many in this area, became a fixture on Northwestern Ontario’s tournament fishing circuit.
And he’s been getting the same feeling right around this time of year ever since.
“You can barely wait for it. You count the days,” enthused Robert, who will kick off his summer schedule later this week when he once again will serve as emcee of the Emo Walleye Classic.
“You count the sleeps,” he added. “It’s like a kid counting another 10 sleeps until Santa is here.”
Over the past 25 years, the affable Robert has attended hundreds of tournaments—some of which might never have taken place if it weren’t for his diligent efforts in getting them off the ground.
The Emo Walleye Classic is one of those.
Robert, also was involved in spearheading the Rainy River Walleye Tournament, said the success of that derby each September got him thinking, “Emo is a great town, why doesn’t it have one [a fishing tournament]?”
He eventually approached the Emo Chamber of Commerce and it took charge. With Robert’s guidance and expertise, as well as the tireless work of a handful of volunteers, the Emo Walleye Classic was born.
And Robert hasn’t missed one yet. Then again, he isn’t known to miss many angling events.
Robert, who attended more than a dozen tournaments last year, only will be at six this season—a move he hopes will free up some more time to spend with his family (fishing, of course).
For some, attending a half-dozen events in one season would be a stretch. But for Robert, it’s his most laid-back schedule in years.
“This year I’ve cut down a lot,” he remarked. “I used to do as many as 20 [including the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship]. There are 20 weekends in a summer and I’d be gone every weekend.”
In addition to Emo, Robert also will emcee events at Dryden, Lake Despair, Morson, Red Lake, and Rainy River this year.
For the most part, choosing those derbies was a no-brainer, Robert said. It will be his first trip to Morson, but he’s no stranger to the rest of the events.
In fact, he’s been at most of them since the very beginning. “I have loyalty to the tournaments that are loyal to me,” he said.
And that adds up to a lot of derbies. This year will be his 16th at Dryden, 13th at Red Lake, and seventh in Rainy River. The Emo Walleye Classic is one of the babies of the group, but it has quickly grown on Robert.
From the boat parade to the morning launches, the weigh-ins, and the party that wraps the whole thing up, Robert said he enjoys just about every second of the event.
“I have no favourite part, it’s all so exciting,” he enthused.
And it’s not just the action that keeps Robert coming back year after year; it’s the people, as well.
“Over the years I’ve met so many people and gained so many friends,” he said. “As soon as I get in a town, all the familiar faces, all the new faces, I just love it.
“I love meeting people and talking to them.”
Ed Carlson, co-chair of the EWC organizing committee, said his group is “delighted” that the only emcee their derby has ever known made room on his schedule to come back for another year.
“Lionel has been a pretty popular personality in the district for quite some time,” Carlson said. “It is kind of special to us that he has chosen to stay with us.”
While Robert will spend a good chunk of this weekend with a microphone in his hand, he also helps enforce the EWC rules and occasionally lends a hand with fish care—an aspect of tournament fishing that’s always been very important to him.
In 1979, he had an opportunity to attend a Manitoba Pro-Am with some of North America’s best-known anglers. The fishing tips Robert picked up that weekend were valuable, but it was what he didn’t learn that really spurred him to take action.
“What they didn’t teach us was how to take care of the fish,” he said, noting there were few catch-and-release tournaments in those days.
Robert later accepted a position as a research associate at the University of Manitoba and joined a team intent on taking a closer look at tournament fishing and the number of fish being killed as a result.
After four years of tweaking, Robert and his peers perfected a formula designed to combat the impact of excessive handling of the fish and to reduce levels of stress—the two biggest killers of fish during tournaments.
The formula, which is dumped in both anglers’ live wells and the tanks at the always-popular weigh-in, has been used by a number of derbies ever since.
And Robert expects it will be used for years to come.
“I do take a sense of pride that I did my little contribution to ensure the fish survive after these events,” he said. “It’s a finite resource and I guess we finally realized that.
“If you can’t take care of the fish, don’t even have [a tournament], that’s my opinion,” he stressed.
It is Robert’s willingness to pitch in however he can, along with his many years of experience at fishing tournaments, that make him such a valuable asset at an event like the EWC, Carlson said.
“[Robert] brings a vast amount of knowledge,” he noted. “He is a great resource for us. Every time we have a question or a thought or are wondering about something, we can go to Lionel.”
The good news for Carlson and other EWC organizers is that Robert, who calls Emo his “home away from home,” said he’ll keep coming back to the annual event.
“You bet, unless they tell me otherwise,” he remarked. “As long as I’m healthy enough to do it, I’ll be there.”
After all, he never seems to be able to get in enough tournaments to satisfy his thirst for summer angling action.
“Even when I was doing 20 tournaments a year, when the last one comes around, you can’t believe [the season] is already over,” he said. “You love it so much that you just want to be there every weekend.”