It was one of those blustery days when the wind howling across the open waters of Little Bay de Noc and Green Bay encouraged even the most hardened Professional Walleye Trail pros to pull off the water early, opting to spend a little extra time working on their tackle rather than toughing out the last few hours of on-the-water practice time. At motels all across Escanaba, Michigan, in boats and trailers, and out the open back ends of trucks and SUVs, was a beehive of activity. Anglers adorned in sponsor-logoed shirts scrambled in and out of boats, dug and re-dug into cardboard boxes, Tupperware containers,tackle boxes and storage compartments; retied spinner rigs; tightened bolts and screws; respooled lines; retied knots; compared ideas and strategies, and in general prepared for tomorrow's first day of competition. In effect, a familiar sight preceding any fishing tournament event.
Being off the water early, however, provided me a good chance to visit with many pros, catch up on recent events and travels, scope out their tackle, and discuss their game plans for the upcoming contest. The talk turned to how much tackle they not only carried in their vehicles and boat compartments, but also how much more still remained at home in garages and basements, and to the things they'd wished they'd brought and the things they'd brought but probably wouldn't need.
Amidst one such conversation with pro Phil Wilson Sr., a familiar term popped up. "My wife would say I'm out here playing with my tackle again," he chuckled. Whoa. Playing. That's the exact same word my wife uses when I'm tripping over a similar array of boxes in the garage or hunkering down amidst an armada of "stuff" sprawled across the picnic table and driveway, diligently working to prepare for an upcoming trip or to update my tackle selection. So I repeated the rounds and polled the guys. Lo and behold, many agreed that the word "playing" was indeed the term most spouses applied to their dedicated organizational efforts.
"Need to go play with your tackle for awhile?" my dutiful, beautiful wife occasionally encourages. In my particular case, though, it seems that after 45 minutes or so -- about the time it takes to locate the things I'm looking for and to just begin working on them -- she usually begins wondering what I've been doing all that time and when I'm going to be finished. Play time's over -- but that's OK. As an editor who can make fish bite on paper more easily than a touring pro makes them bite on the water, I don't have big money on the line while fishing, so I can usually squeak by with whatever tackle's relatively handy -- even if it occasionally costs me a fish or two. That's the tradeoff.
In the case of touring walleye pros, however, play time often runs into the wee hours, day after day, making sure everything is shipshape and ready to rumble. It begins prior to the tournament and includes repairing and replacing each day's casualties and updating selections for tomorrow's efforts.
Note the difference in terminology. To the casual observer, the term "playing" may seem appropriate, switching this color of crankbait for that one, changing hooks, respooling lines, probing and stacking and reconfiguring the same boxes in an apparently endless shuffle. I must admit that, to the uninitiated, it probably looks like a bunch of little boys playing with their toys -- and, as someone once said, the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys. But from the professional's perspective, it's far from fun time. It's working and is a vital aspect of competition. If you don't invest the time and effort to keep every element of your gear in top form -- boat, motor, trailer, vehicle, rods, reels, lines, lures, rigs, accessories, and the like -- you're done for. You can't compete on an equal level with the guys who are locked and loaded and ready for action.
Pro or weekend angler, the first time a weak link emerges between you and that big fish out there -- ping! -- something's gonna give. If you know how that feels, imagine the additional anguish that a broken line causes when a big walleye gets away in competition. That's not just a big fish; it's potentially thousands of dollars in earnings, perhaps a shot at a tournament victory, along with the ensuing publicity that a win can generate for you and your sponsors.
If your outboard goes down and you don't get back on time for weigh-in; if your electric trolling motor fizzles at midday because the battery didn't take a sufficient charge; and yes, if you simply don't have the right lure style or color pattern in the boat for the day's conditions, your catch suffers. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes a little. Sometimes just enough to make the difference. Bad luck? Sometimes. Poor preparation? More likely.
The amount of play time required also depends on the variety of species and the waters you pursue. If you fish for walleyes using only livebait rigs and jigs, well, it shouldn't take too much preparation to keep yourself rigged and ready. But if you travel extensively and fish many waters where the walleyes could be anywhere, from in the weeds to suspended over vast open basins -- well, that requires a formidable arsenal of tackle and gear to cover all the options. And if you toss in pike and smallmouths and muskies and crappies and steelhead and who knows what else, with all their accompanying wrinkles and requirements in tackle, well, the fun never ends.
In-Fisherman founder Al Lindner often said that he probably spent as much time working on his tackle as other people spend fishing. That's the hallmark of a serious angler, whether it's in competition or just trying to make every bite count. So, the next time your spouse wonders why you always need to spend so much time playing with your tackle before each and every trip, huddled amidst the boxes out there in the cold, dark, rainy, mosquito-infested wilderness of the backyard, just slap on a big silly grin and tell the truth.
Because it's so darn much fun!