When the Professional Walleye Trail begins its 14th season at Lake Erie this week some notable competitors will be missing from the field.
Where have you gone Jimmy Bell, Steve Bissett, Dave Hanson, John Hertensteiner, Charlie Johnson, Paul Meleen and Gary Roach?
Some to other circuits, some to retirement and some are taking a year off. For like walleyes, walleye fishermen don't stay in the same place all the time. They're constantly on the move, looking for bigger and better forage.
One of the more tempting morsels currently dangling before the walleye tournament fisherman is the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour, which arrived with a splash three years ago and immediately got the attention of walleye pros everywhere. Dozens of anglers dumped their current boat and bought a Ranger, Crestliner or Lund, the only manufacturers allowed in RCL competition. The break from former sponsors was hard for many, but it's harder to ignore a circuit that pays its winners $50,000 cash plus a fully-rigged boat at qualifying tournaments plus up to $150,000 at the Championship. The PWT pays roughly the same to winners of its qualifying tournaments and $100,000 to the winner of the Championship.
It's a decent payday no matter which tour you win on. Some tournament anglers prefer the RCL format, in which the field is narrowed to 20 boats after two days, 10 boats for the final day and all competitors start with zero weight for the final. The PWT will have a new points system this season to determine its Championship winner, but individual tournaments still will be decided by total weight for three days, and all competitors fish all three days.
"Some people see it as an us versus them but it's not," said Jim Kalkofen, PWT executive director. "The success of the PWT has paved the way for a lot of other circuits. Twenty states now have their own walleye circuit, and others are multi-state. Then there are the big stand-alone tournaments like the Wave Wacker, Leech Lake Classic, the governor's cups and the Mercury Nationals. All of them are good for walleye tournament fishing."
Kalkofen said he is not alarmed by the defection of some PWT pros to the RCL.
"There are all sorts of reasons why people fish one circuit or another," Kalkofen said. "In some cases the geography fits them better, or the timing of the dates is better. Of course we'd like our pros to stay with us, but there's always turnover, there has been from the start. One thing we're seeing is that there are more pros who are serious about working with the media, the public and their sponsors. They fish as many circuits as they can."
The reasons why area pros who qualify for both the RCL and PWT but who are fishing just one or the other are several.
Charlie Johnson, Merrifield: "The RCL just worked better with my personal schedule. My mother's sick and my brother's getting married. I love the PWT, I feel bad I'm not fishing it, but this year it just didn't fit. Plus, I did so well on the RCL last year (a win at Lake Sharpe) that I want to give it a full shot."
Bill Grunewald, Merrifield: "I really struggled with the decision, but the RCL just fit my schedule better. I plan on going back to the PWT next year."
Rich Boggs, Nisswa: "I'm doing just fine on the PWT and I can't take the time off from work to fish the RCL. With two young kids I can't be away from home that long. But I had some good tournaments on the RCL and I'll fish it again. The money difference between the two isn't that far off."
Gary Roach, Merrifield: "I was busy doing shows this spring and when I finally got over to (PWT headquarters) to give them my check they told me they were full. I guess I missed the boat. It's too bad 'cause I was with them from the start. I did everything I could to promote In-Fisherman and the PWT. "
Roach isn't the only pro who found the PWT door shut. More than 50 pro applicants were denied this year, Kalkofen said. With the pro ranks growing, more are certain to be turned away in coming years. Future PWT events will be limited to touring pros only, Kalkofen said. Pros who want to fish just one tournament when and where it suits them will be denied. The RCL still accepts single-tournament applications providing the applicant has a co-angler lined up or there is a co-angler available on the waiting list.
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