GREEN BAY, Wis. Dean Arnoldussen doesn't view himself as a professional fisherman. "I just love to catch fish," he says.
He's really loving it now. The Kaukauna, Wis., native caught three walleyes weighing a combined 11 pounds, 2 ounces on Saturday, Oct. 6 to win the pro division of the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Championship. Arnoldussen collected a history-making $400,000 for the victory.
"I don't think it has sunk in yet," said Arnoldussen, hands clutching the oversized cardboard check written in his name. "I'm a pretty reserved guy, but I'm thrilled."
Arnoldussen estimates his previous career earnings as a competitive fisherman at about $7,000. Last week he took home the largest payout ever won by a professional walleye angler in a tournament, and he did it by fighting through terrible weather for fishing.
Frigid temperatures and gusty winds greeted the six pro finalists as they took off from the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay. All six competitors headed for the big water of Green Bay despite foreboding conditions. Four of them -- Arnoldussen, brothers Tom and Mark Keenan and Patrick Neu -- are friends who use a team approach. They were headed to the same spot they had had good fishing throughout the week.
But 28 miles out the four boats stopped and called back to base for help. Green Bay was throwing 5- to 10-foot waves at them, not only slowing their progress but threatening their safety as well.
"Mother Nature threw everything she had at us," Neu said.
"It was like they let the wind out of our sails," Arnoldussen added.
All four anglers received permission to trailer their boats back to the takeoff point and re-launch onto the Fox River -- much calmer but holding fewer fish.
"I'm a father first and a fisherman second," said Mark Keenan. "I think I made the right choice."
Things looked bleak for the four Wisconsin finalists, a tight-knit group who this week were dubbed the "Posse." However, prospects soon brightened for two of them. Mark Keenan's younger brother, Tom, caught two keeper walleyes 15 minutes after re-launching onto the river. Using No. 5 Shad Raps in 2 to 3 feet, the fish weighed a collective 7 pounds, 7 ounces and earned him $75,000 for second place.
"On Tuesday I went to the river to practice a bit and learned how to catch a few fish there," Keenan said. "It earned me a lot of money."
Arnoldussen, though, was the Posse-member best served by the decision to turn around. "I've fished the river my whole life and I found a couple of good spots," he said.
Fishing under bridges near downtown Green Bay, he landed two walleyes trolling Shad Raps on lead-core line with an Offshore planer board. His last fish came using a fireball jig with a night crawler.
Meanwhile, out on Green Bay Friday's leader Paul Meleen, Onamia, had made it to his spot and was battling the swells and catching fish. But he couldn't catch the enormous stringers he had caught on the second and third days and finished third with two walleyes weighing 6 pounds, 7 ounces, good for $37,500.
"I fished a shoal (near Henderson Point) in 12 to 17 feet," he said. "But the 8- to 10-foot waves would drop (the water depth) down to six feet. It was really tough, but I had to go. You saw what I did the first day on the river."
Meleen was skunked on Day One on the river, but made the biggest comeback of the tournament after heading out to Green Bay on Day Two.
"He was crazy for going out there," Arnoldussen said. "And we were crazy for attempting it."
The rest of the field had less luck than the top three. Mark Keenan, Neu and Tom Zollar all laid goose eggs on Saturday due to the nasty conditions. Keenan and Neu simply couldn't recover in time to catch the Fox River walleyes. Through tiebreakers Keenan placed fourth and took home $25,000 while Neu was fifth and won $16,000.
Like Meleen, Zollar braved Green Bay and was walloped. "I knew it was going to be big today," he said. "I went on and pretty much sunk the back of my boat." He earned $12,000 for sixth place.
Though they didn't all catch fish Saturday, the Posse still had reason to celebrate their strong collective performance at the RCL championship.
"I have no regrets," Tom Keenan said. "We placed one, two, four and five. It's going to be a big party tonight."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.