Always the Bridesmaid: The Walleye Side of the Fishing Industry
K.J. Houtman 05.12.14
Cursed with a passion to catch sharp-toothed, white-spot-on-the-tail, glass-eyed fish, a serious walleye angler will have to settle for a rough ride. To make it big in the fishing industry, all the money is on the bass side. However, some anglers can’t shake the chase of the walleye more than big money or fame. If that is you, here are stages to cross—if you’re ready.
The National Walleye Tour (NWT) is the biggest stage for the pro-angler side of walleye fishing. Title sponsored by Cabela’s, the circuit is only in its second season this year. It sprang into existence when the FLW cancelled their walleye division in the fall of 2012. The Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), run by the In-Fisherman folks for many years, closed up shop a decade earlier. The owner-led Angler Insight Marketing (AIM) circuit moved to team-format league events. Without the NWT, there wouldn’t be a forum for pro-co walleye fishing.
The entry fee for the NWT is $1,500 for the pro angler and $350 for the co-angler, however, an “advantage” bonus system is available on both sides for incremental earnings. With a 100 percent payout of entry fees and additional sponsor contingency bonuses, the largest payday in the walleye business exists at the NWT. Based on a field of 125 competitors, first place in the NWT earns $60,000 to $65,000 depending on contingency qualifications and including the advantage payout. The co-angler side pays out in the $6,000 to $8,000 range for first place, with the same caveats. Fishing the co-angler side is a great way to learn from the best anglers in the business.
The granddaddy of the walleye tournament world is the Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), also title sponsored by Cabela’s. Originally called the Manufacturer’s Walleye Council, the MWC launched in 1984 under the leadership of Bob “Kaz” Kaczkowski, a no-nonsense cop from Milwaukee (and a bass tournament angler and outdoor writer), and owned by a number of key sponsors, including Mercury Marine. This team-format walleye circuit experienced phenomenal growth during its first 25 years, hosting a number of full-field 200-boat tournaments. Over time, however, the participation picture changed. The ownership of the MWC changed hands three times between 1999 (when it was sponsor owned) to 2012. Under the capable leadership of The Walleye Federation (TWF), field sizes today generally range from 40 to 125 teams, with entry fees of $650 per two-person team.
This is the MWC’s 30th anniversary year and 10 events are scheduled for 2014, including a Championship for qualifiers based on points earned. Not very many anglers are full-time walleye professionals, but Johnnie Candle is one of them. “We reached our peak back in the ’90s and things have leveled out,” said Johnnie, a Stratos Boats-Mercury pro who guides year-round on Devils Lake in North Dakota. “Some of it has to do with the fact that there are simply more bass anglers across the United States. It is a numbers game and the companies have to chase the larger markets as they run their businesses. I think these two circuits are strong, though, and that we have enough participation to keep them healthy.”
There are additional regional circuits or one-off tournaments. For example, two very nice one-off tournaments are the Cabela’s National Team Championship (NTC), a large event with prestigious trophies, All-American credentials, and good payouts. Many smaller statewide circuits earn qualifying spots to the Cabela’s NTC, for which the locations and dates change each year. It boasts a large field of over 200 teams. The Mercury National tournament is a significant walleye tournament held on Lake Winnebago in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. A couple of well-run, well-respected smaller circuits are Full Throttle Fishing in Minnesota with entry fees of $200 per boat, and The Fishing Crew in South Dakota with entry fees of $450 per team.
Fishing in a tournament circuit is the best way to improve your skills, as the challenge to learn new waters and compete in less-than-stellar conditions makes a good angler even better. For those good walleye anglers out there, the NWT and the MWC are the biggest games in the fishing industry.
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.