MILLE LACS – Parking their rigs a half-mile or so from this lake in a haphazard circle reminiscent of a gypsy caravan, these fishing-tournament pros spend much of their time waiting, with no intention of casting a line or catching a bass.
Some don’t even fish, and at least one wouldn’t eat a walleye or other piscatorial delicacy if it arrived on a silver platter.
Yet with their pickups and trailers stuffed with tools, their cellphones always within reach and their mechanical prowess on a par with NASCAR’S best pit bosses, they play a vital role in the success of big-time fishing tournaments, such as the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year competition that concludes Sunday on Mille Lacs.
“My anglers have my number and they can call me any time, day or night,’’ said Steve Catlin, who travels the U.S. for Evinrude.
As Catlin spoke, he installed new spark plugs in a 250-horsepower Evinrude E-TECH G2 that swung from the transom of a metalflaked Ranger bass boat owned by pro staffer Andy Young of Mound.
Young isn’t fishing in the Angler of the Year contest, but he stopped by for the tune-up work, knowing Catlin had been assigned to support the Evinrude-sponsored Bassmaster pros who have plied Mille Lacs in recent days.
Not far from Catlin’s fix-it trailer, which is wrapped with fancy decals promoting the Evinrude brand, are similarly decked-out rigs representing Mercury and Yamaha outboards, as well as Power Pole anchor systems, Skeeter, Ranger, Phoenix, Nitro, Triton and other boats, and a host of fishing-electronic brands, including Humminbird, Lowrance, Garmin and Ray Marine.
The goal of each is to keep their sponsored anglers on the water and fishing every allowed minute of every day of every tournament.
It’s a job that gets both easier and more challenging by the year.
Easier because boats, motors and fishing electronics are constantly improving. More challenging because boats, motors and fishing electronics are ever more complex — and because the prize money and associated glory for angler and equipment manufacturer alike can be huge.
A total of $1 million will be awarded Sunday, for example, to the 50 Elite Series anglers who qualified to compete in the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (BASS) Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year tournament.
Top prize of $100,000 and the Angler of the Year trophy will go to the fisherman who, after the Mille Lacs contest, has amassed the most points during 10 Elite Series tournaments this year.
Not only are winning anglers in the spotlight at these tourneys, the equipment they use is, too. Manufacturers spend a lot of money each year vying for the attention of everyday anglers who in some form or fashion want to emulate the pros, if only by using the gear they promote.
So it is that the marine techies who travel the country to support tournament anglers are in many ways as much a part of a manufacturer’s marketing department as its repair department.
Said Catlin, “I’m here to make sure my anglers fish every day, and by doing so, to promote a positive image for our motors.’’
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Tournament anglers competing at the highest level drive big boats powered by big motors that go very fast because every minute they spend not fishing is considered lost time.
So every day of every tournament when these pros don’t have a line in the water, they’ve got the hammer down on their equipment, often running 70 miles an hour or even faster, weather permitting.
Or even if weather isn’t permitting.
“Equipment today is dependable,’’ said Joby Smith, who works for Johnson Outdoors, maker of Humminbird Electronics, Minn Kota trolling motors and Talon anchor systems. “But if anyone can break a piece of equipment, these guys can.’’
Outboard-motor tech crews at Mille Lacs in recent days have been prepared for any calamity. If a motor blew (none did), they could swap power heads in 45 minutes. Tear off a lower unit? A half-hour and the angler would be back on the water.
On big lakes like Mille Lacs and on huge reservoirs like those in the South where many bass tournaments are held, anglers with motor problems sometimes are towed to the nearest boat-launch site and met there by a repair crew.
“Crew’’ in these instances usually means one highly skilled guy with a lot of tools in his truck and/or trailer.
Motors, including electric trolling motors, are repaired on site, while electronics with issues are swapped out to save time. Boat problems, meanwhile, can include pump, electrical and steering-wheel issues. Most work is done free of charge to anglers because they run new gear every year and it’s under warranty.
Andy Stallings of Lebanon, Tenn., who represents Phoenix bass boats of Winchester, Tenn., is the elder statesman of the traveling repair crews. He’s been on the road supporting tournament anglers so long, he said, that he’s fixed gear for multiple generations of pro-angler families.
Called “Papa Bear,’’ by his traveling mates, Stallings advises younger techies on where to stay and eat at various tournament locations.
“All of us have contacts with our manufacturing engineers,’’ Stallings said. “Anything we see during repairs that we think could be done better we report to them so adjustments can be made. That’s another benefit of sponsoring tournament anglers. They test the equipment for us.’’
With the tournament year winding down, the tech crews are looking forward to spending more time at their homes in November and December.
Until then — as they have the past week at Mille Lacs — they’ll keep their tools neatly organized and their cellphones handy.
Some, like David White of Springfield, Mo., with Power Pole shallow-water anchor systems, will pass the time by pulling bows from their trucks and firing arrows at portable targets.
Said Kevin Davenport of Mountain Home, Ark., with Triton boats, “We’re like a band of brothers.’’