Have you ever made a friendly wager on who will catch the first fish, biggest fish or most fish?
If not, you should. It is the perfect way to ruin a relaxing day.
I know because last year my buddies and I finally put to paper the rules of our annual walleye opener fishing contest. To us, this document would rival the importance of the Magna Carta or a Super Bowl party pizza delivery list, so we penned it with exacting care.
We did so because the team that caught the most inches of fish would win yearlong rights to a new 3-foot Rapala lure replica. This treble-hooked traveling trophy would be presented, signed and dated as part of a post-fish fry ceremony on the shore of Leech Lake. Just imagining such an honor inspired all of us to further hone such important angling skills as fibbing, feigning ignorance and solemnly pointing to a distant-yet-never-fished shore and saying, “Yup, that’s where we caught ’em.”
Sadly, however, our first crack at a well-run contest was fouled by rules as muddy as the Minnesota River after a rainstorm. This turbidity was discovered on tournament day, and it created the kind of chaos that makes a Florida election appear the pinnacle of democratic integrity.
Specifically, the definition of “camp” became a real chad-hanger. The precise meaning was critical because the official weigh-in — or more accurately measure-in — was scheduled at 5 p.m. at “camp.” Boat partners Greg Kvale, Pete Kvale and I argued eloquently that “camp” was written in the rules to mean the Stony Point campground rather than the campsite where our travel trailers were settled. We made this appeal for two good reasons. One, you can’t get a 115-horsepower outboard motor to push a boat 400 miles an hour. And, two, we landed at the campground at 5 p.m. but did not amble into the campsite until 5:05 p.m.
Regrettably, our plea for a more liberal interpretation was lost in a din of knee-slapping, belly-laughing and guffawing from the two other fishing teams that labeled us “the late, the losers and the disqualified.”
The second contentious rule interpretation involved measuring boards. This unexpected snag surfaced because the team comprised of Gary Drotts, Dick Stoltman and Mike Marlatt brought to the measure-in a walleye that was clearly legal when placed on one board yet questionable when plopped on a second, held in a certain way, flattened with hydraulic force and measured to the micron with an electron microscope. The discovery of a dubious fish resulted in quite the kerfuffle.
Stoltman, a retired law officer, swore on the camp’s box of bismarcks that the fish must have grown markedly in a mere matter of hours for its length was definitely shorter when scaled on the open water. He opined that the fish had experienced an amazing growth spurt as it foraged on golden shiners that had escaped in mass from the livewell’s minnow bucket. This hooey, of course, was among the more lucid observations made that day but roundly rejected nonetheless.
Thankfully, the situation resolved itself when the Drotts team graciously agreed to withdraw the fish from competition. It did so for two reasons. One, the team did not want its peerless reputation stained with suspicion. And, two, members the team were under the mistaken impression they had many more total inches of fish than the Rad Royer team or we, and therefore this 17.999999-inch walleye was superfluous to sealing victory.
But they were wrong.
They needed the fish because the rules allowed “any” legal game fish to be measured. This was a departure from past practice that the other teams — and I say this with all due respect — stupidly overlooked. And do you know what? The rock bass is a game fish. So, when these rascals began to bite — into the livewell they went, even though never before had a rockie taken a ride to shore.
So, quite the ruckus erupted when the senior Kvale pulled the last walleye from our 5-gallon pail, conceded our catch was 2 feet short of the Drotts team’s total, and then, after premature celebrating with high-fives and bottle-clinking by the supposed victors, announced loudly and proudly: “And now let’s measure our red-eyes.”
The first 10-inch rock bass was greeted with a “No way!” heard 10 miles yonder. The second 10-incher received a rebuke that echoed to the Azores. And when two more big rockies were plopped on the picnic table an astronaut aboard the International Space Station turned to his partner and asked, “Did you just hear, “Bull-tweeet?’ ” The reply: “I thought I heard ‘-sheeet.’ ”
Alas, there was no clear winner in 2017 due to two questionable rule interpretations and one perceived ethics violation for actually keeping and eating a bass. These days, “camp” is defined to mean “campsite.” Similarly, only one “official” measuring board is allowed. Unchanged is the ability to bring any legal game fish to measure-in, a stipulation the Drotts team used to good effect this year. Its impressive catch of perch and pair of chunky walleye far outdistanced the combination of walleye and northern pike that the Kvales and I brought to camp. The Royer clan, as is its destiny, finished third yet again.
What will happen next year? Who knows? It would be nice to enjoy a relaxing day of fishing — but what fun is that?
C.B. Bylander is a freelance writer. He lives near Brainerd.