There's a longstanding, anonymous saying about angling: "Catch-and-release fishing is a lot like golf. You don't have to eat the ball to have a good time."
Wisconsin's competitive fishermen can surely relate. Since most tournaments are catch-and-release, anglers aren't reeling in their lunch or dinner out on the lakes. So is it for the money? Last year, over 75,000 anglers competed in 559 tournaments around the state for a total of almost $3.2 million in prize money, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. But though the best of the best may be able to eke out a profit, the vast majority aren't in it for the pay-out either.
"Professional fishing takes a lot of money," says Russ Cable of Waunakee. "If you were to go fish the Bassmaster circuit, it's $5,000 just to get in. And then you have to travel on the road. There's a lot of guys fishing professionally who live out of their trucks. You're on the water 12 hours a day at times almost every single day."
Fellow bass angler Eric Pederson agrees.
"You've got to have a career job," says Pederson. "You can't make a living around here just by fishing. Actually, you can't even make enough money to pay your expenses."
Pederson and his teammate, Brian Saari, at least covered their expenses in the Big Bucks Bass tournament on Lake Monona, Lake Waubesa and Upper Mud Lake on June 24. The duo took home $160 for the largest fish and $1,360 for the greatest total weight. Their biggest catch came in at 6.10 pounds and group of six fish at 18.32 pounds.
"When it's good, the Madison chain is probably one of the best bass fisheries in the entire state," says Pederson.
However, it may be losing some of that reputation. As more weeds are removed, bass lose habitat and fewer large fish remain, according to Cable. It hasn't slowed down Saari and Pederson, who compete almost every weekend, mostly in Dane County. Fewer than 10 tournaments were held in Dane County in 2011, while Winnebago County led the way statewide with 50.
The stalled economy has had an effect on the sport. Last year, there were fewer tournaments than in 2010 or 2009. According to Pederson, tournaments that used to draw 50 to 60 anglers now have 20 to 30 show up.
"With the tough economy right now, it's just the smaller core group of fishermen sticking it out," Pederson says.
So if it's not for the money or a good meal, what really brings out the anglers?
"I do it for the competition," says Pederson. "You just go out there and see how you match up with everybody else. But it's important to just stay humble and not to get an ego. Most days the fish win."
The Madison-area tournament fishermen are a pretty close-knit group; everyone knows each other. But that camaraderie doesn't mean there's any sharing of secrets. For the diehards, fishing is much more than blind casting. They are truly hunting the fish. These guys study the constantly changing patterns of fish schools and, thanks to high-tech gadgets like GPS, know exactly where to find them.
"You may hide some things from the other fishermen," says Cable. "When we get on the water, it's all game. It's just like any sport. You can be friends, but once you get on the court, on the field, on the water, it's on."
For local muskie aficionado Michael Fidler, it goes even further. "Any time you're out on the lake, there's a chance you could catch a world record. And it could happen during a tournament."
Fidler would know. In October 2010, he reeled in a 49½-inch muskie at the Best of the Best Tournament in Green Bay. Fidler and his brother Steve raked in $5,000 for the biggest catch and biggest group catch.
"The good guys are always going to be the professionals, but you've always got a shot," says Fidler. "If I play Ryan Braun in softball, he's going to beat me every time. But I can compete and beat the best guys in the world on a good day on the lake."
A good day on the lake typically ends in the early afternoon, after a 6 or 7 a.m. start. Once the poles are back in the boat, things are more relaxed. Fishermen congratulate each other and kick back with a few beers together. It's a lot like golf in that way too.
The next Dane County fishing events are the Angler's Edge and Big Bucks Bass tournaments, both held on Lake Monona, Lake Waubesa and Upper Mud Lake on Sunday, July 8.