WABASHA — On whitecapping Lake Pepin and the calm waters of the Wilcox backwater Saturday, Corey Waller cast crankbaits, spinners and plastic lures to find the best tactic for a May 7-8 bass tournament.
“We’re going to listen to the fish and let the fish tell us what they want,” said the Hampton man as we cast jerkbaits near rocks on the Minnesota side of the lake.
If he listens well enough and figures out the fish, he and fishing partner Chris Winchester, of Red Wing, could win $7,500.
Yet, even before he and scores of other bass anglers know who won, they will know the size of their biggest catch.
Just to be able to enter, each angler must have raised at least $500, said Waller, who is the tournament chairman. Last year, total fundraising was $316,650; in the 18 years, the total has exceeded $2 million.
The event began in 1998 when the Zumbro Valley Bassmasters, which is centered in the Rochester area, held a fundraiser in honor of Hiley, a fellow bass angler who died of cancer, Waller said. The first year’s total was about $10,000, said Waller who has fished all but one of the tournaments.
To help organize the event, he has spent hundreds of hours coordinating, planning, talking, promoting and dreaming of big tallies.
Notice that bass fishing isn’t in that list of things he’s done this spring. That’s right, last Saturday was the first time he took his camouflaged bass boat out this year to fish the lake and river (the tournament is from the Red Wing dam down to the Whitman dam near Minneiska).
At first, the tournament anglers launched from Treasure Island near Red Wing, but that was too much of a run down the lake and river to get to prime bass-fishing waters around Wabasha. They moved to Lake City, but that was still too far, so now they have come to Wabasha.
Though tournament preparations and fundraising have trumped actual fishing so far this spring, Waller isn’t complaining.
“I love it,” he said. “I believe everyone has to do something for somebody else.”
In his case, it’s St. Jude’s, a hospital that doesn’t charge patients anything. It relies on fundraising and donations to pay for treatment and research.
Because he has helped raise so much money over the years, Waller was able to tour the hospital.
“You would think it would be depressing to be down there,”Waller said. “It’s just the opposite.” The children might have no hair, they might be attached to tubes and bags of chemicals, but they are laughing, Waller said.
When anglers meet Friday, they will celebrate their totals and raise even more money as they bid for the first launch time. In this tournament, that coveted spot isn’t determined by luck of the draw; rather, it’s the size of the donation. Anglers can move up their starting slots, and a chance at the best spots, by taking out checkbooks and kicking up their totals.
When Friday’s dinner is done, they get serious about fishing, Waller said.
“We all want to win, don’t get me wrong,” he said.
To win, he knows they will need a “kicker” fish, a big one, 4 pounds or larger. And they all know the lake and river are loaded with kickers, also know as Big Mamas.
That’s what we were looking for Saturday.
“Come on, tell me what you want,” he said after we were fishless for a half hour.
We switched to the Pepin, Wis., rocky breakwater that was out of the wind. He caught a 1-pound smallmouth bass. Usually, those who win go after smallies because they seem to be more active early, especially on the lake and along river shores. Largemouth are more creatures of quieter waters.
I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, but then Waller showed me the correct way to fish jerkbaits using a slack-line technique. My next cast, I caught a small northern.
Another northern sliced his line. “I felt it bite and it was gone,” he said. He added another small smallie.
We went on a back-pounding run down the lake and river to near Alma, Wis., and fished the rocks. I added another northern.
He boated into the Wilcox area where we met dozens of other anglers. No one was overly enthused. Even panfish anglers weren’t catching much, and Wilcox can be spectacular for panfish.
Plastics, crankbaits, jerkbaits and spinners — we tried them all and nothing much worked. Waller added one small largemouth.
While it’s been an early spring, it doesn’t mean the fishing is going to be that much ahead.
“You can’t rush Mother Nature,” he said.