Moline, Ill. Marty Barski of Crystal Lake, Ill., summarized the pleading sentiment of anglers during the recent FLW Walleye Championships as they ran their boats out on the unforgiving Mississippi River.
"Please," he said. "One fish."
It was a plaintive request for top-notch fishermen who enter each tournament with the goal of putting a five-fish limit in the box every day. But although walleye appeared on fish finders in mobs, most seemed less interested in chomping at bait than doing the backstroke.
Barski, 58, is a retired high school teacher who was one of the seasonlong 50 top-scoring anglers paired with 50 top-scoring pros in the $650,000 event that is the sport's richest walleye tournament.
He finished fourth and collected $6,500 for work that seemed like play. Barski described himself as a fishing addict who ordinarily can't find enough friends to keep him company on lakes.
"They wouldn't go," he said. "I have to go. This (event) was a tremendous opportunity to learn."
If Barski felt like he was taking a postgraduate class, many of the pros felt like they had been sent back to kindergarten by the peculiar nature of America's most storied river.
They faced unseasonably warm weather for late September and early October. They did their practice fishing on a low river, and then watched the river rise. The walleye probably stayed put because they were confused. The anglers roamed all over the river because they were confused.
The 10 finalists fished nine hours on the tournament's last day and were more dumbfounded than fish-rich. Some of them toted empty plastic bags onto the stage for the weigh-in and had to flash their zeros for an audience being filmed for a Dec. 3 TV program on the event.
"The last two days," said ninth-place finisher Ross Grothe of Northfield, Minn., "I think they disappeared."
Not entirely. Winner Rob Lampman, 55, of DeSoto, Wis., claimed the $125,000 first prize by weighing 21 pounds 6 ounces of fish over the final two days, including a clinching 5-pound-5-ounce beauty.
When the finalists paraded on stage to start the weigh-in, Rick Olson of Mina, S.D., mimicked lugging his bag as if it were loaded down with too many fish. Nice try.
On the last day Olson weighed two fish weighing 2 pounds 8 ounces. And though he placed sixth and won $11,200, he was at a loss to explain what happened after his first two days of 22-6 gave him the lead.
"Boy, I wish I knew," he said.
Among the best walleye fishermen in the nation, five of the finalists caught zero or one fish during the final 7 a.m.-4 p.m. catching day.
When third-placer Kevin Goligowski of Maplewood, Minn., pantomimed a search for fish in his empty bag, Dorn said, "No need to put it over your head."
Lampman had nothing to hide. When his big fish clinched the big prize, he raised his arms over his head in victory. It was a gesture of celebration and a little bit of a surprise.
"I thought he was going to get me," Lampman said of Kehl. "This is the most exciting thing in my life ever, other than when I got married."