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WALLEYE FISHING BOOM IS 'GOING BONKERS'

WALLEYE FISHING is booming. Not just along the Hamburg shore, where these days (or, rather, nights) a flotilla of small craft trolls the mudline to pick up these tasty fish.

Nope, we're talking here about a walleye pro tournament circuit.

"I predict in the next 10 years walleye fishing is going to be 'it' nationwide," says Bob Kaczkowski, executive director of the Manufacturers Walleye Council, the nation's first walleye tournament circuit, based in Franklin, Wis.

"All the way from New York to the state of Washington, walleye fishing is going bonkers.

"We're five years old and have 10 tournaments going in the Midwest now. I have bids from New York and states out west. And our fields fill up fast. We have a 300-boat tournament coming up in June on Lake Winnebago, Wis., that filled within 36 hours after announcing it."

The Southtowns Walleye Chapter should take heart at that.

The Southtowns Derby is set June 17-24, with $16,750 in cash prizes and another $15,000 in merchandise to be drawn by lot from among all the entries (check any tackle store in the area for sign-up information).

But Kaczkowski sees the walleye boom only in part because of contests.

The walleye is a Northern river fish that has been transplanted successfully as far south as Louisiana and to the west side of the Rockies.

"Fort Pierce (S.D.) probably has the hottest walleye fishing in the country today," Kaczkowski says. "Everyone comes in with stringers of 7-pound fish. And in Montana and Washington State, too. They have the fish; they don't have the fishermen -- yet."

Kaczkowski works part time for the council, which is only a sanctioning body.

The partners' events, organized locally, pay back 80 percent of all the $200 entry fees. Winners take home between $7,000 and $15,000. The rules require live release and council events average a 95 percent survival rate, he says.

"I think we are proving that catching walleye calls for a lot of skills, a lot of variety of technique," Kaczkowski says. "Walleye fishing today is not just worm-dunking to try to catch a meal."

And spring is when walleye fishing really picks up.

"With spring walleye, often it's feast or famine," says Kaczkowski. "They always school tight. Usually, if you find one, you're going to find a ton of them."

He thinks the river walleyes provide more sport and more technical challenge, but whether in stream or lake, action begins when the water warms to 45 degrees

Come summer, small, whole night crawlers and leeches drifted on a worm harness will be the effective baits.

And the tournament circuit has debunked the idea that walleye are caught only at night.

"Based on the experience of a 3,025-fishermen tournament last year, most of our fish are caught between 11 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon in less than eight feet of water -- and the bigger fish have come on very hot, bright days," Kaczkowski says.

"Believe it or not, the largest fish caught on our circuit, a 12 1/2 -pounder, was caught at noon in 3 1/2 feet of water on a mid-lake hump on a 102-degree day."

But on Lake Erie, where walleye don't relate to structure the way inland fish do, Kaczkowski believes it's a better idea to "forget structure and find the baitfish; find the minnows, you'll find the walleye."

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