Spring fishing opener is right around the corner, and for thousands of Minnesotans, that means getaways to one or more of the state’s fabled lakes. The lucky citizens of Bemidji, however, don’t even have to leave town to be “gone fishing.”
Framed by 400 fishing lakes within a 25-mile radius and crowned by “Paul Bunyan’s footprint,” Lake Bemidji, this northern Minnesota community is a year-round magnet for anglers, with its promise of muskie, perch, bass, crappies, and the regional pride, walleye. The excitement comes to a crescendo each June as Bemidji plays host to the Kraus-Anderson Walleye Classic (KAWC).
Now in its 14th year, the event has earned its reputation as one of the Upper Midwest’s premiere fishing competitions. The live-release fishing tournament draws top fishermen from the five-state region and Canada to Lake Bemidji and Lake Irving, offering over $60,000 in cash and prizes including a $12,500 grand champion purse. Last year’s tournament was a sellout, with 100 two-person teams in the competition, and this year organizers expect a waiting list. (Why wait? Get your entry form here)
The KAWC is much more than a fishing event. It is also a community builder. Since its inception in 2001 the event has donated over half a million dollars to local charities. Proceeds of $37,000 from the 2013 KAWC benefited Bemidji Youth League Baseball, Take a Kid Fishing, Boy Scouts of America, Special Olympics, Let’s Go Fishing, Wounded Warrior Guide Service, MN DNR and Fishing Has No Boundaries.
In addition to the anglers, some 1,500 guests turn out for the festivities, which include a boat parade, outboard boat raffle, food tents and family-friendly games and contests in Bemidji Park throughout the day. See promo video (video production by Jake Flaa)
“It’s a win-win event for the entire community,” says tournament coordinator Tracy Pogue. “The businesses, sponsors, charities and volunteers– Everyone works together, and everyone benefits.”
It’s even a pretty good deal for the fish. A major effort goes into minimizing stress to the walleyes so that they can stay healthy and return to the lake to do their part for repopulation. Working in cooperation with MN DNR requirements, the live release fishing tournament is scheduled in late spring to target milder water temps lower than 70 degrees. But efforts go far above and beyond to protect the fish.
Each team is limited to five walleye maximum, and catches are kept in a live well on the boat. Once ashore, each fish migrates through a series of pump tanks on its way to being weighed and measured, a process that is designed to keep them out of the water for less than a minute. After weighing is completed, each fish is monitored by a conservation officer and volunteers from local fisheries in a tented holding tank for several minutes until it is deemed fit to return to the lake.
Event proceeds support DNR walleye management activities, which have included walleye telemetry and spawning studies, hatchery equipment, pH monitoring equipment, and the purchase of a new outboard for harvesting fingerlings (cigar-sized youngster walleyes) for stocking programs. While Lake Bemidji is supported by natural reproduction and requires no supplemental walleye stocking, other local lakes are stocked. It is the healthy self-sustaining walleye population in Lake Bemidji that is important to protect.
All the attention to detail has paid off.
“The Kraus-Anderson Walleye Classic is clearly the premiere walleye tournament in northern Minnesota,” commented Steve Holley of North Central Door, a sponsor and president of the Greater Bemidji Development Corporation. “In addition to the huge economic impact to our community, this tournament draws attention to our community and region, highlighting our enormous resources, both human and natural.”
Stalwart support of the KAWC begins with over 40 sponsors, some of whom are involved in planning year-round.
“It’s a really great community event and we’re happy to be part of it,” said Gary Jourdain, marketing director for Seven Clans Casino, which just signed on for another three-year term as presenting sponsor for the KAWC. “We try to help us much as we can.” The casino is operated by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, which also promotes its fishing opportunities at the event. Proceeds from the KAWC also have benefited the Red Lake and Ponemah Boys & Girls Clubs.
Preparations for the KAWC shift into high gear around March. A core of around 260 volunteers, including sponsors and charity partners, keep everything running smoothly, executing details from event set up beginning on Tuesday to helping with weigh-in, to running the children’s programs to dismantling the event when it’s over. Their contribution allows the tournament to return 90% of entry fees to the fisherman in prize money, said Pogue.
Pogue and Kraus-Anderson’s Bemidji office director of operations Bob Fitzgerald were part of a core of civic leaders who conceived of the event back in 2001 as a way to not only showcase the lake, but to celebrate and enrich the community. Now director of marketing for the KA Bemidji office, Pogue succeeds Fitzgerald as tournament coordinator.
“We could never have created this without the support and enthusiasm of our community,” said Pogue. “Every year just gets better.”
“When you look at the life cycle of these tournaments, they’re usually around 6 or 7 years,” said Chelsea Oldham, Kraus-Anderson office manager and marketing coordinator, who’s also been at the epicenter of the KAWC since 2006.
“We’ve got the business community backing us, we’ve got the families and the volunteers and the charities backing us, and we’re growing. That’s the power of this community.”
The event’s staying power can be attributed to many things, but it probably all comes back to the opportunities it provides people to take a sense of ownership in a competition where everyone wins.
“There are a lot of people who participate in the tournament, even though they know they aren’t likely to win anything,” said Jo Clayton, a sponsor with Northland Tackle and a volunteer with Take a Kid Fishing. “You know you’re still benefiting the community. If you lose, you’ve still won!”