The 25th anniversary of the MWC Illinois River tournament is less than two weeks away. For my MWC partner, Shooter (Scott Pirnstill) and I it will be our sixth straight. This tournament is special to me for a number of reasons.
Even though I grew up only an hour and fifteen minutes from the tournament site I only fished the IL River once prior to fishing my first tournament in 2006. In 1983 or 1984 the river was getting a lot of attention as it was re-awaking after being used as a dumping ground for much of the 20th century. I was a wide eye kid addicted to fishing and a regular reader of Midwest Outdoors Magazine. In one of the spring issues I saw a headline “First Annual White Bass Tournament”. I sent my $5 entry fee in and begged my parents to take me.
I read everything I could find on how to catch white bass. I watched every fishing show that was on TV hoping for any tips that would help me. I scraped up enough money to buy a couple of sonars, gay blades, little george’s, road runners and twister tails. I was so excited to go and literally counted the days.
Two days before the big day I was pitching in a Babe Ruth league game. I was covering home plate after a passed ball (Brian Rubis will say it was a wild pitch). I stepped on home plate and slipped as I was reaching for the ball. The runner slid and kneed me in the head. I probably had a concussion but it went down as my bell being rung. Regardless, my dad said that I could not fish the white bass tournament. I was absolutely crushed. I threw an absolute fit and finally my dad agreed to take me to the tournament. I am sure the only reason he agreed was he knew it was the only way to shut me up.
I set up on the wall at the Starved Rock dam and casted everything in my tackle box. Not only did I not catch a fish but I did not get a bite. I was disappointed but remember thinking “if I only had a boat”.
Fast forward twenty-two years or so to 2006. I had always wanted to fish tournaments and finally had a boat to give it a try. I had hired a local guide, Joe Okada, to take a customer out on Lake Mendota. Joe encouraged me to find a partner and fish the first tournament of the year on the IL River. I called up ‘Ol Shooter and we signed up. We were as blind to this tournament as I was in the first White Bass tournament.
We pre-fished for the tournament and ending up finding some decent fish on the Thursday before the tournament. Disappointment soon followed as the computer on my outboard motor went bad and no one had one in stock. That meant we had to fish the tournament with my 15 horse kicker motor. I was again crushed. Upstream we could go a healthy 3.1 mph while downstream we maxed out a blazing 4.1 mph!
Honestly, I don’t think we thought we had a chance to do well with my motor running, now with only my kicker motor we didn’t think we had a chance at all. That is exactly what happened the first day as we caught one 2.93 lb. sauger that was good for something like 181st out of 220 boats. I remember ‘Ol Shooter saying “We are good fishermen but these guys are really good”. Basically he thought we were over our heads.
With no expectations on day 2 we putted up river just hoping to catch a fish. Just like the day before we caught a nice one early and instead of feeling sorry for ourselves we actually started fishing. We went through a bit of a lull but then we put on a clinic right in the middle of a pack of boats that was not catching anything.
We ended up catching our limit that was the eighth heaviest weight of the day. Eighth heaviest out of 220 really good teams? Holy Crap! We zoomed up and finished 57th. Now we did not make a dime but this gave us the confidence that we could compete at a high level and I have been hooked ever since.
In 2008 we were 4th after day one and ended up 11th. In 2009 we finished 3rd. We had opportunities to win in both of these tournaments but just didn’t get it done. There are not a lot of opportunities to win at this level so when you have a chance you have to take advantage. Hopefully, we are a little wiser and will use our experience to close the door if we are in the hunt.
Is this our year? I sure hope so. I do know one thing for sure, I can’t blame it on not having a boat!