Tournaments in the wind

Sending fishermen out in windy and hazardous conditions is not a prudent thing to do, yet we’ve seen it several times during the state’s major fishing tournaments. This has happened despite the tournaments setting aside a make-up day should it be deemed necessary. Why bother?

The North Dakota Governor’s Cup and the Dakota Walleye Classic have both made decisions in recent years to send fishermen out into waves and wind that would, and should, keep regular anglers at home. A few weeks ago the Dakota Walleye Classic sent a field of 180 boats onto Lake Sakakawea in very high winds and a forecast of even more wind later in the day. Indeed, the wind gusted up to 40 mph and Lake Sakakawea was rolling. No matter. It was Day 2 of the tournament.

But wait a minute. About a quarter of the boats in the field returned a short time after battling the huge waves in pursuit of a few walleyes. For them, the dangers and misery index far outweighed the chance to move up the leaderboard. The reality is, they never should have been on the water in the first place. Tournament officials made the call to hold Day 2 of the event that Saturday despite having Sunday in reserve if needed to complete the tourney.

I’m told a number of fishermen wanted to fish despite the whopping waves and safety factor. True, some boats and boaters can handle more wind and waves than others, but sending out an entire tournament field under such conditions is, I think, far too risky.

Fortunately all boats returned safely, although a number of them had damage due to the constant pounding of waves. Some fishermen had scary moments when water came over the front of their boat. Some tightened life jackets and fished while sitting on the floor of their boats. I’m glad no boats were sunk and no one got dunked or drowned. They certainly could have. Conditions couldn’t have been much worse.

I understand that fishermen show up to fish and tournament organizers and staff hope to conduct a two-day event, not three. But let’s be prudent here. Boats have gone under during tournaments in this state, usually while fishing during very marginal conditions for even the best boaters on the water.

When fishing tournaments choose to send boats out in weather conditions that would otherwise keep anglers at home, they are not only risking the safety of the participants but they are sending a message to others that safety considerations are secondary to fishing. That’s wrong.

I understand that fishermen and tourney officials want to do everything possible to avoid stretching out a two-day tournament to a third day, but sometimes that is exactly what the situation requires. Why take the risk of fishing in huge waves where motor trouble or a momentary lack of concentration could easily capsize a fishing boat? Why not wait a day for conditions to improve?

Tournaments require permits issued by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Perhaps that agency should take another look at tournament fishing and possibly amend their permitting process to include a weather provision, or even deny future permits to tournaments that don’t demonstrate prudent decision making.

Some fishermen can, and will, fish in virtually any conditions. Others will do so if caught up in the pressures of a tournament atmosphere. Certainly tournament anglers can withdraw and don’t have to fish if they feel conditions are too dangerous, but it is up to tournament officials to make the right choice, to take the lead, as to whether or not conditions are safe for fishing and boating.

Better safe than sorry is a very good rule to follow on the water. I hope North Dakota’s tournament organizers think about that before sending out the next fleet of small fishing boats onto unsafe water.