I have always had a lot of respect for Mother Nature. I’ve seen her subtle and spectacular beauty was well as her storms and fury. But last Saturday, while fishing in the Canyon Ferry Walleye Festival tournament, my respect for Mother Nature still had room to grow.
The tourney, on Canyon Ferry Lake, drew a full field of 150 teams, with a $10,000 first place prize. Like the others, my partner Jim Farrington of Stevensville and I paid $200 to enter the two-day tourney. Both of us had fished the lake quite a bit over the past two years and thought we had as good a chance to win as any other team.
On Saturday morning, Mother Nature had given us what looked to be a great fishing day. Light winds made a good “walleye chop” and there was a chance of a thunderstorm later in the afternoon. It appeared to be the same weather pattern that had taken place on Thursday and Friday.
Both of us I had enjoyed good fishing Thursday and Friday so when Farrington took off with other 149 teams at 7 a.m. to start the first tournament day, our hopes were high. The plan was to have Farrington fish until 8:30 a.m., then come to shore and pick me up after I finished broadcasting my statewide Montana Outdoor Radio Show.
When Farrington picked me up he already had a three-pound-plus walleye in the livewell. The bite was on for a lot of the anglers as they started fishing Saturday morning. The weather might have had something to do with that.
Walleyes are weather-sensitive so right before a low-pressure system comes into an area fishing is normally pretty good. Saturday morning was one of those mornings. Most of the teams in the tourney were catching fish right from the start. Some teams made two and three trips to the weigh boat to score their catch. Once you had four walleyes in the live well you had to go in.
By the time Farrington and I had returned to the south end of the lake the bite was for the most part off, at least for us. By 11 a.m., we could see dark blue clouds forming to the northwest. A storm was brewing, but we had no idea how bad it would be.
Some of the teams had the weather band tuned in on their marine radio and heard there was 45 mile an hour winds coming our way. Those teams with common sense headed back to shore, possibly risking their chances for the big cash payout. But most of the teams stayed out on the water hoping to ride it out.
But this was not just another storm.
At approximately 11:45 a.m., the wind hit with a quickness and power I have never witnessed before in a lifetime of being on a lake in a boat. Anglers reeled in their lines and started to head in. A few wouldn’t make it in the same boat they started in.
Reports now claim there were 10 and 11-foot waves created by 60-plus miles per hour winds. Being out in them, the waves looked even bigger than that.
My 20-plus-foot Crestliner slowly crept up each one and then slammed down, one wave at a time, doing it over and over, time after time. It was only six miles back to the boat ramp, but at a speed 5 miles per hour it seemed that we never would get there.
At one point, Farrington yelled to me as I navigated the boat, “Don’t look back it will scare you even more.” He later told me he saw more than half of the bottom of boats exposed as they tried to climb over the waves, only to come crashing down into the next wave. Boats as large as 18 feet swamped or capsized because they took on too much water, leaving their occupants clinging to the craft waving for help.
Six boats ended up being towed in upside down. Miraculously, nobody drowned, probably because all tournament participants were required to wear life jackets.
The local sheriff canceled the tournament for the rest of the day. The next day turned out to be beautiful and the tournament was completed on schedule, with a few less teams competing.
Even with the shortened day of fishing Saturday, 305 walleyes were weighed in compared with 215 legal fish on Sunday. Locally Richard and Michael Hoffman from Florence cashed a $1500 check for third place. Brandt Hamernick and his wife Jenny from Missoula capture 8th place and first place in the mixed couple category to receive $950 in prize money. The winning team was Don Jamison of Harlowton and John McDermott of Billings.
Farrington and I finished in 66th place but more importantly, along with the other anglers, we took what Mother Nature threw at us on Saturday and lived to fish another day.