Ottertail Lake, Minn.

Sixty boats idled on the calm water of Ottertail Lake just before 7 a.m. on a recent morning, the sun still low in the eastern sky but shining brilliantly with the promise of July heat. The boats, all Lunds, floated in front of Beach Bums bar and restaurant on the southwest corner of the famed walleye water, an hour or so from Fargo-Moorhead near Fergus Falls.

At the top of the hour sharp, a public address announcer in a boat that flew the U.S. flag declared in Michael Buffer style, "Let's get ready to angle!" and began sending the boats to the big body of water in numerical order, with Hall of Fame walleye angler Gary Roach in boat No. 1. The big motors roared to life and zoomed past the starter boat in search of walleyes.

It was likely that by the time the 60th boat tore from the starting area at 7:09, more than $3 million worth of Lund boats were scattered across Ottertail Lake. And given the size and style of the boats, a $50,000-per-boat average might be a conservative estimate.

"That was something to see, wasn't it?" Al Berube asked later in the day. "Pretty impressive."

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Indeed it was. That was the start of Lund Mania, an annual walleye tournament sponsored by the New York Mills, Minn., boat company. Started 11 years ago as a way to promote Lund and have a celebration in the town of 1,200 east of Detroit Lakes, Minn., the tournament has grown into a popular mid-summer event that draws both Lund-sponsored pro anglers like Roach and Ted Takasaki as well as good local fishermen who consider Ottertail their home water.

And, yes, you must have a Lund boat to be eligible for the tournament.

The first Lund Mania in 2009 didn't fill. Now there's a waiting list. Part of the reason is the top prize. The first-place, two-man team receives a new Lund worth $28,000. Not a bad return on the $350 entry fee.

"The president of Lund at the time came to the city and said, 'We want to promote fishing,'" said Berube, president of Farmers & Merchants State Bank in New York Mills and city booster who is the tournament director. "He said he wanted to do something together with the city. So we have a little celebration in town to announce the winners, we have a parade, a band and a street dance afterward. I think everybody always associated New York Mills with Lund, but I don't know if we ever worked together as much as we have on this."

This year's tournament was July 12 and I volunteered to be a spotter, a person who rides along in a tournament boat for the duration of the competition (7 a.m. to 2 p.m.) to verify catches. Lund Mania is a catch-photo-release tournament, meaning the competitors measure the length of any walleyes caught (only fish 14 inches or longer were eligible to be counted), take a photograph of them on a measuring board and then release them back into the lake. It is a format much more friendly to the conservation of a lake than old-school catch-and-kill tourneys.

At a random drawing the day before the tournament, I was assigned to be the spotter with Bemidji, Minn., angler Jason Rylander and his father, Lon, a banker from Ashby, Minn. Jason is a salesman who guides 10-15 times a summer around Bemidji. He fishes a handful of tournaments each year and is pretty good, but Lon was still recovering from a recent open-heart surgery and was understandably slowed by that.

It didn't stop Lon's wry sense of humor, though.

"You ever notice how fishermen think the fishing is better the farther away they can get from where they started?" Lon said as Jason gunned across the big lake en route to our first spot, where Jason caught several walleyes the day before.

There were, indeed, walleyes still there. At 7:30, pumping a Jigging Rap back to the boat, Jason set the hook and announced, "There's a fish!"

A couple of seconds later his shoulders slumped and he said, "Never mind." Jason hauled a small 12-inch walleye over the side of the boat, unhooked it and tossed it back into the water. It was too small to count toward the tournament.

That changed at 8:05, when Jason swept his rod tip back and set the hook on a nicer walleye. The bait this time was a leech and a Lindy rig. Lon scooped the fish out of the water with a net and said, "I think we're on the board."

The walleye measured 15.25 inches and, after the pair measured and photographed the fish (and I verified it with my signature), Lon threw the fish back into Ottertail.

"One fish down, five to go," Jason said, referring to the six-fish limit. "We didn't get blanked."

And so it went for the next couple of hours, Jason catching a walleye once in awhile and more often than not having to throw it back because it wasn't big enough. But he did chart two other counter fish, similar in size to the first "keeper."

A nearby tournament boat appeared to be having moderate success, too, casting jigs tipped with minnows into similar areas the Rylanders were fishing. Jason and Lon were trying almost everything besides that technique — jigging Raps, slip bobbers and Lindy rigs tipped with leeches, nightcrawlers or sucker minnows.

"I think throwing a jig and minnow like those guys are doing is probably more efficient than what we're doing," Jason said. "But it's not my game. You have to do what you're comfortable with and what you have confidence in. And a jig and a minnow ain't it for me."

Jason Rylander of Bemidji, Minn., battles a walleye during the Lund Mania fishing tournament July 12, 2019, on Ottertail Lake. Mike McFeely / The Forum
Jason Rylander of Bemidji, Minn., battles a walleye during the Lund Mania fishing tournament July 12, 2019, on Ottertail Lake. Mike McFeely / The Forum

The fish eventually stopped biting altogether in that first spot and Jason moved to a big mid-lake flat that a friend told him could hold fish.

It was 11 a.m. when Lon, fishing a big sucker minnow on a Lindy rig, had a bite and set the hook on what initially appeared to be a snag. Until the snag starting pumping the rod. A couple of minutes later Jason netted the pair's nicest walleye of the day, which measured 23 inches exactly. That would probably equate to a 4- or 4.5-pound walleye, pushing the Rylanders closer to a possible finish in the top 10.

It was worth a couple of whoops and a father-son hug.

Alas, it doesn't pay to get too excited while tournament fishing. It would be the last fish the Rylanders caught, although Jason did hook a 17- or 18-inch walleye that got off at the side of the boat.

By 2 p.m., all the boats returned to Beach Bums where, literally, talk was of the ones that got away, oiled by beers and mixed cocktails.

"We work on this tournament for six months," Berube said. "It's something that works for everybody involved. I think it has helped Lund and New York Mills to become closer and have an even better relationship. And it's pretty obvious the anglers like it."

The Rylanders could've used the fish that got away and another nice one or two. Their four counter fish were estimated to weigh 9.12 pounds, good for 23rd place.

Bob Schlieman and Shawn Nygard won the tournament, and the first-prize boat, with 17.14 pounds. That's an average of 2.85 pounds per six fish, one of the smaller averages for a winning team in the tournament's history.

The big fish was a 25.5 incher caught by the team of Nick Hovland and Shane Finkelson.

Six teams did not catch a walleye worth measuring.

Maybe they needed bigger boats.