Brett King: Anatomy of A Year On The Road To AIM’s Angler of The Year
Dec 14th, 2011 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Dec 14th, 2011 at 1:26 PM
Bet on it. Every walleye pro—including the eventual winner of the AIM Pro Walleye Series™ and J.J. Keller Fishing Team Angler of the Year—has doubts when they get the green flag in every tournament.
Just like any weekend angler wondering if he or she went to the right spot or chose the right lure, they’re wondering whether a key decision will lead to victory, or watching someone else take home a tournament check. And this season, nearly until landing his last fish at Akaska, Brett King was no different.
After hanging in the middle of the pack early in the season, then coming on strong to eventually win the coveted J.J. Keller Fishing Team Angler of The Year title and $10,000 from the J.J. Keller Fishing Team, King definitely had doubts about his chances every time he left the dock. It comes with the territory, he said, especially with hard-chargers like Tommy Skarlis, Robert Blosser, Mike Gofron and Ross Grothe on his tail from start to finish.
And, it was just like King to keep his entire family—who’d joined him for September’s AIM Pro Walleye Series International Championship in Akaska, S.D.—in suspense as he walked to the stage, knowing in his heart that he’d made the right choices to win one of tournament walleye fishing’s most prized titles.
After all, he’d felt that pressure and suspense all season, from the snows of Winneconne in April, to the winds that had churned South Dakota’s Missouri River into five-foot waves in September. Why not, finally, exhale and release some of that pressure, when one wrong turn or presentation over four tournaments would have produced a totally different outcome, by playing a little practical joke on them, and everyone else, for that matter?
Luck, planning, making the right decisions under pressure, and destiny, were with King this year. That, King said, is how his fellow pros told him winning happens.
In his first season of competition under AIM’s ground-breaking Catch-Record-Release™ format in 2009, King won at Green Bay. He won again this year at June’s Brimley Invitational, in Michigan, after finishing 16th in the opener in Wisconsin’s Winneconne system. He finished ninth at Dubuque and eighth at Akaska, enough to enjoy, and exhale, on that final walk to the stage. Winning the Keller Angler Of The Year prize is all about consistency. And here’s how he did it, doubts and all.
The Warm-Up: 2010
After winning one event in 2009 by guessing right and concentrating on warmer, muddy University Bay when Green Bay proper’s hot bite cooled off when a cold front moved in, King said he looked forward to 2010’s series.
Passing up Saginaw Bay due to schedule conflicts, however, he did well that year in practice, but didn’t make the cut at the site of his ’09 win in Green Bay, or in Brimley, or Akaska. “So after winning the first AIM tournament I ever fished, I was frustrated,” King said. Then at the 2010 weather-shortened championship at Minnesota’s Lake Winnibigoshish. He finished fourth, he said, and “I got my hopes up for 2011.”
April in Winneconne
Picture cold. Picture snow. Up to 10 inches of wet, heavy snow, with wet, heavy winds pushing it across the Winneconne system, stinging your face. “During practice, it was tough, and the water was still cold and high, meaning most of the fish were still in the upper river,” King recalled.
Making it even harder were emergency no-wake rules put into effect in much of the system because of that high water. “We had about an hour-and-a-half of no wake to get to where there was a decent amount of fish. Then Day One was canceled. I battled through it all and hung on to finish 16th there,” he said.
June in Brimley
In a tournament characterized by more wind and weird weather, including a weather phenomenon called a seiche that flushed most of the water out of Brimley Bay, leaving some boats stranded on their keels during pre-fishing, King said he had a “definite motive to win. I had had a decent practice, I had found an area of Lake George where there were a lot of fish. I then left it alone, and kept looking for other areas. I put together some trolling bites, and didn’t go back until the day before the tournament. I sneaked in and rolled through it three times, and never touched a fish. I was banking on that area. We had a lot of wind that day, and it was pretty disappointing,” he said. But, he kept the knowledge that he’d found’em as he formulated his battle plans.
On Day One, most of the field “locked through” the Soo Locks, King included. He rolled into Raber Bay and was surprised that the water was clear but it had cooled, and so had the fishing. “In 2 ½ hours I think I caught one smallmouth and saw one other fish caught. I watched guys go into the Canadian side and come out a few minutes later because that side was muddy from the wind the day before. I was the last boat to leave that area.”
His goal was to head to a feeder creek, he said, and then thought that it would already be crowded with boats. “So I cut to the shipping channel, deciding I couldn’t win, it’s time to just go fishing. But I turned right instead of left, and headed back to Lake George,” he said. That turn of the steering wheel made all the difference.
“I stopped to fish two areas for one pass, then rolled back into that area I was banking on at about 12:50 in the afternoon,” he said. Keep in mind, to get back, he still had to fly up the St. Mary’s River, lock back through the Soo Locks, then race back to Brimley to check in. Time was of the essence. “My first pass through, we had a triple. The second pass, we had a double. We had two more passes, and I had my card filled,” he said. Better yet, he was alone. No other pro had found his spot. Standing in line for the podium, all he kept hearing were grumbles about no fish, but by the time King stepped off the stage, he was atop the leader board with nearly an eight-pound lead.
“On Day Two, I went back to the same area, knowing that it could turn off just as fast as it turned on. The first pass I got a double, and had seven fish weighed in by 10:30 a.m. in the same spot, “ he said. True to his prediction, the fish turned off in the afternoon. It also was true for the rest of the field, for by the end of Day Two, his lead had grown to a nearly insurmountable 22 pounds.
On day three, King’s wife had already started the practical joke ball rolling that would culminate at Akaska. King, who hadn’t even been sure he’d go to Brimley because his mother-in-law had had open heart surgery a month before and was not doing well, and with the consent of his family, decided that it was OK to go, was in the lead.
“So at the same time I was fishing, through all this I was thinking about home. I talked to my wife at the end of Day Two, saying ‘I think I’m going to win this thing, come out and watch.’ But she said oh she couldn’t leave.
But it turns out, she was already on her way.
“So that morning, I’m getting the boat ready and my buddies were diverting my attention, and I turned around and there’s my son and wife, which as an unbelievable feeling, knowing you’ve got that kind of family support,” he said.“So we blast off on Day Three, and I get into Lake George at the same spot, and it’s not happening—at all. The water temperature was consistent, but it was flat calm and the bite just wasn’t there. Other pros showed up in the area, and the panic button hit.” King motored away and headed for that feeder river he was initially heading to on Day One. “I caught one 15-incher. It was the only fish on my card so far. I thought to myself, ‘what are you doing in here.’ “ He ran back to Lake George. “On my first pass, I got a 21-incher at 1:30.” It was only then that he felt that he’d done it.
It was a nervous yet exciting ride through the locks. But King had won. “It was pretty overwhelming. You’ve just won $40,000 in cash, and they bring it out to you on a plate. I won on a huge high note, and it catapulted me from 16th in the Angler of the Year race to Number One.”
Dubuque: Hanging In, and On
King was confident heading to the Mississippi in late June. It was his home water—kind of. At least it was a few hundred miles north near Red Wing, Minn., but he was struggling to find the terrain he liked.
He found one current seam and caught three nice walleye, then several more, calculating how long it would take him to lock through to the area during the tournament, especially if there was barge traffic at locks that divide the river into pools.
On Day One, he ran down to lock through to his pool, and sure enough, there was a barge. “I thought, man, I just probably blew Angler of The Year,” he said. He had a 75-minute wait before the lock opened, and fished one spot, then entered, and ran for his spot, some 25 miles south of the lock. “I had a boat on my tail all the way and I thought, ‘there’s no way two of us were running for the same spot. But sure enough, it was eventual winner Robert Lampman, who soon left because the area was too small.
“I fished over an hour and caught one smallmouth and thought I really blew this. But I put it out of my head and went back to that current seam five miles upstream. I had probably two ours to fish it and that was pushing it, but I pulled nearly 25 pounds out of there, just boom, boom, boom,” he said. Problem was, Tommy Skarlis had landed more than 50 pounds.
Day Two found him at that same seam, fishing three-way rigs. He ended up with seven, but could tell the bite was changing and water was rising and turning muddy. He’d slipped from second to fourth.
“Day Three, my stomach told me it was not good. Wind was blowing and muddy water slowed down my presentation and I snagged up. I got it out and was setting the rod down when it got bit. I could tell it was a nice fish. But I got it half-way to the boat and it came off. The end result: ninth at Dubuque, but he held on to a slim lead for AOY. And, he found how long it was between late June and mid-September’s championship.
“I thought it was about the longest three months of my life,” King said. He stayed sharp by fishing two other tournaments, including the South Dakota Walleye Classic in Akaska, where AIM’s championship would be. “The water was way higher than I’d ever seen it. I had boat troubles the first day, and maybe left with less confidence then I went out with,” he recalled.
King spent the days around Labor Day at his regular job of managing a school busing firm, then returned to South Dakota, fishing near Pierre, many miles downstream from Akaska. Then it was back to Minnesota, then back to Akaska for pre-fishing.
“I fished what I considered to be a day or two short of a good practice period. It went well but we had the big bite looming 85 miles south in Pierre and we worked hard near Akaska to find anything comparable, and it wasn’t good. If I was going to win Angler of The Year, I’d have to make that long run.” King had decided.
However, the weather had other ideas, turning blustery and cold. “We looked at the weather and decided there’s no way we can make the run to Pierre.” Bridge pillars to the north near Mobridge turned out to be his savior.
“I was boat number one, the first out, so that’s what I decided to do It would come down to who could get to my pillar the fastest. We take off and I turned around and who’s behind me but Tommy Skarlis. I’m determined to beat him and drove like a madman, and got there. I believe I was in third or fourth after Day One,” King said.
On Day Two, he ran for the same pillar, but couldn’t buy a bite. “I struggled to get seven and didn’t want to leave because I knew it would be open game if I did,” he said. But without anyone noticing, King left to a trolling spot, returning to his pillar with only small fish on his card.
“I had a big knot in my stomach when I stopped just outside of Swan Creek (the launch site), and was able to upgrade those three fish to ones over 16 inches in the last 20 minutes by pulling lead core,” only to learn at the weigh-in he was now behind Ross Grothe and Robert Blosser in the AOY race. “I sat thinking that maybe I would make the long run south, but decided it wasn’t worth it; I hadn’t fished there for more than 10 days. It was the best decision I’d made all year. The better fish had moved back in to the pillar and I was fishing like a possessed man, ending up with 30 pounds on Day Three. I’d done everything I could do to win Angler of The Year, and now it was up to Bloosser and Grothe.”
Now it was time for King’s practical joke. “I went into the weigh-in, and said to my family, sorry, I did a little better than yesterday, but it’s probably not enough. Then I sat around looking like a sulking three-year-old to convince them I didn’t get the fish. But when it came time to announce my card, the look on their faces was priceless,” King recalled. “They were feeling bad, but just to watch their expressions change was one of the coolest moments of my career.”
King’s wins, starting with Green Bay, couldn’t have been timed better, as he was considering abandoning the pro circuit because of the cost. “You start doubting your ability and thinking it’s just never going to happen, but that’s how other pros have told me it happens. Sometimes all the pieces just fall into place.”