Walleye Weekend – Fond du Lac’s signature event for 36 years
Jun 6th, 2014 by OutdoorsFIRST
Modified Jun 6th, 2014 at 12:00 AM
While up to 100,000 people attend Fond du Lac’s major festival – Walleye Weekend – each year, many have no idea of its roots. For 36 years the festival has taken place each June in Fond du Lac’s picturesque 400-acre Lakeside Park, located along the southern tip of Lake Winnebago.
Hundreds of volunteers have made the festival the success it is today. But looking back, there was someone who envisioned a huge festival that would relate to fishing, Mercury Marine and Lake Winnebago – an event that would bring an identity to Fond du Lac. That individual was JoAnn Ward, the leader of the Fond du Lac Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) in 1977 – the year Walleye Weekend was born. She had arrived just a year earlier to take the leadership position at the CVB.
“Bruce Stumbras was the president of our board back then,” Ward said. “It had been his dream from the day he hired me that we create a major event as an identity for the city. He was an amazing force.”
As fate (or luck) would have it, while Ward was reading the newspaper she spotted an item about the Mercury Marine (MerCruiser) Walleye Fishing Tournament taking place in Oshkosh. Immediately, an idea surfaced. ‘Why not bring that tournament to Fond du Lac,’ she thought. She knew, with the event planning she’d been in charge of in Chicago for a multi-million dollar company, that she could orchestrate a great event to accompany the fishing tournament.
But first she needed to convince the Mercury Marine organizers to switch the tournament to Fond du Lac.
Ward attended the fishing tournament in Oshkosh that year, met with the organizers, and then set out to convince them – with a creatively crafted bid – to bring their tournament to Fond du Lac. She was successful. “I framed the letter that arrived late that January of 1978, telling us we had won the bid. It hung on the CVB wall for many years.”
“We had less than five months to get ready for that first Walleye Weekend Festival. But it was wonderful, and we were on our way!”
In June, 1978, the very first Walleye Weekend Festival took place in Fond du Lac, with over 400 volunteers planning it as a companion event to the fishing tournament. It’s been here ever since.
At the end of that first year, Ward was confident that Walleye Weekend Festival was going to be a signature event for Fond du Lac. In its first year it had already attracted 30,000 attendees and generated 175 news stories on a statewide and national level.
She credits the help of the 400 volunteers that first year and the leadership of two local men – Bruce Stumbras and Tom Hierl, who co-chaired the first Walleye Weekend Festival. She says the whole community got involved to make it happen.
“Fond du Lac is really quite an amazing community,” Ward said. She notes that Bruce Stumbras, who at the time owned Chef’s Chateau Restaurant in Fond du Lac, even gave his restaurant’s recipe to the Kiwanis Club for making the World’s Largest Fish Fry – a claim that is still made to this day for the number of people they serve in a short time.
“Everyone pitched in. Jim Sabel, who was President of the Fond du Lac Musician’s Association, brought in the bands,” JoAnn said “Don Rabbitt worked with the DNR to develop the Junior Fishing Tournament, Mark Hopper designed the t-shirts, Bonnie and Bob Badura served breakfast in the pavilion for the fishermen at dawn, and there were so many others.”
“A press trailer was set up for media who came from all over – even out-of-state. Our children made bologna sandwiches for the press, handed them press kits, and we offered golf cart tours of the grounds.”
The basic framework for Walleye Weekend was laid out that first year and continued to grow as the years went on. It was billed annually as a free festival that offered music, a junior fishing tournament, water ski show, the World’s Largest Fish Fry, distinctive foods from service clubs, children’s activities, sports competitions, lumberjacks, an appreciation dinner, and more. Slowly and methodically the festival has added new elements.
After planning and running Walleye Weekend the first four years, Ward along with Ray Christ of the Association of Commerce, became ex-official officers in 1981 in order to form Fond du Lac Festivals – a separate entity that would continue to organize and operate Walleye Weekend. The CVB had, in a way, served as an incubator for Walleye Weekend Festival, helping get it off the ground those first four years.
“Forming Fond du Lac Festivals seemed to be the best way to give Walleye Weekend the umbrella of the community,” Ward explains. “That way it didn’t belong to any one existing organization. We formed a board and hired the first director (Jill Kaphengst). Then we cut it loose and gave it wings.”
Walleye Weekend Festival remains a success today because it was structured carefully to be the single true civic celebration in the community, Ward said. “It’s operated by Fond du Lac Festivals – an organization that belongs to the entire community. It celebrates the lake and the park – and as its centerpiece, it has a fishing tournament created by Fond du Lac’s leading employer.”
Winning the bid to bring the MerCruiser Walleye Fishing Tournament to Fond du Lac in 1977 wasn’t easy.
“I attended the first MerCruiser Tournament in Oshkosh that year and spent time with the executives and tournament director discussing Lakeside Park as a site.” Ward recalls, noting they didn’t seem that interested.
It took several months for Ward to locate the real decision maker at MerCruiser, followed by several more months trying to convince him to take a look at Lakeside Park as a potential new site for the tournament.
“By the time we set a date to do a walk through, there was snow on the ground. Even though Lakeside West would have appeared to have space for docking the boats of the 300 fishermen, it did not appeal to him. The same was true of The Big Hole next to the Yacht Club. He preferred the Fisherman’s Point if he was even going to consider it.”
“Carl Jacobs, the park superintendent at the time, measured the depth of the water next to Fisherman’s Point and found it to be silted full,” Ward said. “There was only one inch of water covering the silt.”
Dredging would be necessary to prepare it. The City Council approved Ward’s application for the Army Corps of Engineering request to dredge. “But they made it clear there were no funds to pay for it.”
Ward drove to Chicago to get the permit from The Army Corps of Engineers and received approval through two hearings that followed. “Tom Hierl contacted local firms Ahern, Hutter and Smith and they all agreed to stand by with their cranes. All I would have to do was rent a clam. But remember, this was all speculation for the bid.”
Next, Ward had to request boat docking for 300 tournament contestants. The park board approved it but only on the condition that it be temporary docking and be taken out each year.
The next step was a presentation to the Fond du Lac Boating Club to request help in constructing the temporary docking. “They agreed to build, install and remove it if the materials were donated,” Ward said. “Denis Schmitz and David Miller built a prototype that the park approved. Fond du Lac Lumber agreed to donate the lumber, Manowske donated the welding and Flaherty the bolts. All of this was to prepare for the bid we were making against the City of Oshkosh for the fishing tournament.”
To make the bid unique, Ward, along with her staff and board, planned a large festival, named it Walleye Weekend, got hundreds of volunteers involved – and the rest is history!