LAKE CITY — Around 7:10 a.m. Thursday, an orange sun was rising on the far shore of a calm Lake Pepin, expensive walleye-fishing boats were in line to launch at Roschen Park and Peter Mart and his dad, Ted, were in a hurry.

The duo from Utica was later than they wanted to be in getting their big Alumacraft boat into the water, to join 30 other teams fishing Mississippi River pools 3, 4 and 5 (that includes Pepin) for the 2021 Masters Walleye Circuit World Walleye Championship. Top prize will be $21,599.99 ($15,000 cash, as well as merchandise).

They are relatively new to the MWC, but have already shown themselves among the elite with a second place last year in the championship as well as placing high in the past two years in the series of two-day tournaments around the Upper Midwest.

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For this year’s championship, Ted said he can rely on his 50-years experience on the river around here. But he also said it’s a tough time to fish because young-of-the-year minnows are just the right size for walleye and sauger to feast on.

Coming within three pounds of winning last year whetted their appetites for taking the top spot, Peter said. “I’d like to win it,” he said, but he too was cautious, though for a far different reason than his dad. The lake and river are home waters for them and “it’s harder to win on your home body of water than any other place,” he said. “A lot of pros say you fish memories when you’re around home.”

Maybe you think back 20 years and recall caching a big fish near a wing dam and figure to do it again. Things change in 20 years on the river; actually, things can change in a day on the river.

Both agree Peter is more the one who makes the big decisions. “My dad is pretty much along for the ride,” he said. On the other hand, his dad is also one who catches a lot of big fish.

“We’re kind of the same person, sometimes we butt heads” because both are very competitive. They just talk things through and keep fishing, he said.

Peter’s strategy for the tournament is much the same as for others: “Go hit your spots and hope the fish bite,” he said. “Keep it simple, otherwise you start playing mind games with yourself.”

Many walleye anglers were on the waters of Lake Pepin before sunrise Thursday. Contributed / John Weiss
Many walleye anglers were on the waters of Lake Pepin before sunrise Thursday. Contributed / John Weiss

While he was in a hurry to launch and eager to rise to the very top, he said he wasn’t excited, at least not 20 minutes before they would roar off. “It’s just another day on the water,” he said. “I get excited when we get the fish.”

In rising to the top of the walleye tournament world, the father-son duo are following in the wake of many others from this region. The first to rise was Keith Kavajecz, formerly of Rochester, who won a national tournament a few decades ago. Danny Williams and Glenn Marshall were a hot duo in the 1980s.

More recently, the brother duo of Joe and Chris Kujawa of rural Lake City has gone to the top, winning the MWC national tournament two years ago on the same water. They were sixth in the national tourney last year and are back this year. Others from this region are Todd Zemke of Red Wing, Keith Carlson of Goodhue, Steve Persinger and Paul Sween of Austin, Robert Bruegger of Wabasha, Jon Rousu of Rochester and Nate Cadwell of Byron.

For the Marts, the voyage to near the top of walleye tournament fishing began on the same waters they are fishing today. “We fished since I was a kid,” Peter said. “My dad took us to the river all the time” as well as up north to the Longville area.

In the late 1990s, “we started fishing, a bunch of small tournaments up and down the river,” he said. A few years ago “we jumped into the bigger tournaments.”

They wanted the competition because in big tournaments, “you get better rounded as a fisherman,” Peter said. They joined the MWC three years ago as the prodding of the Kujawa brothers who told him “I got what it takes to fish in that league,” he said.

For Peter, what it takes is dedication and a competitive spirit. You have to “be on your game at all times, taking everything you see on the graph and try to improve on it.” Many anglers will see something on one of their graphs, try to catch something they see, then move on if it doesn’t work.

Not Peter. “I’ll hunker down a little bit,” see what he can do, try to analyze it, try to coax that elusive fish into biting.

“I’m straight out competitive,” said the 1993 graduate of St. Charles High School. He wasn’t big into sports in high school but liked learning how to do things. He got into demolition derbies and travelled the country doing that. Then it was stock car racing. “For me, it’s all about being competitive in whatever you do.”

Gulls lined up on the railing of the old Lake City Marina breakwater while some of the country’s best walleye anglers waiting for the beginning of the 2021 world championship. Contributed / John Weiss
Gulls lined up on the railing of the old Lake City Marina breakwater while some of the country’s best walleye anglers waiting for the beginning of the 2021 world championship. Contributed / John Weiss

He stayed with derbies until about six years ago and now, his son, Jared Mart, 18, is into it and dad is helping.

Ted Mart said he’s had that competitive fishing streak for decades.. “I just started fishing and I fished a lot with a lot of brothers-in-law and we were always real competitive against each other,” said Ted, 73.

Most pro anglers - most all anglers for that matter - have a preferred way to fish. Some walleye anglers on the Mississippi and Pepin are big into lead-core lining but he said “we are trollers with long lines” or will fish with jig and minnow.

Long lining requires using crank baits and heavens, are there crank baits to be used, more than 10,000, he said. They come in so many sizes, colors and some rattle, roll, wiggle, or vibrate. The trick is “paying attention to details, the color of crank baits,” he said. With jig and minnow, getting just the right size and species of bait is critical.

While tournaments can pay big purses, the cost of the boat, travel, crank baits, live bait and other necessities is also big, he said. “We are pretty much breaking even the last couple years,” he said.

That’s not the key. Part is that Mart competitiveness. The other is family. “I’m glad to be able to do this with my son,” Ted said.

On Thursday, he backed the big boat into Pepin, they joined 30 other boats a few hundred yards from shore. There was a prayer, the playing of our national anthem and boats began leaving, with the order drawn by chance. Boat number 7 had the father-son Mart duo, who also left a wide, white wake as they headed out to catch fish and maybe take the top prize.

Dawn broke just as some of the anglers got onto the waters of Lake Pepin. Contributed / John Weiss
Dawn broke just as some of the anglers got onto the waters of Lake Pepin. Contributed / John Weiss

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss"