When Ted and Peter Mart held up the Masters Walleye Circuit national champion trophy Oct. 2 in Lake City, it was the culmination of the dream of the father and son from Utica and a continuation of a tradition started more than 30 years ago by other anglers from this region.

It began with Keith Kavajecz as well as the team of Glenn Marshall and Danny Williams in the 1980s, Brett King, who was born in Owatonna, in the 1990s, and in this decade, Tommy Skarlis (he lived in Waukon, Iowa, just across the border from Minnesota), then brothers Joe and Chris Kujawa of rural Lake City who held aloft the champion trophy in 2019 and now the Marts.

In between those two, Jake and Gene Brueggemann of Nebraska won it. They are part of a four-team scouting consortium that includes the Kujawas and Marts, so the two pairs helped the Nebraskans win it all.

Kavajecz, who won a national title in the 1980s, summed it up well when he said this region is a “hotbed” along with around Lake Winnebago and Green Bay in Wisconsin and around the Detroit River in Michigan.

This is not what you might expect from Minnesota.

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When most people, I suspect, think of walleye fishing in Minnesota, it’s usually the big lakes such as Mille Lacs or Winnibigoshish. When I asked top anglers from three decades ago, and the past few years, about the region’s success, however, I quickly learned it’s not something in the water, it IS the water.

“I think one of the advantages there is you have the Mississippi River and Lake Pepin,” said Kavajecz who now lives in Deerbrook, Wis. He is a full-time walleye angler, fishing the National Walleye Trail, which is mostly for pros, and teaching others to fish, mostly walleye. He’s been elected a National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame Legendary Angler.

If you can learn to fish the river and lake, with its variety of current and slack water, wing dams, open water and tight spaces, “you learn a lot of the techniques you need on the national level,” he said. If you learn to fish around Brainerd, however, you’re more limited, he said.

There is also a legal reason: In open water, you can fish with two rods on the Mississippi but not inland. He was known for exploring ways to jig with two rods while controlling his boat to stay on breaks on the river.

Also, where it’s a border between Minnesota and Wisconsin, the river is open to fishing year-round so there are more chances to be on the water. The river is often open below dams so anglers often go out in January to fish open water for walleye and sauger.

The river and lake seem to bring out the competitive spirit, said Marshall. “It really is a special place that provides a lot of different opportunities. that brings a lot of competitive people out,” he said. “If you can’t learn a number of techniques, you are going to be left behind competitively.”

Marshall echoed Kavajecz when he said “It’s a tricky place to fish but if you can do well in Pool 4 (the river and Pepin), you have a good chance to carry that around the country.”

His specialty was jigging.

He now lives in Williston, N.D., and fishes the big waters of the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea in that area. While he loves fishing up there, he likes to come back down here to see friends and find out who’s doing well. He named several others, such as Jon Rousu of Rochester, who have been doing well and continue to do well.

Joe Kujawa, who won the comeback team in the MWC national with his brother Chris, also immediately pointed to the Mississippi and Pepin as key reasons for success from anglers from the region. And he pointed to the Walleye Searchers of Minnesota, a fishing club centered around Rochester.

It holds annual seminars with top anglers presenting but more importantly, they have local tournaments where an experienced angler teams with a less-experienced one.

"I would say Walleye Searchers has been pretty influential and helpful tools for Chris and I," he said.

The Marts, in fact, fished one of those tournaments soon after their big win and Peter was part of the winning team.

For a while, there was also a small, more informal, tournament held among Lake City area anglers, tournaments where the brothers learned and also taught. “We were smart enough to listen to it all,” Kujawa said.

He’s seeing more anglers with less experience also have the drive he saw in the Marts so it’s possible the string of winners from this region will continue. “I think there are a few guys … in our region who are going to have success,” he said. “Their mind is in the right spot, they are passionate about it.”

The Marts team also listened to the Kujawas because it was the brothers who saw something in the Utica duo that prompted them to push the Marts to enter the MWC. The father-son had the right water for fishing as well as a way to compete, he said.

The Utica team fished with a different club in Winona and did well, Joe Kujawa said.

"They kind of set off on their own to seek to better themselves and learn more," he said. "As soon as they jumped into the events, they placed high or won."

He and his brother noticed that same drive they had. "Not everyone has the same desire and drive to go out and be successful at whatever they put their minds to it," he said. "Maybe we’ve been blessed that we have a fair amount of anglers in this region who don’t take no for an answer."

Ted Mart said just being around top hooks like the Kujawas helped them. Maybe it’s like some high schools that produce top teams in a certain sport year after year. Younger athletes see older ones hoist the championship trophy and want to emulate them.

"We got to know them (the Kujawas) through the Walleye Searchers," he said.

Like the others, he said having the river and big lake around here is crucial. Many top walleye anglers don’t like fishing the river, it’s confusing and much of what helps them reel in winning catches of fish in Mille Lacs is of little use on the river.

This region has also produced some top bass anglers. The bass boss now is Brent Haimes, who lives near Plainview and several years ago fished in the BASS national tournament, the World Series of bass fishing.

He said Minnesota and Wisconsin have several anglers who fish the BASS Elite Series, the major league. Haimes said having a lot of good water around most people in the state is crucial. "You have so many different options to learn from," he said.

"The opportunity for us is one of the greatest things," he said. The Mississippi is where he said he became a better angler; when he began fishing it, he got better. "You have to keep adjusting on the river," he said. "Everything is changing all the time … it makes it challenging."

He became passionate and "once you start that fire, it’s pretty hard to put it down," Haimes said.

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