LAKE CITY — Chris and Joe Kujawa barely had four lead-line rods set out on Lake Pepin last Tuesday when one throbbed.
Chris could tell the fish was big.
Joe patiently waited with the net as Chris eased the fish toward their high-powered 21-foot boat. Finally, Joe bent over and netted the walleye. It was 28 inches, a fat, healthy fish. It would be released after photos.
How times changed. “Six, seven years ago we didn't know how to do it,” Joe said. “We’ve come a long way.”
His understatement is amusing.
“Long way” is how they describe going from milking cows all day, with no time for fishing, to the pinnacle of national team walleye fishing. The Lake City brothers on Oct. 3-5 won the Masters Walleye Circuit national tournament on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, with 26 pounds of fish.
That was about seven pounds more than the second-place team. They won $20,000 cash and $6,000 in prizes.
They weighed in only one smaller fish the first day, but they weren’t worried because their go-to pattern didn’t work with the first-day’s wind.
The wind shifted on the second day, and so did their luck.
“We always felt we have an opportunity to win, but to win is a little surreal,” Joe said.
They credited the astounding learning curve to help from so many other great walleye anglers in the area, as well as Walleye Searchers of Minnesota that is centered in Rochester. At first, they fished for various species and were always humbled by walleye and sauger. But “we were forced to fish for them” Chris said.
Soon, they did well enough that others encouraged them to fish local tournaments, then nationals.
They also credited brotherly cooperation. Not always brotherly love -- they don’t necessarily agree on everything, but they respect each other and work things out. “We look 1,000 yards out,” said Chris, 41, so they don’t let the small things get to them. Besides, “we’re there to work,” said Joe, 35. “We put 12-, 14- 15-hour days in a boat” so they can’t bicker.
Finally, they credited milking cows on a small dairy near Lake City. What they learned dealing with cows translated surprisingly well to dealing with walleye.
They found that to be successful, they had to find their own strengths and work with them. Maybe Joe or their brother, Tim, was better at caring for medical needs of the cows, while others were better at milking.
“You paid attention to the details,” Joe said.
“You give the extra effort,” Chris said.
Still, they miss being their own bosses, Chris said.
“I miss it,” Joe agreed. “I don’t miss it every day.”
“You’re there until the work is done,” Chris said. “You aren’t punching the clock.”
They sold the cows because regulations were getting to be too much. They now work as machinists in Rochester, and they also they got back to fishing. They grew up in Lake City and fished in the marina regularly. That ended when milking began.
Here’s where taking care of cows and catching walleye overlap -- it’s the details. “There are a lot of little things that go into putting a successful event together, without even being on the water,” Chris said.
For example, after a day on the water, they cut off a few feet of monofilament next to the swivel on their rigs because the line gets nicked, and a big fish might break that line the next day. They correctly calibrate their lead-line rods so the lure is actually where it’s supposed to be.
When they know which events they’ll fish, they check maps, scour YouTube or videos of others fishing the water, learn about small tricks locals use. One trick was at Lake Winnebago, where for reasons known to walleye alone, the fish will hit what looks like a big trout streamer. They tied three in a 4- to 5-foot harness and won.
In the off-season, Joe ties hundreds of fishing harnesses so they always have enough in case they find a good bite in a place with a lot of rocks.
On Tuesday, they went out in an increasingly strong wind, fishing below Lake City along a break. The big walleye came first, but they were looking for sauger, the riverine cousin of the walleye, because they’ll fish the Saugerama Oct. 26.
Soon, they were reeling in fat sauger with bellies full of gizzard shad. After a few hours, a dozen saugers ended up in the boat.
They know, however, that the lake, a part of the Mississippi River, will drop.
“Odds are these fish are going to move,” Chris said.
“We’re going to move with them,” added Joe.
Knowing how to adjust to changes is one of the lessons they’ve learning from fishing -- and from cows.