To really “get” the Baileys Harbor Brown Trout Tournament, you need to fish in it. No disrespect and much gratitude to all those wonderful volunteers who serve at the weigh-in stations and those onlookers just wanting to set eyes on some big, beautiful fish. However, to understand the endeavor that is early season brown trout fishing on Lake Michigan, you must experience it. To the outsider looking in, it may seem like a bunch of crazy, cabin fever mad good old boys willing to brave bone chilling temperatures, buffeting winds and treacherous lake conditions with little prospect of catching a big fish. It appears to be lunacy. To be honest, it pretty much looks like that from the inside as well. Sure, big fish are caught each year by tournament anglers and prizes awarded, but truth be told, the majority of participating anglers do not win prizes, and many spend hours on the water without catching a single fish. Paul and I spent fourteen hours on the water during the 2021 tournament and never boated a single trout. This year we caught four, but the largest was a mere six pounds. Delicious on the grill, but no prize winner. In my dozen years fishing the tournament, I have yet to put a big fish “on the board” or collect a cash prize. I am confident that many other brown trout anglers share this fate.
So why then do these anglers continue this seemingly futile venture? Anglers have their own reasons and rationalizations, but one thing for sure: It is not just about catching fish. If it was, this tournament would have died years ago. Sure, there is pleasure in the hunt. The anticipation. The planning. Getting the tackle and boat ready to go. Or in some cases, the ice fishing gear. No one sustains a love of fishing without an appreciation for the minutia involved in the act of angling. But none of that explains why so many anglers continue to brave the elements each year to hunt brown trout, particularly during this traditional early season tournament. To be part of the Baileys Harbor Brown Trout Tournament makes you privy to a unique fellowship of like-minded anglers. We all “get it”. We have no need to explain to each other why, after many fruitless hours on the water, we will undaunted, be out there the next morning. Knowing glances are exchanged from under winter parkas. We take great satisfaction, albeit tinged with some jealousy, in the success of our fellow anglers. We are all in this together, apart. It reminds me very much of the bond between muskie hunters. I used to spend a lot of time chasing this legendary fish. I don’t much anymore, but I appreciated being part of that confederation. We all understood the difficulty of accomplishing the goal of boating a big muskie. Many would fail in the attempt. I recall slumping into a bar after a long day on the water, surrounded by my fellow muskie hunters and being asked “Howdah do?” When I replied “Nothing, but I saw a nice one”, all within earshot nodded admiringly, appreciative of the effort. Imagine a perch angler giving the same response. He’d be laughed out of the place. But muskie hunters “get it”, as do brown trout anglers. That’s what brings our local anglers back each year, often for decades. It also brings anglers from around the state, like the group from Luxemburg that has been fishing the tournament for thirty years. This year they brought ten boats of anglers. Or the gang that has had such success over the years when browns can be targeted through the ice. They did very well this year. Or the many pairings of fathers, sons and even grandfathers sharing this experience together and passing on the tradition. Yes, the Baileys Harbor Brown Trout Tournament is special.
Another thing the tournament is, it is macho. I use this term not to mean tough, I mean masculine. Almost all of the participants are men. True, there was a big fish put on the board this year by a woman angler (Congratulations, Ella), but over the years this is a rare occurrence indeed. Why is this? I know for a fact there are many talented and dedicated woman anglers in Door County and around the state. Yet, there is a glaring lack of women anglers in the tournament. This is, of course, ironic. As with many events, the Brown Trout Tournament has been planned and organized by women. Ellie, this year’s tournament director, and Kari at Baileys 57 spent many hours getting tickets to outlets, arranging volunteers, and working many hours during the tournament. Former tournament director Brynn was instrumental in growing the tournament into the success it has become. Other women volunteer and support the tournament. Yet, few women fish in the tournament. Again, I pose the question. Why?
Some, mostly women, would claim that women are just too smart to partake in such an uncomfortable and pointless endeavor. I beg to differ. I think women are just as capable as any man of doing stupid stuff. I offer the wearing of high heel shoes or dating idiots as just two examples. Others might claim that many women do not have the free time to spend an entire weekend freezing their butts off on the water. That is an excellent point, yet we have many men in the tournament with important positions and full-time jobs who arrange their schedules to accommodate fishing the tournament. Of course, toughness is not an issue. Any person capable of storing a human being inside them for nine months and then expel it through a much too small opening can endure any hardship encountered while angling.
In all seriousness, which is hard for me, the tournament has not made sufficient effort to attract women anglers. Maybe the atmosphere during the tournament is not welcoming to women. Perhaps there are just not that many interested women anglers. I don’t know the answer. Towards increasing the participation of women in future tournaments, I make these two challenges. First, to future tournament directors to attract more women anglers to participant in the tournament. We can all help by encouraging the woman anglers we know to join us. Secondly, to the Wisconsin women anglers and women’s anglers’ organizations I throw down the gauntlet! Come and be part of this Door County fishing tradition. Show that women can be just as frustrated, determined, stupid and successful as their male counterparts. I truly look forward to seeing many more women anglers listed on the board in the very near future.
As for the results of the 2022 tournament, they can be found on the Baileys Harbor Brown Trout Tournament site along with pictures of many of the fish weighed in. There were two 21 pounders at the top of the board and 25 fish registered were 13 pounds or better. There were several anglers who caught multiple big fish, but since a single angler can only register their largest fish, some big fish went unrecorded. Thirteen of the top twenty-five fish were registered at the Baileys Harbor registration site, Baileys 57.
Despite the early tournament dates, the less-than-ideal conditions, and an unexpected power outage during the middle of weigh-ins Friday, the volunteers, organizers and particularly the anglers, came through again and proved this tournament is special indeed.
Stay safe and sane.