For most people, fishing is a hobby or even a way of life, but for Red Wing resident Eric Olson, it’s also his profession. It’s that expertise that led the pro angler to a second-place finish as Angler of the Year for the National Walleye Tour.
Passion is what drew Olson to the sport. He said he often went up to International Falls for two-week vacations with his mom and dad.
“When I first started out fishing, my big thing was jigging — drag a jig over the side (of the boat) and ‘boom!’” Olson said. “As far as a start goes (as a fisherman), I went: ‘all right, I like jig fishing.’ Ever since then it’s been one of my favorite ways to fish.”
Olson has been part of the NWT since 2001, but oddly enough each stop of the tour this year was jig fishing — a favorite of his to this day and the way he got into the sport in the first place.
The NWT is a four-part circuit that operates anywhere walleye are caught. The tournament winner is decided by point total. Each location is worth 200 points. First place receives 200, second place 199, third place 198 and so on. Whomever has the most points at the end of the circuit is Angler of the Year.
Locations are determined by a couple of factors — quality of the fishery and capability of holding a tournament of this size. The tour runs in a pro-am format; each day a pro fisherman is paired with a randomly drawn amateur.
The first location lined up for this year’s tour was Lake Erie.
“Day one the bite didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but we managed to jig up 13-14 pounds of fish,” Olson said. “Day two rolled around and I shifted some things up and ended up in sixth place.
“Really rough conditions, chocolate-milk water with changing wind directions — I would have never expected to finish that high with only 13 pounds of fish.”
A key to fishing in less-than-ideal conditions is to stay positive and understand that not every time out you plan to win, Olson said.
The second location of the tour was Lake Sakakawea in Garrison, N.D., off the Missouri River.
“I just went out there three weeks before, we knew the bite was going to be horrible,” Olson said. “The closest fish I could find were about 80 miles away one way.”
With fish that far away, fuel becomes another obstacle to consider. Olson said some of the fishermen were driving up to 120 miles one way searching for fish. Considering the boats are getting two and a half miles per gallon and fuel tanks are 55-60 gallons, fishermen were filling up two times a day spending hundreds of dollars on fuel. Olson ended up finishing in 21st place at Lake Sakakawea, putting him in fourth place for Angler of the Year at that point.
Prairie du Chien, Wis., was up next and once again fishing was sub-par.
“Terrible fishing,” Olson said. “I literally hadn’t caught a walleye in six days of pre-fishing, it was horrible. And I know how to fish the river.”
This time Olson had a camera crew following him around, but after travelling 52 miles searching for fish, he knew he had to cut them loose to save time and make him faster.
“We drove 46 miles down the river as fast as I could — just made the lock, got in the lock and went over to a spot I found in pre-fish I knew fish were there,” Olson said. “I took a different tactic this time though and within an hour and 10 minutes I had my limit.
“On day two, the sad part is that with all of the hundred and some miles I drove the day prior, the place I caught those fish was about 400 yards away from takeoff. By 9:45 a.m. I had my limit.”
With one stop left on the tour, Olson was now in third place for Angler of the Year. Green Bay, Wis., was last up, but working against Olson was the fact that this was the current leader’s home water. The problem was the leader had a 20-point lead on Olson going into the final area.
As Day 1 ended, Olson was in 12th place. Days 2 and 3 were canceled due to weather conditions that messed up the fishing conditions. Olson finished the last stop in 17th place, which put him in second place for Angler of the Year.
“This was my best year,” Olson said. “The best year before this was fourth place in 2010.”
Perhaps just as exciting as finishing in second place for Olson is that the NWT will be kicking off next year in Red Wing.
“The area has some great fishing,” Olson added. “It’s great to see the tournament come here and help show recognition to that.”