DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — The fish is there, right next to the boat, and Brian Brosdahl can see it’s the kind of walleye that would be a tournament angler’s dream.
A big walleye, maybe 7 or 8 pounds.
Within seconds, a half-dozen other boats descend like cormorants on a school of small white bass. They see Brosdahl has a fish at the end of the line; what they don’t see is how big it is.
He doesn’t show them, either, and lets the walleye swim around at the end of his line until it shakes the hook and swims free.
So it goes in the competitive world of tournament fishing.
“That’s what I hate about fishing tournaments,” he said.
Brosdahl, 49 — or “Bro,” as he’s known to all — is best known as a northern Minnesota fishing guide and pitchman for ice fishing products such as Frabill’s new line of “Bro Series” portable shelters and several new rod-and-reel combos.
Occasionally, though, Bro dips his toes into the tournament waters. That’s what brought him to Devils Lake this past week as one of the pros competing in the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour championship.
The burly Brosdahl, with his Nordic countenance and trademark red goatee, is one of the most recognizable faces in the fishing industry.
He’s also one of the nicest, and his rock star-like status in ice fishing circles doesn’t go to his head. Whenever he appears at a sporting goods store or fishing expo, Brosdahl draws a crowd, and he talks to everyone who approaches him.
“I love it, and it’s a great thing, but I’m a normal guy,” said Brosdahl, who lives with his wife, Heather, in Max, Minn., in northwest Itasca County. “I don’t want to think of myself as anything more than that. I truly appreciate where I am.”
He’s not pretentious, a quality he strives for when people approach him, whether it’s during appearances or on the street.
It’s the way he’d want to be treated, he says; the way anyone would want to be treated.
“I’m so anti being pretentious,” Brosdahl said. “I won’t allow it, and the reason I’m like that is when I went to a show and wanted to talk to (a fishing pro) as a kid, the guy blew me off. And I’ll never forget how badly he blew me off.
“He made me feel embarrassed just for approaching him.”
Tournament fishing is a different mindset than guiding or promoting products, Brosdahl said. “Vacation with stress,” he calls it.
“Some people pay a health club to go put themselves through stuff,” Brosdahl said.”Some people seek out other people to train them mentally. I do tournaments to open my awareness to trends and situations where time is of the essence.
“Tournaments help me guide better, but tournaments also help get me out of guiding.”
“I love my guide trips — it’s good for me, but it’s also good for my clients if I get a break away,” Brosdahl said. “If I don’t get a break, then I’m not as sharp.
“I fish probably six or seven tournaments, and I used to do 15 to 20.”
Monday was Brosdahl’s third day of pre-fishing for the Cabela’s NWT tournament, and I had the opportunity to join him for a day on the water. We’ve fished together numerous times during the past 15 years, and a day on Devils Lake seemed like a perfect excuse to renew that acquaintance.
Besides his affable demeanor, Brosdahl has a weakness that makes him an enjoyable fishing partner.
“I’m addicted to bites, dude,” he says with a laugh. “That’s my biggest downfall.”
That can be a poor strategy when pre-fishing for a tournament, though, because the competition’s usually watching.
“When I get bit, I want to catch another one,” Brosdahl says. “It’s a good bad habit to have. Some people just can’t believe I want to keep catching fish.”
The key to tournament success is getting the “right” bites, Brosdahl says.
“In a tournament, you have to go for it,” he said. “If your numbers fall and you have to go to the second page of the standings to see where you’re at, people know you swung for the fences. They’re fun. I still think tournaments sharpen a guide’s skills.”
Like most anglers who fish the pro tournament circuit, Brosdahl’s walleye fishing machine has more bells and whistles than the Starship Enterprise. His 21-foot Ranger 621VS walleye boat is powered by a 300-horse Evinrude outboard that sports three Humminbird depthfinders equipped with GPS and side-finding capability that allow him to spot fish — and fish-holding structure — up to 100 feet on either side of the boat.
That’s not to mention the trolling motor that locks the boat on a spot or the shallow-water anchor that hydraulically jabs into the bottom of the lake or river to hold the boat in place.
Retail, Brosdahl says, the boat as it’s rigged would sell for about 100 grand, but sponsorships and other incentives help offset the costs.
Devils Lake is down probably 3 feet from the last time Brosdahl fished the big lake in September 2013, when he placed 17th in a similar Cabela’s NWT championship.
As he found during pre-fishing, the walleyes aren’t in the same places they were two years ago.
Two years ago, a flooded bridge in the far corner of Pelican Lake factored prominently into the tournament strategy because it offered an abundance of current walleyes find attractive in the fall.
This year, though, the area isn’t accessible because a flooded road leading to the bridge is too shallow for boats to cross.
Rather than getting caught up in memories, Brosdahl says he’s approaching the tourney as if he’s fishing the lake for the first time.
“I’m fishing it like I’ve never been here, and I’m fishing it in places I’ve never fished,” Brosdahl said. “This lake is really big, but it fishes very small. There’s a lot of structure, but the really unique structure near a steep break or near the open basin — there’s only so much.”
Problem is, every tournament angler is savvy enough to know that, Brosdahl says. That’s why the crowd descended when he hooked into the big walleye he didn’t dare land.
“We run into each other, all of us, because we go to these unique structures, and they’re holding the right fish and you can take a lake as massive as this, and you sort it down to an area like that,” Brosdahl said.
He’d rather avoid the crowds, given the choice.
“I have this feeling I’m going to have to drive by a lot of fish, but I want to leave the boats behind,” he said.
We spend the day pitching jigs and soft plastics and rip-jigging Northland Tackle Puppet Minnows. Big walleyes are mostly elusive, but there are enough eater-size fish to keep us interested, and Brosdahl is able to fine-tune his options for the tournament.
“One nice thing about out here is even on a tough day, you catch a lot of walleyes,” he said.
“This is a fun place, and there are big fish.”
As the sun dips toward the western horizon, Brosdahl’s addiction to bites is as apparent as ever, and he has a hard time heading back to the landing. Never mind a meeting he has later that night or the preparation he still faces for the next day’s pre-fishing.
Sometimes, you just have to fish for fun— even if you’re a professional angler with a big tournament at stake.
And so we keep fishing. For fun. For the sheer joy of being out there on a beautiful September evening.
“Isn’t it great to fish?” Brosdahl says as the sun bathes Devils Lake in brilliant orange. “Fishing is my excuse to be in extraordinary places. Otherwise, I’d just be inside somewhere.”