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  • Patrick Durkin

Ellis Clan Rules Uncle Bobby’s Namesake Muskie Tourney

Updated: Jul 30

Three of Bob Ellis’ nephews caught four of the five muskies registered in this year’s 17th annual Bob Ellis Classic memorial row-trolling tournament in Vilas County.


The tourney is named for the legendary muskie angler who died while row-trolling in November 1989. Dave Dlobik of Menominee Falls is one of “Uncle Bobby’s” nephews, and he won the July 17 event with a 40.5-inch muskie. Dlobik also took third place with a 38-incher while rowing on Crab Lake from the 12-foot yellow “Twinkie Skiff” he inherited from his uncle.


The little boat, a 12-foot Shell Lake Portager, can be tippy, and Dlobik— a tall, husky man like Bob Ellis himself — said he would like to fish in a bigger, more stable craft, but this is the boat he inherited from his uncle, who died in it.


More particulars: Dlobik said he caught one muskie on a Grandma Lure and the other on a bait he built himself.


Jim Ellis, Dlobik’s cousin, took second place in the tournament with a 39-inch muskie, which he caught on Island Lake, the waters Bob Ellis called home.


Jim’s brother Dick caught the tournament’s fourth muskie.


This year’s classic attracted over 30 two-person teams, but that’s not an official number because the tourney has no entry fee, no prize money, and no check-in. You’re supposed to email your intentions to the tournament’s director, Kevin Wallenfang, but not everyone does. Still others register late when texting details from lakes where cellular service is poor.


The entrants just know they can start fishing at 7 a.m. and stop at 3 p.m., and all fish must be caught while row-trolling. Muskies caught while casting don’t count. All muskies must be released after being measured to the nearest quarter-inch, and Wallenfang prefers you text-message a picture of it. In case of a tie, the first fish caught wins.


A slight complication to this year’s tournament was that the bar/restaurant which served as tournament headquarters the first 16 times ended its involvement after COVID-19 canceled the event in 2020. Wallenfang found a new place to gather for the post-tournament social, dinner and boat contest, but then that place pulled out of the deal days before the event.


Steve Reinstra of Madison, one of the tournament’s devoted regulars and Wallenfang’s unofficial assistant, kept the event alive when learning the picnic shelter at the Winchester Community Park was available. After arranging catering services, Wallenfang and Reinstra informed registrants of the new details.


Ellis surely would have respected their persistence. He was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2008 for his impact on row-trolling. Patricia Strutz, a local fishing guide at the time, started the event in 2004 to memorialize him, saying no one did more to promote the sport.


Row-trolling traces its roots to 1923, when Wisconsin outlawed motor-trolling on inland waters. State rules defined trolling this way: “Trailing any lure, bait or similar device that may attract or catch fish from a propelled boat.”


Wisconsin later loosened the motor-trolling ban for much of the state, and then a decade ago loosened it across Northern counties. Still, most row-trollers have kept propelling their boats with oars, not engines, which lets them use up to three lines each instead of one.


Not that anyone asked or cared, but my cedar-strip rowboat recorded two firsts July 17 in its seventh appearance at the BEC. (That’s what the cool kids call the Bob Ellis Classic. If you say “BEC” when talking and drinking beer with fellow contestants, it implies you’ve fished it before.)


My partner for the first six tournaments, Scott Hassett, now spends summers in Oregon, so I tapped a new teammate, my lifelong friend and former UW-Madison rower Mike Foy. We camped overnight at the state campgrounds on Big Lake near Manitowish Waters and then fished “Big” the next morning.


About 90 minutes after setting our lines, I gaped in disbelief when Foy said, “Hey, something’s going on!” With that, a line we were towing from the starboard trolling ski yanked loose from the towline, and the rod rattled in its holder.


Though shocked, I resumed pulling on my oars as Foy let go of his oars and grabbed the rod. Never before had my boat hooked a fish while competing in the BEC. If I’d been thinking, I would have recorded the exact time and texted the momentous news to Hassett.


Unfortunately, the fish shook the hooks within 20 seconds, so we never got a look at it. Foy judged it was small, however, and couldn’t be persuaded to claim otherwise later.


Still, I felt good about my boat getting its first strike in the BEC. Air temperatures rose into the witheringly high 80s before noon, and the water was flat and calm except for wakes from passing fishing boats and boaters towing rafts with screaming, bouncing kids.


Given the still waters and bright sunlight, we weren’t optimistic we’d trigger many strikes, even though we kept our six lines in the water all morning with only one minor tangle. When a bass boat roared by, Foy looked at the $80,000 sparkly fiberglass needle and said: “I’d be embarrassed not to catch a fish from that boat. I’ll stay with my $1,500 clunker.”


My day’s only regret was not having my camera handy when a ring-necked loon zoomed toward us from the stern, spread its wings, and landed gracefully a few yards outside our port trolling ski. The loon’s white breast cleaved the water like a flying boat’s fuselage as it came in hot, providing us a front-row seat to its artistry.


We were surprised the loon then followed us around the next two hours as we trolled laps around Big Lake’s eastern half. We assumed the loon thought we might be using live bait it could scavenge every time something fell loose from our hooks. Or maybe it planned to steal a small fish, should we hook one. Eventually, though, the loon judged us wanting, and vanished without the fanfare of its arrival.


We couldn’t blame him. We weren’t exactly creating a chum line from all the fish we weren’t boating, handling and releasing.

Mike Foy pulls on his oars while row-trolling July 17 in the 17th annual Bob Ellis Classic memorial row-trolling tournament in Vilas County, Wisconsin. — Patrick Durkin photos

The sun rises over Big Lake in northern Wisconsin’s Vilas County.

A ring-necked loon monitors the fishing action while following the author’s rowboat.

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