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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Rowers Celebrate Boats While Row-Trolling for Muskies

Those who risk paddling a canoe or tandem kayak with kin or friends might never speak again once reaching shore and retreating to separate tents or rooms.


With apologies to Thomas Paine, canoes and two-person kayaks are the watercraft that try men’s souls. Women’s too, of course.

No matter their age, gender or mutual attraction, paddlers tire of each other’s company if their strokes lack synchrony and equal strength. Erratic strokes hobble the craft’s speed and direction, frustrating both paddlers as they compensate for the other’s failings until coming to verbal blows or icy silence.

In contrast, two-station rowboats seldom trigger such conflicts between oarsmen at the annual Bob Ellis Classic row-trolling tournament in Vilas County. At least I haven’t sensed such tensions among muskie-hunting crews at the post-tourney picnic during my eight BEC appearances.

Or maybe I’m just tone deaf. Now that I think about it, my current row-trolling partner wasn’t impressed with the oars I assigned him July 15 as we rowed onto troll Big Lake in my cedar-strip boat. Mike Foy, my lifelong friend and former member of UW-Madison’s rowing team, reminded me that I promised to replace those stubby oars after he helped crew my rowboat at the 2021 BEC.

Hmm. That’s right. I did make that vow. And he has now twice tolerated the insult of chopping from the bow with cracked and clumsy oars as I pulled long and smoothly from the stern with custom-built spoon-bills. Those old, cheap steel-clamp oarlocks squeaked and wheezed like my asthmatic lungs as Foy faithfully churned, too polite to suggest a swap.

When the oars’ noise grew too irritating for conversation, I directed him to a spray-can of lubricant beneath the portside seat. Each squirt to the oarlock’s pegs brought only temporary relief from the metallic whining, forcing me to again promise to build better oars and fit them properly with leather sleeves and brass oarlocks.

Still, Foy didn’t complain — at least not within earshot — during the post-tourney picnic and boat show. And he just laughed knowingly when the other 40-plus row-trollers and guests voted my boat “The Ultimate Muskie Machine” in the annual BEC boat-judging contest. “Be sure to tell everyone you’ve never caught a muskie in this tournament,” Foy muttered as I walked past to claim my award.

That’s true, I’ve never put a muskie in my boat during the Classic, but you don’t have to like a man to admire his boat. It’s also true that most BEC contestants talk more about oars and rowboats than they do muskies and muskie baits. That’s likely because folks seldom catch a muskie during this one-day event if they’re not an Ellis descendant or their name isn’t Wallenfang.

This year, for example, the event’s 35 rowers combined to catch two muskies, and both fish had ties to those names. John Ellis, one of Bob’s nephews, took second place in the BEC with a 32-inch muskie. And Jeff Pritzl won the event with a 41-inch muskie. No, Pritzl isn’t blood to Bob Ellis or Kevin Wallenfang, but he grabbed the bouncing rod in Wallenfang’s boat and fought the fish and let Wallenfang net it.

The tourney’s only other big fish was a 39-inch northern pike caught by Jim Scharl.

Not surprisingly, the rowers didn’t publicly reveal which of Vilas County’s 1,300 lakes they fished. “Let’s just say it was on ‘Area Lake,’” Wallenfang said.

Wallenfang is also the BEC’s longtime director, and has kept the event going after its originator, Patricia Strutz, moved to Florida. Strutz started the event in 2004 to honor Bob Ellis, who was already a muskie-hunting legend before he died in November 1989 at age 71 when struck by another muskie boat while row-trolling on Papoose Lake.

Before handing out the awards for big fish and notable boats last Saturday, Wallenfang reminded the BEC crowd this was the event’s 20th anniversary. The BEC endures even though it seldom attracts over 20 boats and 35 rowers.

Then again, those fishing it don’t set high expectations for the fishing or the tourney's winnings. After all, there’s no money involved. If you catch the biggest muskie, you claim a traveling trophy that features one of Bob Ellis’ handmade baits. You must return the trophy the following year so the next winner gets their turn.

Further, admission to the BEC is free, door prizes are donated by participants, and the organizers donate their labor. That includes Wallenfang; his assistant, Steve Reinstra; and the after-dinner entertainment, guitarist/songwriter Geoff Crandall.

The participants also appreciate row-trolling’s history. Wallenfang reminded the gathering that this year’s BEC marks the state’s 100th anniversary of its original ban on motor trolling. Wisconsin banned motor-trolling statewide in 1923, about 16 years after Ole Evinrude invented outboard engines in 1907, and 14 years after he founded the Evinrude Motor Co.

After Evinrude invented lighter, more efficient two-cylinder outboards in 1919 and people started toting them all over Wisconsin to fish, folks decided motor-trolling was unfair, even deadly, and persuaded lawmakers to outlaw it.

That statewide ban on inland waters stayed intact until 1958, when the state opened five waters to motor trolling. It next opened Racine County and seven northwestern counties to motor trolling in 1964. Policymakers then opened many waters larger than 500 acres in 1970, except for those holding muskies.

In 2015, Wisconsin settled on its current law, which allows motor-trolling statewide. However, motor-trollers in eight counties — Florence, Iron, Lincoln, Oneida, Sawyer, Sheboygan, Vilas and Waupaca — are restricted to one line each and a maximum of three per boat.

Anglers in self-propelled boats, however, can use three lines each statewide, with no maximum per boat. In theory, that means I could run nine lines from my boat by squeezing a third rower/passenger into the middle seat. And it wouldn’t even be that hard to rig my boat’s transom and trolling skis to handle three more lines.

The challenge would involve the two rowers, who would have to account for the added “ballast” and the ample drag of three more muskie baits.

As I calculate such tasks, I can read Foy’s mind: “I’m really going to need longer and better oars, or you can find a different partner.”

Patrick Durkin pulls on his oars while fishing July 15 on Big Lake in Vilas County during the 20th annual Bob Ellis Classic row-trolling tournament. — Patrick Durkin photo

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