By Samantha Johnson
If you like to fish, this is something for you. The Southern Alberta Walleye Trail (SAWT) holds three tournaments a year to see which team can catch the largest fish. The organization has been around 27-years and interest has been increasing the past couple of years.
Carla Johnson, Secretary/Treasurer, and her husband, Dave, have been involved for about 15 years. Johnson was a fellow camper but hanging around the organization led to helping here and there. She started out selling raffle tickets and doing other odd jobs. Eventually someone talked her into being the Secretary/Treasurer, a position she’s held for the past six years.
“It’s been fun, it’s a good group of people, everyone is always willing to help out,” said Johnson.
Her husband came upon the organization by accident when he stumbled across a tournament taking place at a lake where he wanted to fish. He paid the money to join but didn’t win that day. Johnson said she’ll never forget that weekend because it snowed.
“I thought, this is awful, I’m going home but ended up staying because of the people.”
Regardless of the weather, the angler’s fish unless it is too dangerous, such as in high winds when they aren’t allowed to launch the boats due to safety reasons.
“Cold, wind, rain, and snow, it doesn’t matter, if the water is fishable, they will get out there,” stated Johnson.
Each tournament is two days long, usually a Friday and Saturday if possible. The Sunday is used if there are weather safety issues on the Friday or Saturday.
“We like to have the one-day buffer so everyone can get in two days fishing, if possible,” explained Johnson. “There has only been one day, that I’ve been aware of, that we had to delay the second day launch.” That was about four years ago at St. Mary’s Reservoir where high winds prevented the boats from being launched. “These anglers have to fish all the time, no matter, seems like it is in their blood, so they went over and fished at a small pond on the site that only has suckers, which nobody ever fishes for,” said Johnson.
The SAWT likes to make each weekend a family event and anglers are encouraged to bring the entire family. While it is mostly men who go out and fish, some women are also keen anglers. There is one family, The Wiebe’s, where the grandparents come. Their two sons, Chad and Jason, fish. Their daughter-in-law, Michelle, fishes and helps with the volunteering on the back end of the trail. In addition, grandchild, Lincoln, is also fishing now. The age range of anglers is diverse in the SAWT community, with Lincoln Wiebe and Chasen McKenna the youngest at 12 years old all the way up to Harold Mutter at 82-years young.
Anglers from all over Alberta participate in the SAWT tournaments, although most come from Southern Alberta. On average, about 60-70 teams take part in each tournament.
Johnson explained, “we won’t take more than 80 teams, which we have only reached once. It is getting more popular. Last year we did better because there wasn’t much else to do during the pandemic.” Now, with the exorbitant price of gas, people are looking for activities closer to home.
Each team is made up of two people and no extras are allowed in the boat. Each boat tries to catch the five biggest walleye they can each day.
“We do a catch-photo-release. We used to do a catch and release but due to changes in fishing regulations we cannot keep the fish in the boat. Now there is a photo on a special measuring board that we give out in the morning. They measure it, take a photo, and release the fish back into the water. At the end of the day, they hand in the card from the camera for us to look at,” explained Johnson.
The fish are only out of the water for one to two minutes, to make it easier on them.
The photos are looked at very closely, to ensure the same team didn’t catch the same fish twice.
“Otherwise, they could just take five pictures of the same fish, which would be cheating. We have a bunch of ways to tell,” said Johnson. “The scales on a fish are like a fingerprint, if you look close enough at them. It’s incredible how different fish are. Before I was doing this I thought, well, that’s a fish. Two fish the same length side by side will have 15-20 differences that I can spot within seconds. Back when we first started it would take a few minutes. Markings, scars, and how their scales are positioned (are all key indicators). We had the Fish and Wildlife guys show us how they were different. They were great.”
Fish and Wildlife not only taught the group how to tell one fish apart from another, but also how to determine which are healthy and which aren’t.
SAWT attempted to use the MyCatch App this year.
“Taking photos on cell phones is easier because all anglers know how to use their phones, but due to poor reception at the lakes and that we work on a tight timeline, it did not work out,” said Johnson. “The SAWT may look at using it again in the future, but it does need a few adjustments to fit into the existing format of the SAWT. Working with Anglers Atlas was really good, and they are willing to keep working with SAWT, if we choose to go that way.”
Presently, there are three tournaments per year, although there is talk among the membership about adding a fourth. This year the first tournament took place at Forty Mile Reservoir on May 20-21. The second tournament was at Chin Lake on June 3-4, with a young anglers day on June 5. On June 17-18, SAWT was back at Forty Mile Reservoir for the final tournament of the year.
Whichever team does best in all three tournaments combined, calculated through a point system, wins the grand prize for Team of the Year. This year’s winners were Dave Jones and Rob Head, who won a Lund Fury boat with a Mercury motor, donated to SAWT by Alberta Marine out of Nanton, Lund and Mercury.
Additionally, following the first day of fishing, there is a meal and then a raffle draw, with prizes donated by many of their great sponsors, without whom the Fishing Trail would not be possible.
Some of the other prizes given out, which included raffle draws for $300, at the tournaments this year were:
– Propmaster – sponsors propellers and gift cards;
– Rapala – Fishing rods and reels;
– Outdoorsmen (Medicine Hat) – sponsors the prize cheques;
– River Runner Recreation (Taber) – Daniel Boone Smoker;
– Big Sky Flies and Jigs (Medicine Hat) – Jigs, clothing and helps with advertising;
– Expressive Design INK – By Megan (Taber) – SAWT Branded Apparel and Cups;
– Stay Tuned Installation (Lethbridge) – Bow Mount motor services;
– The Fishing Hole (Calgary) – Prizes;
– Kenetrek Boots (Chad Rambo and Steve Worden) – three pairs of hiking/hunting boots.
“There are numerous other sponsors from local businesses to participants,” stated Johnson, “without these sponsors, we would not be able to have the prizes that we have for many of our awards.”
Tournament entry fees are used to pay out to the winners and to cover any costs. SAWT donates any profits to local groups, in the past they have donated to local kids groups or to HALO Air Ambulance. For more information, check out their website at sawt.ca or on Facebook at SAWT – Southern Alberta Walleye Trail.