From the soul of the Illinois River revival to sold out: That’s the Masters Walleye Circuit tournament this year at Spring Valley.
The season-opening MWC event, which will be held March 29-30, has provided the bulk of the fish used for Illinois’ sauger-stocking program for decades. It was part of the change that saw the Illinois River evolve from Chicago’s sewer to one of the top sauger fisheries in the world.
Now it is part of something different: The tournament will be artificial-only this year.
Bait dealers are up in arms. The rest of us are skeptical.
‘‘Live bait and walleyes have been synonymous since the 18th century,’’ Mike Norris messaged. ‘‘Why take the hammer away from a carpenter? Could profit be the motive?’’
Damm right. Live bait is a low-margin piece of fishing, handled in independent bait shops and tackle stores. Soft plastics and crankbaits, the basics of artificial-only, are higher-end parts of the business, more apt for big-box stores.
Norris knows what he’s talking about. He was a tournament bass and walleye fisherman. He taught thousands of Chicago-area fishermen the nuances of walleye fishing in his seminars and classes.
Live bait does come with its set of potential problems. Even David Robinson acknowledges that.
Robinson, the president of Robinson Wholesale Bait LLC, one of the Midwest’s pre-eminent bait wholesalers out of Genoa City, Wis., emailed: ‘‘Over the last decade, the bait industry has been taking a beating over the threat posed to the resource it enters on a hook as a natural lure to catch fish. With the appearance of VHS (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) in 2006 and the steady charge of Asian carp up the riverways, live bait has been viewed as a potential vector for introducing and spreading disease and aquatic invasive species (AIS).
‘‘I think our industry has been proactive implementing measures to prevent introduction and spread of these threats to our resources. Because of this, I think it can be argued that live bait is not a viable pathway for the spread of reportable diseases or AIS.’’
In fact, recent studies have raised concern about the impact of soft plastics, which do not degrade, on the environment.
The artificial-only side is epitomized by Artifishalleyes, the art of fishing for walleyes using artificial baits. Walleye pros Corey Heiser and Troy Morris are behind it. They signed a notarized contract not to use live bait for the 2014 season as they compete in walleye tournaments together.
They want to prove it can be done, and they want to combat the impact of aquatic nuisance species. Their year can be followed on Facebook or at artifishalleyes.com.
Steve Palmisano, a co-owner of Henry’s Sports and Bait in Chicago, fired off a note that included: ‘‘When I received word of the MWC’s decision to ban live bait for the upcoming Spring Valley Tournament, it struck a dagger right in my side. There are many other ma-pa fishing tackle stores all along the Illinois River and across the United States. We, the live-bait and tackle stores, are the true backbone of the fishing industry. I realize that there are a good number of large-box chains and manufacturers that want to sell lots of soft plastics and hard baits. I feel that fishing should be done with both live and artificial baits.
‘‘I would like you to lift the live-bait ban and keep America strong, from the ma-pa stores to the large-box chains.’’
Worms and minnows for Americans.