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A unique Spring Classic: Social distancing people and muskies in annual Eagle River tournament

The 2020 Spring Classic, the annual muskie tournament by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc., was the most unique or different one in 40 years.

The check-in with a boat, rather than by a dock with coffee and donuts, was part of a much different Spring Classic, the annual muskie tournament on the Eagle River chain in northern Wisconsin put on by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc. Credit: Dale Bowman
The check-in with a boat, rather than by a dock with coffee and donuts, was part of a much different Spring Classic, the annual muskie tournament on the Eagle River chain in northern Wisconsin put on by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc.
Dale Bowman

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — Hours after the day warmed well past the frost whitening lawns and golf courses at dawn, I witnessed more boats and personal watercraft Saturday afternoon on the Eagle River chain than I ever remember while fishing the Spring Classic.

Then, barreling south for 150 miles on Route 45 Sunday afternoon in Wisconsin, I don’t remember so much traffic.

Social scientists will eventually sort the changes from 2020 and whether or not they are lasting, but changes build. They might be a combination of more people working remotely or more people compelled to get away from urban areas to places such as the Northwoods.

One thing has not changed. Good anglers, even in post-frontal conditions, catch fish.

The Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc. has held the Spring Classic for 40 years. This one was different with no Friday meeting at Shotski’s Bar, no coffee and donuts at the dock check-in mornings, no Sunday afternoon cook-out during the awards. Many things were done on Facebook to cut down human contact.

Even with that, or because of it, the Spring Classic drew a 150-boat field of two-angler teams. Only 16 teams weighed fish (19 legal muskies of 34 inches or longer).

Mitch Ellis (left) and Pete Blicharz won a much different Spring Classic, the annual muskie tournament on the Eagle River chain in northern Wisconsin put on by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc. Credit: Dale Bowman
Mitch Ellis (left) and Pete Blicharz won a much different Spring Classic, the annual muskie tournament on the Eagle River chain in northern Wisconsin put on by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc.
Dale Bowman

Best of the lot were Pete Blicharz and Mitch Ellis, who caught three Saturday afternoon in three hours to win $12,000.

“If you see a fish in Side Imaging [sonar] or the bait, stay there,” Blicharz said. “It’s a tough bite. I knew it would be a grind.”

He comes from a rare three generations of competitive muskie anglers. He fishes the Professional Musky Tournament Trail with his dad, Chris. They also work together as general contractors building custom homes. Blicharz’s grandfather, Ray, who died in April, fished with Chris in the early years of the PMTT.

“I started in my first tournament when I was 15,” Blicharz, 31, said.

Ellis, his partner in the Spring Classic, fishes with him regularly. Both Blicharz and Ellis, an Oneida County sheriff’s deputy, are from Three Lakes, Wisconsin.

They were ripping rubber, more specifically a prototype rubber bait being tested this year for CatchingMusky.com.

As usual I fished with Joe McCartin. As luck had it, we fished past Blicharz and Ellis early Saturday, minutes before they went on their three-muskie tear.

Also as luck had it, as we turned the corner after chatting with them, McCartin said, “Change of plans, no one is on the sand point. Let’s fish it.”

A few casts later, I caught a muskie on an inside weed line as I pulled a firetiger Medussa off sand. The muskie was apparently warming there.

But it came up slightly short at 33 1/2 inches.

Such is muskie fishing. At least I was fishing outside of Illinois for the first time in months.

As tournament director Tom Rahlf posted, “What’s a better way to social distance than out on a boat enjoying Wisconsin’s outdoors! The muskies had their own idea of social distancing, along with the cold front that has passed through the Northwoods.”

One of the many bald eagles spotted as usual during a much different Spring Classic, the annual muskie tournament on the Eagle River chain in northern Wisconsin put on by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc. Credit: Dale Bowman
One of the many bald eagles spotted as usual during a much different Spring Classic, the annual muskie tournament on the Eagle River chain in northern Wisconsin put on by the Headwaters chapter of Muskies, Inc.
Dale Bowman

SWAP MEET: Blackhawk Field Archers will hold a swap meet Saturday and Sunday in Rockton. Contact Dave Lee (708) 476-0305.

SPRINGFIELD: The public blind draws, wildest social event in Illinois outdoors, are canceled for 2020, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources announced Monday. Existing blind holders may maintain their blinds through the 2020-21 season. Click here for more details.

The IDNR and the Illinois Department of Public Health announced Monday that the 121st Grand American World Trapshooting Championships, held at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in the Randolph County since 2006, will not take place there in 2020. Click here for more information.

WILD THINGS: Finally had my first firefly Monday night.

STRAY CAST: Too many days I come up short on the bump board.