Landing the Big Fish

Professional fisherman Ted Takasaki has figured out all the angles.

The bumper sticker reads: "A bad day fishing is better than a good day at the office." If you are Ted Takasaki, that is not technically true: A bad day fishing is pretty much a bad day at the office, too, because for him they are one and the same. But the worst part is that fishing -- actual hook, line and sinker time -- just isn't that big a part of being a professional fisherman.

You want to live the easy life, float the lake, hook a few lunkers for your paycheck? Don't give notice just yet. Here's a typical weekend if you are Takasaki, the planet's most famous walleye angler: Get up while it's dark in Brainerd, Minnesota, to hop on the commuter flight to Minneapolis. Get bumped because the plane is full, then get in a car and make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Twin Cities to catch a flight to Denver. (A guy recognizes you in the airport -- "Hey, Mr. Takasaki, just wanted to tell you I'm a big fan" -- so that's nice. But a full plane from Brainerd to Minneapolis?)

Arrive in Denver, shuttle to the Northglenn Holiday Inn and check into your suite, where someone forgot to turn on the heat. Look longingly out the window at the mountains. (You love skiing -- used to be president of the ski club as a kid in Illinois -- but there's no time for that on this strictly-business trip.) In ninety minutes, it will be time to head downstairs for a little mingling with the 300-plus members of the Colorado Walleye Association, most of whom have shown up just to see you. "They are ready to go nuts when they see Ted," says banquet coordinator Rick Enstrom.

Ted Takasaki with the catch of the day.
Ted Takasaki with the catch of the day.

Hey, no pressure.

Sit in the chilled suite and prepare the handful of demonstration rods you shlepped from Minnesota. Go over the lecture in your head: "Structure and Visualization: The Key to Walleye Success." (It's something you could do in your sleep, but you are nothing if not a professional, so you make sure the details are exactly as solid as if you were giving a presentation for Hewlett-Packard -- which, come to think of it, is exactly what you were doing a decade and a half ago.) Remember to drink a little cold water so your throat doesn't get scratchy and weak in the high desert air. Because you, more than the others, understand that it's your voice, not your casting arm, that keeps this gig going.

The presentation is scheduled from 4:30 to 5:45 (the audience is shoulder to shoulder; extra chairs are brought in). Then it's on to the prime-rib/fried-chicken feed, fifteen minutes' worth of keynote remarks, and more mingling. Remember to pop up every couple of minutes to pose for a photo with anyone who requests one -- and everyone wants one -- because if you are Ted Takasaki, that is the drill. Be gracious about it. (It's not that you don't like it -- you do. But it isn't all love and roses.)

Finally, at around 11 p.m., blessed bed. Ease out of the Holiday Inn parking lot at seven the next morning, $800 richer. And it's the same thing next weekend. In fact, if you are Ted Takasaki, you will not spend a single weekend at home from January through the end of March, missing your wife of seventeen years and your thirteen-year-old daughter. And when the spring rubber-chicken circuit is done at last, you must load up your boat and go.

Now, if you are Ted Takasaki, you can finally go fishing.

There are different kinds of success on the professional fishing circuit. Ted Takasaki is not the best walleye angler in the country. That title belongs to a newly transplanted Coloradan and former crop duster named Ron Seelhoff.

Seelhoff (who grew up in Nebraska but recently moved across the border to Burlington) catches more big fish when it matters and wins more money than anyone else out there. He won the 1999 Professional Walleye Trail championship, and then, in an unheard-of feat, did it again the following year. For those skeptics who believe that catching big fish is equal measures skill and luck (hell, with enough boat and beer, they could cast with the pros), Seelhoff entered the 2001 tournament as the two-time defending champ -- and came in second.

He has won five national tournaments -- two more than his closest competitor. He has collected more than a half-million dollars in prize money -- more, by far, than the cumulative paydays enjoyed by the No. 2 career earner. At the '99 PWT championships, Seelhoff won in what for anglers amounted to a rout, landing nearly 27 pounds' worth of walleye over the course of the tournament -- 40 percent more fish than the second place finisher's 19 pounds.

But the fact remains that, unless you actually know (or, worse yet, care) what Stizostedion vitreum means, Seelhoff is the best damned walleye fisherman you've never heard of. Chances are, the best walleye fisherman you've ever heard of is Ted Takasaki.

None of this is to say that Takasaki has done poorly for himself out in the boat. He currently ranks seventh on the all-time purse-winnings list, at about $200,000 dollars. He won the 1998 PWT title, the year before Seelhoff went on his tear. He is tied for the longest string of consecutive money finishes, coming off the water in nine straight tournaments with more scratch than he entered with. (The prize values drop off drastically after second or third, explaining how Takasaki can finish in the top ten so often but still earn relatively little cash.) Yet catching big fish is only one way to measure angling success. For anyone who wants to understand the economics of casting for cash, you must study both men. For while Seelhoff may be the better fisherman, Takasaki is, by far, the better professional fisherman.

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