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'Fish like a girl' is gracious model of sportsmanship

2009 WAM champion Julie Skochenski of Lino Lakes watches as Jim Kitterman weighs her fish. Skochenski was not able to repeat her win this year. She was still happy. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

It could be called "The Sisterhood of the Traveling (Fish) Poles."

Eighty expert anglers fanned out across Fish Hook Lake early Saturday for the 33rd annual Women Anglers of Minnesota multi-species tournament.

Fierce competitors and fiercer friends, the woman fished, laughed and fished some more.

Strict rules made Saturday mayhem at the Loon's Nest Resort.

WAM doesn't allow anglers to keep any more than two fish of any species in a live well, so boats constantly landed, weighed and re-launched.

Resort owners Ricki and Louie Anania were on hand to help the women load fish sacks for weighing and offer encouragement.

Rumors that Fish Hook was a tough lake were quashed early on.

"They've been bragging all week" about what they caught in the pre-tournament rounds, Ricki Anania said, adding it was "great fun" to have the women around.

"We couldn't keep the danged rock bass off our lines," laughed 2009 tournament winner Julie Skochenski of Lino Lakes.

The woman fished in only 32 boats, so competitors sat elbow to elbow in some watercraft. Anglers are scored individually based on an intricate set of points averaged over three years.

That's the way the tournament's always been run. At least two anglers must be in each boat; many carried four or five.

Instead of being awkward, most of the women said it was fun fishing next to a competitor.

"We had a blast even though I didn't catch a fish," said Sharon Melbo of Park Rapids.

Evonne Vaplon, who has fished the tournament 17 years, said sisterhood and competition could co-exist.

"We try to help each other," the Fargo woman said. "If your partner gets a big one it's the same as if you caught it."

Cheerleading was part and parcel of the tournament.

"That's a big bluegill!" exclaimed a man on shore as Deb Samuelson of Clear Lake brought her fish to the weigh master.

"Sara, I want to see a big northern!" someone yelled to Sara Sumner of Prior Lake.

"How about a big walleye?" Sumner responded, jumping back into her boat.

WAM officials tried in vain to photograph the women and their fish for the record books.

"I promise I'll come back with bigger fish," one competitor protested, racing out to the dock.

"We're looking to up-size," Vaplon said, begging off the photo op.

WAM president Doris Sumner said hard times have hit the tournament industry.

"We've seen a decline in membership," she said. "Women or their spouses have lost their jobs. We might look at reducing our costs and how we present and handle the club" to entice new members.

"What you're seeing here are the hard core, true blue fishermen."

Many men were involved as shore crews. They, too, were busy at the leader board. Constant tallying kept a perpetual repositioning of anglers.

Laura Sumner is a past winner on Fish Hook Lake. She won that tournament with a 6½ pound walleye.

"My sister is here, my niece is here," she said, listing off the relatives. "My dad got me into fishing. I love it."

Similar tales abounded among anglers who started fishing as kids with their dads.

For Melbo, it was also a family matter. She, daughter Kim Petrie and granddaughter Amber Petrie all fished together.

They had a side jaunt into wildlife photography when they spotted a baby loon on the river trying to follow their boat. Even though Kim won third place in the rock bass competition, the baby loon was the highlight of their day.

"It's a good bunch," said Kim Petrie of WAM. "We really have fun fishing it."

Between door prizes and grand prizes, everyone in the sisterhood of fishing went home a winner.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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