Published July 9, 2022

North Dakota's Granddaddy of a Fishing Tournament

Written by
Jonathan Starr
| The Dakotan

North Dakota’s premier fisheries – Lake Sakakawea, Devils Lake, and the Missouri River – have hosted a litany of big name national fishing events for decades.

But none compare in longevity and size to the North Dakota Governor’s Cup Walleye Derby, a tradition that began when the United States celebrated the nation’s Bicentennial back in 1976.

Only a world pandemic halted its annual consecutive streak in 2020. When the 2021 event was held, the tournament enjoyed its largest field ever after expanding to 260 two-person teams.

The 2022 tournament will be held July 15 and 16.

Based out of Fort Stevenson State Park south of Garrison, a determined duo of local anglers jumped through months of regulatory hoops and hurdles to get the first tournament launched as part of Garrison’s array of community Bicentennial activities.

Their efforts grew to become an annual highlight for anglers across the region, Fort Stevenson State Park, and the Garrison area.

For years the tournament field has filled the first day entries are accepted, Governor’s Cup committee chairperson Joyce Pfliger said, and 2022 was no exception. As usual, there was also a waiting list of teams wanting to participate should a team have to drop out for any reason.

The tournament is traditionally held the third Friday and Saturday in July. The first flight of 65 boats departs at 7 a.m. with remaining flights departing at one-half hour intervals. It’s pretty impressive, Pfliger

described, watching from various vantage points in the park as flights depart.

The first morning flight has to return to the park by 3 p.m. with the others following at the same one-hour intervals. Anglers then trailer their catch to Garrison’s City Park on Main Street for official weigh-in.

Teams oftentimes come in early if they have their five-fish daily limit, Pfliger added. Anglers can catch a total of eight fish daily but weigh their five biggest fish.

The 2022 winning team garners $15,000 and automatic entry into the 2023 tournament. Pay-out goes down to the top 42 teams.

In addition, the angler with the tournament’s overall largest walleye nets a prize pool of money that typically is about $1,200. “With a plaque and bragging rights,” Pfliger added.

The oldest angler in this year’s tournament is 91 years of age. The youngest is five years old, Pfliger added.

The 2021 championship team returns this year to try to defend their title after their two-day winning weight of 40.44 pounds earned Ken Schmitt, Glasgow, Mont., and Mark Jones, Billings, Mont., bragging rights for the year.

A pair of aquatic nuisance species (ANS) sniffing dogs will be at tournament this year, Pfliger described. It’s part of an effort to highlight the importance of ANS prevention. They will provide a demonstration July 14 at Fort Stevenson State Park to showcase the dog’s talents, as well as inspect boats the first day of the tournament July 15.

The public is invited to watch the demonstration and flight departures and arrivals at the park at no cost other than daily N.D. Parks and Recreation Department daily entrance fees or annual pass. Weigh-in activities are free at Garrison City Park located on the north end of Main Street.

Pfliger is quick to credit Lake Sakakawea’s walleye fishery for the tournament’s success and popularity. In addition, the support of Fort Stevenson State Park and its staff, along with the 30-plus volunteers, continue to draw anglers each year. “We couldn’t do it without them (Fort Stevenson State Park) and the volunteers,” she added.

Every year one of the most challenging aspects of Pfliger’s volunteer “job” is often to answer the tough question of what she anticipates as the winning weight. “I don’t even know where to go with that this year,” she admitted, in large part because Lake Sakakawea’s elevation – which has been lower than usual the last couple of years – increased beyond expectations when heavy May rains and snow fell in its upper basin.

Couple that with a rollercoaster of weather and wind, and it’s anybody’s guess how many pounds will tip the scales during the 2022 North Dakota Governor’s Cup Walleye Derby.

Folks will just have to come to Garrison July 15 and 16 to find out firsthand.

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