GREEN BAY, Wisc. — The way I wound up in Dave Leitgabel’s boat goes back to last winter at the Indianapolis sports show. Leitgabel told me was attending the show with his son when Mark Martin walked by. Leitgable pointed him out as “the president of walleye fishing” and the lad suggested they talk to him.
Leitgabel, a 49-year-old truck driver from Terre Haute who was making the transition from bass angler to walleye fisherman, obliged his son and during their conversation the boy asked Martin, point blank, if he could teach his father how to fish for walleyes. Martin allowed that he could as he was planning on holding a school on Green Bay that summer and Leitgabel would be welcome to come. Leitgabel signed up immediately.
Martin, who is well-known for his ice fishing schools, designed a three-day school — a half day in the classroom and two and half days on the water. Martin lined up a couple of Green Bay guides as instructors and invited a couple of outdoor writers to help out. The writers’ assignment was simple: Climb into a student’s boat and make yourself useful.
I showed up a day in advance to pre-fish with Martin and Steve Becker, one of the instructors.
It was a tough day as we didn’t catch walleyes — largely because we couldn’t keep the sheepshead and white perch off of our offerings until a thunderstorm chased us off the water — but Martin allowed as that was alright as we were catching fish and it demonstrated that the techniques that they were teaching would work.
So I spent the first fishing day with Leitgabel, who’d never been on big water before, and helped him figure out some of the techniques they’d talked about in the classroom.
Leitgabel, who is a competent angler, said he was switching to walleye fishing from bass — everybody in Indiana fishes for bass — because “I like eating them and people aren’t nearly as upset when you take a few of them home.”
And though the walleye fishing was again tough — plenty of non-target species cooperated — Leitgabel caught a couple of walleyes. And he raved about the school.
“Sometimes when you don’t have the ability to pick it up quickly, Mark and his faculty not only took the time to show us what to do, but they explained why to do it,” Lietgabel said. “They made it very understandable to me. I could ask a dumb question and they didn’t think it was dumb. They didn’t expect me to be at an advanced level.”
But he was clearly an angler, which was a prerequisite for the course. Anglers brought their own boats and gear.
The instructors brought their boats to areas everyone was fishing, then anchored them and got into the students’ boats and showed them ... everything, from basic rigging to fine-tuning their electronics.
“The environment they put me in was there was always somebody there to show me,” Leitgabel said. “They take a guy at my level and give you a fighting chance. Everybody was helpful. I got more information than I expected. These opportunities don’t come by every day.
“I’d do it again in a minute.”
I spent the second day fishing with Randy Zimmerman, a retired U.S. Army colonel who had trailered his boat up from his home at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. Zimmerman said he wanted to become a better angler, got on the internet, found Martin’s school, and signed up.
“The thing that appealed to me about this school is you brought your own boat,” Zimmerman said. “They get in your boat and use your gear and your electronics. I’m a life-long learner and found out in graduate school that the more you learn, the more you know you don’t know.
“I didn’t have any experience with planer boards,” he continued. “I fully understand their advantage now and I’ll fully integrate them into fishing on my home lake.
“I’d recommend this to anyone. I could even see doing it again.”
Fishing was again tough the second day — “It shouldn’t be this hard,” said Derek Boegner, the other fishing guide/instructor — but it picked up in the afternoon and almost everyone started catching some ‘eyes.
Martin said he held an Open Water Fishing/Vacation School once before, on Saginaw Bay, about a decade ago, and it went well, but he decided to go to Green Bay because of the variety of presentations available there, such as snap jigging on the reefs, which is not nearly as popular at Saginaw Bay.
He plans on scheduling another school next summer — possibly on Saginaw Bay — but the Green Bay visitors’ bureau is pressing him hard to come back there. His 10 students came from six different states.
Personally, I thought the instructions on how to use your electronics to their best advantage was extremely enlightening, and I’ve been around sonar units most of my life (though I haven’t kept up with them as well as I might have), and was worth it in itself.
For guys who are not the fishermen they want to be — and that includes most of us — this is was an excellent opportunity to flatten the learning curve.
It’s always struck me that guys think nothing of taking a lesson from the golf pro or the tennis pro, but somehow they think they ought to be able to figure out fishing by themselves.
It is every bit as technical and complicated as the other sports — probably even more so — and a few sessions with a pro can really, as Leitgabel put it — “give you a fighting chance.”