There was a sobering finality to the banner headline over the front page of The Journal Times March 15, 1997.
“Salmon-A-Rama calls its quits”
A shoestring catch by organizers saved the financially-struggling tournament within weeks. And, in an omen that perhaps everything would work out, Michael Collins of Stoughton turned the negative into a positive by catching a then-tournament record 37.40-pound lake trout that July.
More than 21 years after that gloomy headline, this much can be said with certainty: The vital signs of this tournament, which was first held in Racine in 1974, have never been more encouraging.
When the 45th tournament officially starts at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, business will be booming. Throw in a few wrinkles overseen by Jim LaFortune, who is in his fifth year as SAR chairman, and this event could reach a new era of popularity.
“The contest itself has been overwhelming,” LaFortune said. “I believe we had 4,100 participants last year. This year, I know just the charterboat participation has doubled.
“We’re really starting to reach out into the northern part of Wisconsin. We never really gained much ground into that Kewaunee-Door County area, so that’s really starting to open up what this event can become. And we’re starting to get more interest from major corporations that are stepping up that are wanting to be a part of this.”
Start with Lynch Chevrolet Buick GMC in Burlington, which is responsible for a major change with the grand prize in this tournament.
For the first time, the overall champion will have these two options: 1. Collect the grand prize of $21,250 plus a Yamaha 9.9-horsepower outboard motor valued at $3,750. 2. Choose between a brand new GMC Canyon, Buick Encore or Chevrolet Camaro, each of which has a value that exceeds the first option.
“What we’re going to do is take the three vehicles, put them in the field where we’re holding the event, and we’re also going to take a sign with the cash and the motor,” LaFortune said. “And we’re going to have the winner walk down, look at them all and then stand next to the one he wants.
“Technically, the car is going to be of better value. However, cash is cash. So it’s really going to be interesting which one they pick. Nobody is going to know what the grand-prize winner is getting until he says, ‘Here I am and this is what I want.’”
The other big change this year is that the grand prize event will be held on the actual Pershing Park soccer field, just south of where it was held last year. It will be the second location change in four years since SAR was held just east of the Reedpoint Brew House in 2015 and ‘16.
“That allows us a lot more space and allows us to get in a lot more things that are going to be family-friendly,” LaFortune said. “So on Friday, we have entry, we have raffles and we have The Now band.
“Saturday, we are having an ACL Cornhole Tournament and we’re expecting people from five states to come and participate. We’re also having a social where anyone who isn’t a pro or a member of a league can come down and participate in an all-cash payout event that will be separate from the pros.”
Of course, there’s the fishing itself, which has been why this tournament has been held for nearly a half-century.
The overall champion last year was Steve Wakefield, a 55-year-old Sheboygan man who landed a 33.46-pound chinook salmon. Wakefield almost didn’t fish since he had committed to work in a Powder Puff fishing tournament.
Squeezing in a few hours of pre-dawn swimming with friend Steve Teetzen last July 19, Wakefield landed his prize-winner about four miles northeast of Sheboygan in an area known as “King Alley.”
Just two 30-plus fish were registered last year, but LaFortune believes conditions are right for far greater success this time.
“The fishing conditions are very good,” he said. “The coho are still schooled up, which is unusual for this time of year. The coho are above average. We’re seeing bigger bait in them that we normally do.
“However, the larger fish, when you find the chinook, they seem to be in the mid-20s (pounds), which is what it was like in the early 1980s. These fish are much, much bigger than what we’ve seen in the last 16 to 20 years.
“We were just talking about this down there. I think you’re going to need a 25-pound chinook to be in the top 10.”
What’s the best advice LaFortune has for anglers?
“Fish from the top to the bottom,” he said. “There really isn’t a thermal point set up and we’re doing just as well with baits at the surface as we do with baits at the bottom.
“A lot of people want to go and target one area. But right now, you have to have the mindset that the lake is not set up for the way we would normally fish. Therefore the fish are on the top all the way to the bottom.
“You have to be versatile with targeting that whole area.”