A rowdy crowd under the big tent at Smokey Bear Park fell silent Saturday as the final two teams of the International Falls Bass Championship held their breath waiting for a winner to be announced.
To the right of IFBC president Gary Potter stood Nathan Brigham and Brett Meyers of Emo, the 2013 champs who came into Saturday’s final weigh-ins at the top of the leaderboard.
To Potter’s left stood defending champs Travis Peterson and Craig Peterson of Bemidji, Mn.
The Peterson brothers had just snagged the hot seat away from local anglers Larry Keep and LeRoy Wilson with 34.68 pounds of fish.
Brigham and Meyers needed 14.14 pounds to win.
Both teams were noticeably tense as they waited for the final weight.
Seconds later, cheers erupted from the crowd as the Emo team’s weight of 15.50 pounds of smallmouth bass came in to crown them the 2016 champs with a total bag—and new tournament record—of 36.04 pounds.
“It’s awesome,” Brigham said minutes after holding up the IFBC trophy.
“We knew we had a chance and we’re just glad things worked out.”
The teammates typically have success fishing on the Rainy River and that held true on Saturday. But it wasn’t until later in the day that the pair knew they had a chance to stay on top.
“It was a grind,” Brigham noted. “We had lots of company right to the bitter end.
“To start the day, we only had three decent [fish] and then lost three in a row.”
Struggling to hold on to their lead, the team manoeuvered through the wind and rain to a new spot where they added three good-sized “smallies” to their live well.
“We got pretty lucky a few times,” Brigham admitted. “It ended well.”
Meyers, who remained quiet after the victory, said he was tired after a long day.
“It was all worth it, though,” he noted.
Travis Peterson said it was the third time taking second in the tournament, but credited the competition he and his brother fell short to.
“Those two are known for finishing strong on the river,” he said of Brigham and Meyers.
“We lost to really good competition,” he added. “They deserve it. They earned it.”
Despite a runner-up finish, Peterson said he was satisfied with Saturday’s catch on the Rainy River.
“It was tough,” he remarked. “The fish aren’t as big and it just makes it more difficult.”
His brother agreed.
“Travis and I pulled all the stops and we fished a good tournament, and made some good decisions,” Craig Peterson said.
“That’s all we can ask for. . . .
“The river is a little scary right now,” he added. “We had to idle through a few spots and just had to be careful.”
Tough river fishing appeared to be the theme of the weekend as several anglers expressed disappointment on their results. Adding rain and windy conditions to the equation Saturday only increased frustration.
“We had a very, very hard day,” Bonita Ysen said of fishing the river Saturday. “We didn’t catch our first fish until noon and then caught the other one just a few minutes later.
“And that was about all we caught all day.”
Ysen and her teammate, Kristi Taylor–the only all-female team in the tournament–went into Day 2 in fourth place with 18.70 pounds of fish caught on Rainy Lake.
“It’s a dream come true,” Taylor said of landing in fourth place after Friday’s weigh-ins.
Even though the women finished the 2016 event in 31st place overall, they were satisfied with their performance.
“We are happy with the results,” Ysen said. “See you next year.”
Finishing in third place were LeRoy Wilson and Larry Keep of the Falls (31.37 pounds).
It wasn’t until the Petersons came through the tent that the duo was knocked out of the hot seat.
“We knew we did OK, but we left those ones on the lake [Friday] and we’re paying for it now,” Wilson noted.
Former champs Jeff Gustafson and Scott Dingwall came off Rainy Lake–their stronger body of water to fish–on Day 2 in 19th place.
“We had a tough one out there today,” Gustafson said Saturday.
“Good thing I had my partner with me. He caught all five fish.”
The four-time IFBC champ said Saturday’s weather may have hindered the team’s overall performance.
“They [the fish] lit up on [the lake] yesterday,” he added. “It’s a lot tougher than we thought it would be.
“We felt like we had a legit shot to catch a 20-pound bag and that’s what we were trying to do,” noted Gustafson.
“It’s been a good tournament.”
The team, which wound up finishing in fourth place overall, needed 16.98 pounds of fish to knock Wilson and Keep out of the hot seat but fell short with 16.56.
Their total weight for both days of the tournament ended up at 30.95 pounds.
Several anglers commented catching other species of fish other than bass Saturday.
“We couldn’t stay away from the [northern] pike,” said Pete Benedix, a rookie in the tournament.
Potter told The Journal on Monday that while organizers still were calculating financial figures, the 2016 event appeared to be the best attended to date.
He noted huge crowds from Thursday’s boat parade to Saturday’s final weigh-ins.
“I visited with several event chairs and they were very happy with the turnout for their events,” Potter added.
Now in its 12th year, Potter believes the IFBC is turning into a must-attend summer event for families and anglers.
“It is the support from the community the anglers talk about most,” he remarked.
“They cannot believe how the community supports this event.”
“Toadzilla,” the inflatable fish towering over Smokey Bear, was a new addition that proved to be a big draw for the event.
Potter said the giant fish was popular on social media.
Also new this year was the ability to fish in Canada.
“The anglers were ecstatic over the new fishing boundaries,” Potter noted. “They liked catching more fish and bigger fish.
“They also liked being able to spread out and not be crowded.”
Overall, it was a successful weekend—and Potter credited Brigham and Meyers on their second IFBC win.
“They are a couple of young kids from Emo, Ont. who have won the IFBC twice now,” he said.
“All the big fish we were able to show off during weigh-ins was very exciting.”