With 50-plus combined years of fishing experience, Dixon native Ryan Wilson and his partner, Brandon Newby, have heard plenty of big fish stories.
The week leading up to the North American Ice Fishing Circuit's national championship tournament Dec. 15 and 16 in Mille Lacs Lake, Minn., was no exception.
While the duo scouted every inch and mannerism of the lake, stories of lunkers – but not the lunkers themselves – were swimming laps.
“You start to realize that there’s certain people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” said Wilson, a member of Dixon High School's Class of 2000 who now lives in Waupaca, Wis. “We had some of that going on the day before. It makes you nervous. You’re thinking, ‘They found some big ones, and we hadn’t seen any of them.’
"I can tell you it’d make me nervous, if I didn’t know enough about the lake.”
That's a big if, though, and one that Wilson and Newby ultimately didn't have to worry about, thanks to their exhaustive scouting.
Welcome to the war room
Wilson says he and Newby never spent so much time scouting an event. The preparation culminated with an intense pow-wow in the duo's hotel room Friday night.
As they rigged about 20 poles with different lines and jigs, they made a plan, a backup plan and a plan to back up that one.
“Our stomachs are in knots the whole time we’re doing it,” Newby said. “We’re nervous. ‘Are we making the right choice?' The pressure is amazing."
Plans B and C weren't necessary. The duo set up shop in the rain Saturday morning and immediately struck ice fishing's version of oil. The barrage of crappies captured by the Aqua-Vu fish finder throughout the week were back. And hungry. It didn't take long to hit the 16-fish limit of eight crappies and eight bluegills.
“We thought we’d just keep fishing, and we kept upgrading our crappies and kept waiting for truly big ones to come through,” Wilson said. “We kind of found the right spot, started with quite a bit of weight and kept adding to it.”
Wilson and Newby hooked 13.52 pounds worth of fish the soggy first day to lead by 1.8 pounds.
“We actually hoped the bite got tougher,” Newby said.
Mother Nature honored the request and, as a cold front rolled in, so did the competition. Teams formed a 15-foot-radius halo around the leaders for the bone-chilliing second day.
“We saw a lot of people on Sunday who became our buddies,” Wilson said. “Fifteen feet is something they usually just eyeball. But on Sunday, it was right down to the inch.”
Competitors sheepishly asked if they could fish near the front-runners.
“I said, ‘You’d be stupid not to,’ ” Wilson said. “If you weren’t trying to crowd us on Sunday, I’m not sure what you were thinking.”
Despite the cold front pretty much killing the perch bite, Wilson and Newby still caught the required eight by mid-morning Sunday. They again had their eight crappies by 9 a.m. and steadily upgraded with bigger ones.
Their 32 fish totaled 24.83 pounds – a record-setting haul – to win by 6˝.
“It wasn’t just a win,” Newby said. “It was a domination-type of deal.”
They became the first team from Wisconsin to win a national title, and the first duo, period, to win weight on both days.
“Winning Day 1 was winning a playoff game,” Newby said. “Winning Day 2 was the Super Bowl.”
They both got Super Bowl-worthy gold rings – valued at $3,200 apiece – as well as a $7,500 payout that Wilson says will simply allow them to keep competing. They've got two events in the circuit lined up for February.
Fish tale of redemption
So what's next after winning the whole shabang? Building a dynasty.
“The only thing we can do better is go out and win it again next year,” Wilson said. “It gives us confidence. If the fish aren’t biting for whatever reason, you can think, ‘If anyone’s going to get these fish to bite, it’s me.’ "
“There’s more to be won,” Newby said. “To be honest, we should be able to go anywhere and win.”
The win spelled redemption for Wilson, who toiled in unfamiliar territory at the Ice Fishing World Championships last February in Kazakhstan.
“It was kind of like a recharge,” he said. “It kind of made me focus so hard on what we were doing, so it makes you a better fisherman all-around. It made you fine-tune everything."
Back on American soil, he was ready to go after the best ice fishermen in the nation with renewed vigor.
“It just makes you know that if you slip up at all, they’re gong to take you out," Wilson said. There’s no room for error.”
Two lures in a tackle box
Wilson and Newby go together like minnows and wax worms. They know what buttons to push on each other the same way they know what bait is going to hit on a cloudy day.
To think the dynamic duo formed over – what else – a big fish tale. While playing darts on the same team about 7 years ago, Wilson overheard Newby telling a buddy he'd placed fourth in an ice fishing tournament.
“He called me a liar to my face,” Newby said.
So they went out fishing with some buddies to see who could land 25 fish first, as a sort of lie detector test.
The third and fourth wheels had landed four fish when Wilson and Newby both hooked their 25th. At the same time.
“At that point, I figured, if you can’t beat him, join ‘em,” Newby said.
One thing that sets them apart: While Wilson works in tree service year-round, Newby's blacktop trade finds him in his offseason.
"I felt bad for Ryan after we won," said Newby. "I didn’t really do much for the next 2 days after I got home."
So, after battling the shifting elements, Wilson's form of celebration was going home to see his wife, Erika, and his two sons.
“After being on the road that long, the most exciting thing is to pack up and go home,” Wilson said. “It’s completely draining.”
Ryan Wilson file
High school: Dixon, Class of 2000
Resides: Waupaca, Wis.
Family: Wife, Erika; sons Trevor, 3, and Cooper, turns 1 in April
Education: Studied urban forestry and business at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point ... Earned bachelor's degree in 2005
Professional: Full time – Asplundh Tree Expert Co. Part time – Wilson Tree Service