Thomas Gatzke

Thomas  Gatzke
  • BS Environmental Engineering 1997

Tom Gatzke, 33, class of 2000, came to Tech because of its reputation for engineering and its location - in the middle of some good fishing.

He allows that he skipped more than a few classes to indulge his passion for piscatorial pursuits. Nevertheless, he went on to earn a bachelor's in environmental engineering and a master's in civil engineering. These days he's an engineer with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in Wausau. Away from work, he fishes.

While at Tech, a newfound pal versed him in the wily ways of walleye. Come summer or winter, they ventured unto Portage Lake. Now he is a professional walleye fisherman as he courses lakes from Kentucky to the Dakotas, from Ohio to Montana, and points in between. One becomes a pro fisherman in big tournaments by doing well as an amateur in small tournaments.

Gatzke casts, trolls, and jigs - "whatever catches the most big fish the fastest" - as he competes in six or seven tournaments a year. Each is a commitment of eight or ten days - travel, plus several days of "prefishing" and three days of competition.

Typically, he joins 100 to 150 boats, each with one professional and one amateur. Entry fees vary, typically $1,000 or $2,000. His best catch: $60,000 for first place in a Professional Walleye Trail tournament on Lake Winneconne in Wisconsin; $18,000 for second place on Bay de Noc, off Escanaba, Michigan. He also has fared well in Cleveland, Green Bay, Copper Harbor, and Lac La Belle. "I've won some," he says, "but I won't tell you what I've spent. It's not the most profitable hobby." His boat is twenty feet long and has a 250-horsepower motor and two small trolling motors. It alone cost him $55,000.

Gatzke majored in surface water quality at Tech, and he has a decidedly scientific approach to his angling. "I probably know a bit more about the physical processes than other guys," he says.

For instance, he knows from his days at Tech that algae migrate deeper on a bright sunny day because the light is too intense. Zooplankton follows the algae; baitfish follow the zooplankton; walleye follow the baitfish. "Algae and zooplankton can dictate the depth you should troll," Gatzke says, emphasizing, however, that there are no hard-and-fast rules about this business. "You can never say that something always happens," he says. The goal: "You have to locate the fish in the water column. Observe the conditions, come up with a theory, and test the theory. I can probably jig a little bit better than you can, the rest of it is a mind game. Put the pieces together. Think. Adapt. Apply logic and common sense."

There is another technical side to his fishing: he carries a laptop and the electronic capability to map in detail the bottom of the lake wherever he fishes. Traditional maps only show general contours. With his setup, he can locate a pile of stones.

"I can go back and put myself on key pieces of structure," he says. Knowing the bottom helps, because, for instance, structure affects currents, which affects "feeding locations." In general, walleye are "huge roamers," he says. "They'll be one place, one day, a whole other place the next day." In his sojourns, he uses both GPS and GIS to locate them.

The tournament season runs from April to September. This fishing is not sleeping on the bank with a line tied to your big toe. "You run around like crazy," he says of the tournaments. He's logged as much as 140 miles in one day.

"Conditions can be brutal," he adds. He recalls a tournament in South Dakota in the spring when the wet line, the guides, the reels, and the water in the boat froze. "It is a test of survival, almost, at times." Whatever the conditions, it's a dawn to dusk deal. No food because there's no way to get rid of the food. "I'm so focused on what to do," he says, "I don�t really miss it."

He has prospects beyond prize money. He owns a provisional patent on a device that can "feel" the bottom of the lake and maintain the lure at the same distance off a bumpy bottom.

There is an old saying about a fisherman: "He comes home smelling strongly of drink and the truth is not in him." Not so with a professional walleye fisherman. There's no drinking because the whole business is too hard and demanding, and there are no tall tales because the catch is measured and weighed daily. The only thing left to the imagination is "lots of sad stories about the one that didn't make it to the boat."

An old adage instructs, "When the wind is from the east, the fishing is least." Another one says, "When the wind is from the east, the fish feast." Gatzke adds, "Whatever you're superstitious about - in fishing and life - think positively about the situation you're in. The fish are biting somewhere, and you have to figure out where that could be."

Gatzke is immersed in his hobby for a total of two or three months a year. That means his wife, the former Becky Peterson, class of 1998, is a walleye widow for a good chunk of the summer. Gatzke describes her as "quite a sport." They met at Tech. "She knew what she was up against when she got to know me," he says.

by John Gagnon - UMC, February 2008