Longtime Willow Springs Lake Trout Tournament director Tracy Purtee reluctantly shares some of the fishing secrets that have helped him become one of the most accomplished Rim Country anglers.
For the May 6 tournament, he said, "I'll fish with cowbells, crankbaits to the shore and crick hoppers."
But that's all the tips he'll reveal, saying he'll remain tight lipped, as most successful fishermen are, to protect his cherished, time-honored secrets.
About 100 anglers are expected to join Purtee in the angling showdown that for the past 23 years has unofficially signaled the start of the fishing season on Rim Country lakes. The Willow Springs Fall Classic, of which Purtee is also the tournament director, traditionally marks the end of the fishing season.
As good an angler as Purtee has proven to be, it took the creative juices of a grandmother to catch the largest trout weighed in at the Willow Springs Fall Classic in October 2005.
Pam Bumbalow, who entered the tournament only at her granddaughter's request and because it was a charity event, caught a 21.2-ounce lunker with a powerbait she had modified.
"I kind of decorated it to look like a cricket," she said. "When I caught it, we were trolling back (to the shore) because my granddaughter had to go to the bathroom."
In the 2004 fall tournament, 3-year-old Sonny Gardner braved cold and windy conditions to become the youngest competitor to ever catch fish in either of the benefit tournaments. The youngster reeled in three trout that tipped the scales at 12.6 ounces.
Also that year, Purtee caught the runner up in the Big Fish contest, a 10.8-ounce rainbow.
PCC reaps profits
Students at Payson Community Christian School will once again reap the benefits of the tournament as it does the Fall Classic.
"All monies from this will be used to purchase school equipment," tournament director Tracy Purtee said.
He estimates the two tournaments earn about $2,000 annually for PCC.
When Purtee took over as tournament director more than a decade ago, it was held at Woods Canyon.
About three years ago, Purtee moved the tournament site to Willow Springs to accommodate more anglers.
As tournament director, he has plenty of fond memories of past events.
Among his most cherished recollections is 1996 when the Arizona Game and Fish Department stocked Woods Canyon just days before the tournament.
"They had cleaned out their breeder pond and put the fish in the lake," he said. "There was some big fish in there."
With Woods Canyon overloaded with lunker-sized trout, tournament fishing was at its best.
"A 12-year-old boy fishing from the shore with a bobber caught a 6-pound rainbow," Purtee said. "That's one of the biggest that's been caught."
The tournament also produced the largest stringer of fish, about 7 pounds, ever weighed in.
Although game officials won't be using breeder fish this year, they will stock Willow Springs two or three times before the tournament.
A huge challenge this year will be to land an elusive brown trout.
"We haven't had a brown caught in the past five years," Purtee said, "and I give a trophy for the biggest brown (trout)."
Bass have also proven to be an elusive species even though there is a prize for biggest large and small mouth caught.
The rules and schedule
This year's tournament will be held from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the lake, located 32 miles east of Payson and north of Highway 260. For tournament newcomers, Purtee's best advice is to follow the signs to the lake.
The entry fee is $20 per person if preregistered before May 1. On the day of the tournament, the fee is $25.
Tournament day registration at the lake store opens at 5 a.m. and closes at 7 a.m. Those who preregister must also check in before beginning to fish.
Due to the size of the lake, the tournament is open only to the first 100 anglers to register.
All entrants must be in possession of an Arizona fishing license and a trout stamp. Arizona Game and Fish Laws limit an angler to six trout per day.
Participants must fish Willow Springs Lake only and there can be no prefishing from April 28 to the day of the tournament. The minimum size trout that should be kept is 8 inches. The benefit will take place regardless of weather conditions.
Purtee estimates about eight past tournaments have been held in snowstorms.
"The worst one was when I first began sponsoring the tournament," he said. "It got so cold, I stopped fishing."
The post tournament weigh-in begins at 3 p.m. and closes at 4 p.m. Since the weigh-in will be held at the dock house, fishermen can opt to catch and release. Awards and prizes will be given out at a ceremony beginning at 4:30 p.m. in the lake parking lot.
"Look for a motor home with Payson Community Christian School sign," Purtee said.
Registration forms are available at the Payson Roundup, 708 N. Beeline Highway.
For more information, call (928) 474-8050 or (928) 478-4337.