An interesting aspect of tournament fishing is observing the competitors as they pass through the various stages of their careers. There are veterans in their twilight, perhaps a year or two away from reeling up for good, middle-aged contenders in their fishing prime and rookies fresh on the scene, supercharged and ready to make their mark.
Place Jon Thelen in the last category. The 33-year-old Crystal man will embark on the Professional Walleye Trail next year after seven years as a guide and competitor on the smaller Midwestern walleye circuits. Now, he says, it's time to turn pro.
"To do that you have to go out on the PWT," Thelen said on a recent morning on Mille Lacs, where he spends most of his guiding hours. "Top to bottom that's where the best walleye anglers are and that's where you have to go to prove yourself as a walleye pro."
Why now? Younger men, such as Inver Grove Heights' Sam Anderson, took up the challenge while still in college. Merrifield's Charlie Johnson, on the other hand, didn't turn pro until he retired.
So why now, Jon Thelen?
"Timing," Thelen replies. "The timing is good for me right now. I've had better finishes the past couple years and I'm getting more consistent. I've finished in the money on lakes other than Mille Lacs, and that's important. A lot of guys can score on their home water but not on some lake they've never fished before."
Thelen's four best finishes were a second in a Minnesota Walleye Trail tournament on Mille Lacs, a third in a NAWA tournament on the Mississippi River, an 11th in a NAWA tournament on Mille Lacs and a 16th in the Mercury Classic on Leech Lake.
Good fishing skills are just part of the gig, however. A pro either must have very deep pockets (Thelen said he's spent $5,000 per year tournament fishing) or very good sponsors. To get good sponsors you must be a good salesman, a skill Thelen appears to have mastered. He writes fishing and hunting articles for three publications, including Midwest Outdoors, and conducts seminars at sport shows. To date his sponsors include Suzuki, G-Loomis, Reef Runner, Off Shore Tackle, MinnKota, Rod Saver, Gamakatsu, Northland, Alumacraft and Don's Southside Marine in Bloomington -- an impressive list even for a veteran pro.
After seven years of fishing various walleye tournament circuits, John Thelen, Crystal, plans to launch his boat on the PWT next year. Presently, Thelen is fishing as an amateur on the PWT's western division. (Dispatch Photo by Vince Meyer)
Thelen sends all his sponsors a quarterly report and an updated resume annually. He also calls them every three months.
"Touching base and staying up on their product line are important," he says.
Next year Thelen will use vacation time from his job as transportation manager for Boise Office Products in Minneapolis to fish the PWT's three western division tournaments. Eventually he might fish the entire six-tournament tour if the time is right.
"I would never put my family financially at risk," said Thelen, who has three children under age 10. "I must stay within my goals. The first step is to fish the western side."
Competition and camaraderie are the lures that got Thelen to bite on tournament fishing. His goals at the present time are modest, but good fortune could change all that. Does he have what it takes to succeed on the PWT? Well, he put the outdoors editor from The Brained Daily Dispatch on a 28.5-inch walleye last week.
From this vantage point it appears his chances are good.