Wisconsin angler Randy Fifrick prepares Wednesday for the Anglers Insight Marketing Weekend Walleye Series Warrior Boats National Championship Shootout on the Missouri River in North Dakota. Fifrick is one of 60 anglers from Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota competing in the event Friday and Saturday.

Top anglers from a unique walleye fishing circuit in the Upper Midwest are taking to the Missouri River in southern North Dakota this weekend to determine their national champion.

It’s the first time North Dakota has hosted the national championship of the Anglers Insight Marketing Weekend Walleye Series − which has both a distinctive makeup and an original format − presenting an opportunity for North Dakota anglers to take the title in their home state.

They’ll have plenty of competition from their counterparts in Minnesota and Wisconsin who also eye the top prize of a top-of-the-line equipped fishing boat worth $58,000.

“North Dakota anglers are going to have the advantage of knowing the (river) system, but you never know when someone’s going to run into some fish,” said competitor Randy Fifrick, 34, from Village of Kronenwetter, Wis. “Luck is a big part of fishing.”

Fifrick epitomizes the AIM angler − a deep love of fishing but also a full-time career in another area, in his case serving as community development director in Kronenwetter. The job and family take the bulk of his time, leaving little for fishing, especially competitively.

The AIM circuit in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with its regular tournaments typically on Sundays, gives him and others that time. The bulk of the circuit’s 1,000 dues-paying members are amateur anglers with full-time jobs.

“We’re grassroots, working Joe,” said National Tournament Director Denny Fox. “The average Joe can fish these tournaments without taking much time out from their jobs.”

That was a draw for competitor Ross Grothe, 50, of Northfield, Minn., who once fished full-time professionally on other circuits but now works as a general contractor while fishing competitively on the AIM circuit with his sons, 9-year-old Roger and 12-year-old Reid.

“When this opportunity came around, I chose to do it because it kept me closer to home, and I could travel with the family and still promote true fishing − the future of fishing being our kids,” he said.

There is another and perhaps bigger reason for the circuit’s existence − a tournament format that supporters believe is easier on the fish because they are almost immediately released back into the water from which they’re caught.

The bulk of competitive fishing tournaments use either a catch-and-kill format − with the meat often going to charity − or one in which anglers put their fish in boat livewells, cull them as they catch bigger ones then bring the biggest to shore for nightly weigh-ins. The fish are later released back into the wild, but studies show many don’t survive.

In 2008, a group of about 80 professional anglers and fishing industry manufacturers put up money to create AIM, aiming to promote a better way _ “Catch-Record-Release.” AIM anglers immediately measure the fish they catch, convert inches to pounds using a regulation chart, snap a photo for proof and release the fish back into the water.

“They wanted to bring a better way to competitive fishing that wasn’t taxing the resource,” Fox said. “They all see the need to have a circuit that wasn’t killing fish. We all knew we could do it better.”

AIM has trademarked the format, and it’s beginning to spread to other smaller circuits, according to Fox.

“It’s where competition meets conservation,” he said.

The method was a draw for both Grothe and Fifrick.

“I think it’s the future of tournament fishing,” Fifrick said. “I think the days of people carrying around fish in their livewell all day and then bringing them in to a weigh station, I think that’s going to be a thing of the past. I think this is the way to go.”

Neither North Dakota nor South Dakota allows walleye tournaments with delayed releases of fish during certain months of the year when environmental conditions lessen the chance of released fish surviving.

“I think with the public, they’re not opposed to people harvesting fish, they’re opposed to fish being wasted,” said John Lott, aquatic resources chief for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

The restrictions don’t include the catch-record-release format, though neither state has taken a formal position on whether the method is better for the fish resource. Some released fish might still die depending on conditions, and anglers might handle more fish than in other types of tournaments.

However, “it’s an interesting concept; it’s hard to argue against,” said Greg Power, fisheries chief for North Dakota Game and Fish. “In a general sense, we’re supportive of it.”

AIM believes it’s the future of competitive fishing.

“Let’s save the fish for another day,” Fox said. “I like eating them just as much as the next guy. But for the name of sport, we don’t need to be killing them.”

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Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or Blake.Nicholson@bismarcktribune.com