The defense of their title this August didn't turn out nearly as well. The Paynesville duo-who also have two runner-up finishes to their credit over the 13 years of the tournament-had their worst catch ever on Saturday, were worried that they might do even worse on Sunday, and were left talking about the one that got away.
Dave Heitke, left, and John Liestman, center, pose with the Frank Towsend Trophy. Heitke and Liestman captained the U.S. team that won the Can-Am Challenge.
One highlight for them was being the captains of the victorious United States team in the Can-Am Challenge, which pits the top five American boats from the previous year against the top five Canadian boats. As the defending champions, Liestman and Heitke were the captains of the U.S. team this year.
Liestman and Heitke ended up in 22nd place overall out of 200 boats. Their three-day total was 36.88 pounds. They also were the fifth highest American finishers, which qualifies them to participate in the Can-Am Challenge again next year.
Liestman and Heitke reported that the fish were really biting during their week of pre-fishing before the tournament, which they did for the first time this year without their fishing partner, Bud Schmiginsky.
On Wednesday, though, the fish's habits started to change, and they became less aggressive. Weight totals for the tournament were all down. The winning weight this year was down seven pounds from Liestman and Heitke's total last year.
Drawing the 75th starting position on Friday, Liestman and Heitke had their best day of the tournament, thanks to a 10-minute stretch in the early afternoon. Within 10 minutes, they caught their two largest fish of the tournament, a four-pound, six-ounce bass and another four-pound, two-ouncer.
With a catch of 15.93 pounds, the Paynesville men were in second place after the first day.
On Saturday, they brought in only 9.9 pounds, the first time they haven't caught 10 pounds of fish in 13 years in the tournament.
When they arrived at their best spot, they found a tourist had just caught ten bass using live bait. "We pulled up to him and he said, 'You're a little bit late,'" recalled Liestman.
Their day would have been better had one fish not gotten away. Using a rattle trap, Liestman had what looked to be a five-pound fish on his line. The fish jumped and stayed on the line, and, after a fight, was on its side approaching the boat.
As Heitke tried to get the fish in a net, "the rattle trap fell out," Liestman explained. "His head was out of the net, and he wiggled out."
It was the first fish the duo has lost in the last four years at the tournament. They think landing it would have improved their total by three and a half pounds, which would have placed them in the top ten for the tournament once again.
Without it, they were in 24th place overall after two days.
As for the Can-Am Challenge, the United States took a 20-pound lead the first day, but the Canadians got within three-quarters of a pound on Saturday.
That meant for lots of pressure on Sunday. Heitke and Liestman said the challenge, while friendly, is becoming quite a rivalry. "People in Canada really care about it," said Heitke.
At 11 a.m. on Sunday, Liestman and Heitke only had four pounds of fish in the boat. "We thought we'd be the goats," said Heitke, of the prospect of losing the Can-Am Challenge because of a mediocre catch. "We thought we'd be the laughingstocks of Canada."
They changed tactics, drove 20 miles, and started fishing for small mouth bass, which they finally started to catch using green rattle traps. They ended up with more than 11 pounds of fish for the day.
The United States actually won the challenge by 20 pounds, as a couple Canadian boats struggled and one boat was disqualified for illegally transferring fish between boats.
The winners of the KBI this year were a couple of local teens from Kenora. They placed second behind Heitke and Liestman last year.
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