OCTONO, Wisc. -- It's 7:30 a.m. on a Friday in late July at the Oconto public launch.
The water in the boating channel is packed with sleek fishing craft.
It's rush hour -- or more accurately, a rush one-sixth of an hour -- as competitors in the AIM Pro Team Challenge walleye fishing tournament idle their boats and wait for the start.
Over the next 10 minutes, 62 boats will make their way past festive tents and sponsor displays and out into Green Bay for a day of walleye fishing.
Announcer Denny Cox heightens the excitement as he calls out the anglers' names and boat numbers.
"And in boat one, it's our leader, Lynn Niklasch," Cox says, his gravelly, up-tempo voice sounding very much like you'd hear at the start of a championship boxing match.
By 7:40, all the boats are released and motoring to various spots on Green Bay.
If you're at all familiar with professional fishing tournaments, you know the start isn't unusual.
But what will happen over the next eight hours and at the subsequent results ceremony is quite different from most major freshwater fishing events.
No fish will be held in live wells, no fish will be brought back to shore for weigh-ins, no fish will be held on stage for grip-and-grin photo sessions.
And, as a result, the tournament will cause very low to no mortality on the bay's walleye population.
AIM utilizes a format it calls "Catch-Record-Release."
I joined Tom Kemos, a tournament angler and AIM board member from Oconomowoc, on Tuesday for a day of fishing before the tournament.
Kemos was looking for fish, checking gear and trying techniques he planned to use over the three-day event.
He said the AIM format was extremely well-supported in the angling community and by host cities.
"It's been open arms," Kemos said. "There is none of the negativity associated with most tournaments."
AIM -- short for Anglers Insight Marketing -- was formed in 2008 and held its first event the next year. It has several pro team events each year as well as a series of weekend tournaments in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
AIM encourages education by providing a co-angler division. Co-anglers are typically amateur fishermen who team with pros for a day of tournament action.
As we cast near a bridge piling in the Fox River, Kemos hooked and landed a solid walleye.
The next 20 seconds were exactly what would have happened if the tournament was on.
Kemos unhooked the fish and placed it on a measuring board. I took a photo of the fish on the board as well as another of Kemos holding the fish.
Kemos then placed the walleye back in the water and recorded the fish's length on a piece of paper.
"Let's get another," Kemos said.
Anglers compile scores based on length of fish caught and released. The lengths are converted to weights.
For example, an 18-inch walleye in the AIM system equates to 2.23 pounds, a 24-incher is 5.57 pounds and a 28-incher is 9.09 pounds.
The organization publishes a conversion chart in quarter-inch increments from 14 to 33 inches.
Anglers record their seven largest fish of the day.
"No worries about culling or bag limits," Kemos said. "Simple and we can take it anywhere."
The format results in the lowest mortality of fish in the tournament fishing world.
Many musky tournaments use the same process.
Many national walleye and bass tournament circuits, however, continue to bring fish to shore for weigh-ins and grip-and-grin photo sessions. The resulting fish mortality has many in the angling world asking for change.
A pro walleye event in Oconto last year resulted in 600 dead walleyes, said Victoria Bostedt, mayor of Oconto.
And earlier this year, The Walleye Federation's Cabela's National Team Championship event held part of its weigh-in ceremony at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.
The result: 918 of 1,969 walleyes weighed during the three-day event died.
The dead fish were donated to a food pantry or used for research. But when the goal of a tournament is to release live fish, such results earn a black eye for tournament angling.
"It was heartbreaking to see all those dead fish," Bostedt said of last year's Oconto event. "This format is so much better for the resource and our community."
After a full day of fishing, the fleet of AIM competitors returned to the Oconto landing.
The anglers entered their score sheets and walked on stage when their names were called. Once again the typical pro tournament fishing environment returned, this time with bright lights and video screens.
But as an announcer asked anglers about their day, no stressed fish were held out. Instead, photos of their catches flashed on displays.
The anglers related their stories. The fish were swimming somewhere in the bay.
AIM uses a guaranteed payout system for its tournaments, including a $30,000 first-place check for a field of 100 boats.
Cox, who manages the AIM weekend events in Wisconsin, said that before a tournament in Menasha this year a local resident asked: "So when are you going to bring all the dead fish in?"
Cox explained this was an AIM event and all fish were quickly released at the spot they were caught.
"It's the future," Cox said. "Conservation-minded people are taking over. It's about respecting the resource."
Here's hoping it catches on with the rest of the tournament fishing world.
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