ALPENA - The Brown Trout Festival is in full swing this week with tournament events and a lot of entertainment in store for visitors, but some of the most important action happens behind the scenes of the crowded tents and the weighing station.
Volunteer officials - or O-Fish-Al's)- Doug Niergarth, Dick Cadarette and Brad MacNeill have been keeping an organizational eye over the events of the tournament for many years, ensuring everything runs smoothly and all the paperwork is in order.
"The people who wear the shirt are the go-to people that help with their part in coordination of the whole thing," Niergarth said. "They can always point you in the right direction, or know who else could."
While people are enjoying the entertainment or food vendors and festivities, the volunteers are working hard to keep everything in order.
"We take care of the out-of-sight stuff," Niergarth said. "I plan on working hard every year I come here. There is always something to do."
Volunteers work early hours and long hours during the weeklong tournament. Most start around 5 a.m. or earlier setting up for weigh-in and keeping paperwork straight for participants. Besides having an early morning, volunteer officials put in long days, sometimes working over 12 hours per day.
"There are different people here every year," Cadarette said. "I enjoy watching the kids that fished here when they were younger grow up over the years. There's a lot of work behind the scenes to make everything possible and I enjoy it."
People who volunteer with the festival are either part of the many clubs and organizations around Alpena or are community members who want to lend their time and hands to help activities run smoothly.
"Each club has a body of volunteers ready, willing and able to help out," Niergarth said. "All of their help is needed, along with members at-large (volunteers not members of a club)."
For many years the clubs helped to support the festival, but within the last 10, the festival has been able to help support the clubs, Niergarth said.
"We can give back to them," he said. "That's why it's lasted so long because everybody is in the same boat."
Member-at-large MacNeill has been involved in the Brown Trout Festival since he was small, and said he remembers fishing off the breakwall as a kid, trying to catch the big fish.
"I try to do everything I can for the Brown Trout," MacNeill said. "I help out, as long as I can still fish the tournament."
MacNeill helps with tagging fish, keeps up with maintenance on the festival building, takes pictures for use in publicity and helps Niergarth organize the captains meetings.
"It's a passion of mine and I want to keep the tournament going," MacNeill said. "Being a Brown Trout member, I speak up for the fish plants and cormorant control. We're always trying to work on behalf of the Brown Trout."
As far as festival and tournament preparation, officials plan everything ahead of time and work together to know how many volunteers will be needed for each portion of the events. Many meetings are held throughout the year and most everything is planned before festival week.
"Everything is pretty much done and in full swing by Thursday," Niergarth said. "Everyone has their own job description, and we work together as a whole to get things done,"
This year the officials had a small glitch in the planning when it came to the scheduled poker tournament, and were not able to hold the event due to not getting a license in time from the state of Michigan. They were forced to do some last-minute planning.
"We will be having a battle of the bands instead of the poker tournament this year," MacNeill said. "This is a new thing. Each band will have about 20 minutes to play, and will add to the entertainment."
Besides the unexpected cancellation, things have been going well at the festival, he said.
Officials also have to plan for the future of the festival. They work hard every year to keep events up-to-date and keep the tournament in line with what's available in the water.
"We're the longest running blue water tournament in Michigan," MacNeill said. "We focus more on the deeper fish."
With changes in weather, water levels and fish populations, the officials have to decide what they want to do with the tournament every year and how to organize the fish categories.
"We have a very good walleye fishery, but have to watch out for the cormorants and gobies and zebra mussles. They change everything, including nutrient levels," Niergarth said. "We're evolving with the eco-system."
More than 30 volunteers work with the tournament portion of the festival alone, and some work with both the tournament and entertainment.
"It's Alpena helping Alpena," Niergarth said. "It takes all of us to make it a festival, and we can always use all the help we can get."
Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at email@example.com or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.