The traditional fishing tournament, historically, has been a live weigh-in event in which anglers transport their fish in livewells to a boat ramp or similar headquarters site to be weighed.

Darren Amundson wanted to change that. And he’s onto something big with FishDonkey, a virtual tournament app that allows anglers to compete from anywhere.

No fish in livewells. No having to be at the boat ramp or a weigh-in site by a specified time. Fewer hassles for organizers.

Think of it like tournament fishing in the clouds.

Kind of. …

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“We wanted to be able to run a fishing tournament where the people don’t have to be in the same place at the same time,” said Amundson, of Shoreview, Minn., who developed FishDonkey and runs the growing venture with his wife, Bonnie. “How can we do that and have authentic results? How can we make it fair, so that you can be in Grand Forks and I can be in Fargo and we can fish in the same tournament and trust each other’s results?

“How do we do that?”

That’s where FishDonkey comes into play. A big fish of any species is often called a “donkey,” and that’s where the app gets its name.

A “one-off” tournament replacing the Cats Incredible catfish tournament, which was canceled because of COVID-19, will use the app. Set for late July, “Red River Cattitude” marks the first contest to use FishDonkey on the Red River. So far, interest in the virtual event looks strong.

A screen shot of the home page for "Red River Cattitude," a virtual catfish tournament set for late July on the Red River that will be run using the FishDonkey app. (Screenshot/ Brad Dokken)
A screen shot of the home page for "Red River Cattitude," a virtual catfish tournament set for late July on the Red River that will be run using the FishDonkey app. (Screenshot/ Brad Dokken)

How it works

Here’s how FishDonkey works, in a nutshell:

Using the FishDonkey app, which is available for both Android and iOS platforms, a tournament organizer sets up an event and all of the parameters and rules for the competition. The app handles the sign-up and entry fees, the latter through a credit card processor called Stripe.

When the tournament starts – most events follow a catch-photo-release format – anglers use the FishDonkey app to photograph the fish they want to enter showing the length and the girth, along with video of the fish being released.

Once they hit “send,” the information is fed through the app to a server, which in turn sends a signal to the tournament organizers that a catch has been entered. The app has full control of the photos and video so they can’t be manipulated, Amundson says. Photos and video can only be taken through the app, and not the regular camera on the device; otherwise, they can’t be entered.

That minimizes the risk of cheating, Amundson says. In developing FishDonkey, Amundson said he studied every article he could find to see how tournament anglers cheated. He then found ways to mitigate cheating.

“Our app is controlling the photos, and there’s no way to slip in another photo,” he said. “You can’t submit an old photo. In fact, if you try, we’ll detect that and if you alter it, even if you just clip a little bit of a finger off of a photo or you change the lighting or something before it gets sent in, we’ll detect it. And we’ll send a signal to the host, and they’ll know something changed.

“Even if it’s just like one little bit of data, we’ll know.”

Meanwhile, a live leaderboard allows tournament anglers to track their standings against other competitors in real time. When there’s a change to the leaderboard, FishDonkey sends a text notification to tournament participants, and their phones will play the sound of a donkey braying.

“Then you can look at it and say, ‘Oh, there’s a new leader,’ and you can look at the leader’s photos,” Amundson said.

‘Huge undertaking’

Amundson, who studied entrepreneurship and new product and venture development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he’s worked with starting high-tech companies for the past 20 years.

Now in its second full year, FishDonkey has hosted more than 4,600 virtual tournaments to date, including events in Norway, Lithuania and Australia. Building the app and everything that goes with it was “a huge undertaking,” Amundson said.

“If you just try to build a quick app, it’s not going to be nearly as good as what we built because ours are going to run on every style of phone,” he said. “We had to build one for Android and we had to build one for iOS. And then we have to constantly keep up with the updates from both of those systems.”

Amundson’s wife has a background in sales and handles that aspect of the venture. They make their money through a small fee from each tournament that’s organized on FishDonkey.

“To be honest, we don’t really do sales – people call us,” Amundson said. “They’re calling us all the time.”

App does it all

Darren Troseth, a Twin Cities catfish and sturgeon guide who has run community catch-and-release fishing contests for more than a decade, was among the first to use the FishDonkey app.

“I was looking for a way to administer my contests in an effort to save some time and energy,” Troseth said. “Collecting fees and sifting through manual email entries, and doing size calculations and tying together sponsors and prizes is a bigger job than people realize.

“This app will do it all for you.”

There are other apps out there, Troseth says, but he was intrigued by the fact that he and Amundson both went to high school in Cook, Minn., and shared some mutual acquaintances.

Because of that connection, Troseth says he was hoping to influence future revisions to the app and “make it catfish and sturgeon (big fish) friendly, which most apps seem to forget about.”

This year, for the first time, Troseth said he decided to use FishDonkey for a summerlong catch-and-release contest he runs called “King of the Cats.”

“I was a bit leery at first since this was the main contest that started it all for me, and I've been pretty conservative about making any changes with it,” Troseth said. “However, I dove in and people have really done well with it, and I think it's become more popular because of the app. Some of the biggest cats caught in Minnesota are now being documented through the app, and I think it really brings a fun and exciting exposure to the great cat fishery we have here in Minnesota.”

The app makes it easy for anglers to correctly enter their catches in the contests he organizes, Troseth says.

“That's the great thing about the FishDonkey app,” he said. “Not only can I adapt and customize it to my own rules, but I can also do a group call to action – text or email – within the contest settings for updates or notifications.”

Virtual tournaments also simplify the rules for anglers competing in events where slot limits are in effect, such as those in place for walleyes on many Minnesota lakes, and Red River regulations that only allow one catfish longer than 24 inches.

That’s no longer an issue because the fish are being released, Amundson says, and not reduced to possession in a livewell or cooler.

“Now all of a sudden, it’s like, just go out and fish, catch as many big ones as you want, and immediately release them,” he said. “If it’s a limit of five and you catch 100, it doesn’t matter – the software is going to pick your largest fish.”

Troseth says he believes virtual contests are here to stay and will become even more prevalent as the technology gets better.

“Darren has been great to work with and seems willing to make any necessary changes in the app with future updates,” Troseth said. “I currently have a short list of ‘wants’ and ‘nice to haves’ that hopefully can get implemented in the future.”

The growth of FishDonkey in only its second full year is exciting, Amundson says.

“We’re really looking forward to the future,” he said. “And we’re a little bit scared at the same time, just because we might need to hire some people. We need help – we can’t keep up.”

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Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to