When the bite is strong, anyone can catch walleyes on a system teeming with fish like Bays de Noc. But when the wind dies and the bite gets stingy, it becomes a true test of the world’s best. Throughout the past two decades, Keith Kavajecz has proven time and again he belongs in that elite group of walleye fishermen. In claiming his latest major victory at the third Cabela’s National Walleye Tour qualifier, he demonstrated that innovation is alive and well in the walleye world as he introduced a brand new jigging technique.
Despite a 30-minute fog delay Saturday morning, Kavajecz arrived at his primary area, located just beyond the Cedar River, faster than he did yesterday. His first stop, approximately 35 miles south of Escanaba, was a hump where his co-angler partner whacked a 30-inch walleye on day one.
“There were no fish at first; we weren’t really marking anything and the ones we did see were so inactive, just hugging tight to the bottom,” recalled Kavajecz. “I moved further south and it was more of the same. After two hours of fishing, I had nothing in the livewell.”
Kavajecz decided to return to the first spot and the sonar on his Lowrance HDS-12 Gen2 Touch absolutely lit up.
“I made four casts and I had a 24, a 28, a 26, and a big sheepshead. Since it was so difficult to get my slots yesterday, I decided to leave and target those fish immediately. We hit probably 20 spots and we caught a lot of fish but they were all overs. My partner did catch a 28 1/2 that upgraded the 26.”
Tournament anglers were restricted to Michigan waters and per state regulations, only two walleyes over 23 inches in length could be kept per day as pros and co-anglers fished together in a boat as a team.
Kavajecz then ran up to the Ford River area, a place where he and teammates Gary and Chase Parsons had been catching numerous slots in practice.
“I caught a 22, so that was good. We went a half hour and then I caught another 22. With 10 minutes left I told my partner I need a miracle fish to clinch the win. Out in 30 feet of water I caught a 20-incher to fill limit. At that point I figured I had around 25 pounds and I knew it would be a lot of tougher on the trollers with the calm weather. That’s just standard Bays de Noc.”
Kavajecz was right as his 53.50 pounds was more than 5 pounds better than the other 99 competitors. Exactly 0 of his 10 walleyes came via trolling this week, the standard Bays de Noc presentation. Instead, they came from casting and ripping a No. 3 Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow.
“We would cast out into the boat wake and then snap and drop the bait. It’s kind of like a jigging Rapala. But when you pull it, it shoots to the side and then drops straight down like it’s wounded. It attracted the fish, but then gave them an opportunity to eat it. Gary (Parsons) was the one who figured it out. They’ve been catching some jigging this year down in Green Bay, but we knew straight vertical wouldn’t work up here because it’s too clear. We put the pieces together and the rest is history.”
Kavajecz elaborated on his precise jigging motion.
“Part of the key to the cadence was not hitting the bottom. If you let the bait hit the bottom, there’s all kind of stuff down there. You want it close to the bottom, but not on the bottom. We replaced the stock treble hook with a bigger, No. 4 Mustad Triple Grip. That helped keep some moss off the hook. The weight of the bait was also important. The No. 3 is the biggest one they make and it allowed you to catch fish in anywhere from 14 to 30 feet of water.”
Kavajecz had his co-anglers use a green and white bait while he employed purple firetiger. He employed 8-pound Berkley Nanofil (bright chartreuse) as his main line and a 10-pound Trilene 100 percent fluorocarbon leader (clear).
“I saw 75 percent of the fish I caught with my electronics before I even casted. I would mark them, hit the anchor feature on my Xi5 trolling motor and know the fish were immediately behind me. I would actually fish from the back of the boat.”
For his latest triumph, Kavajecz earned a Ranger 1880 powered with a 175-horsepower Mercury engine and $15,000, a total prize package worth $78,815.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve won a big won. It’s great to be winning again.”
Parsons climbs to second
Charging hard at his good friend and practice partner was the elder Parsons, one of the few pros who improved their catch from day one to day two. After boating 22.92 yesterday, Parsons increased his limit to 25.10 today, which gave him a total weight of 48.02 pounds.
Parsons ran nearly the exact same program as Kavajecz although they fished mostly different water.
“I didn’t go nearly as far south as Keith,” said the Glidden, Wis., pro. “And I was fishing fairly steep breaks in 22 to 32 feet of water. Keith would fish more singular fish up shallower where I was targeting bigger groups.”
As soon as the 2014 schedule was announced, Parsons began the search for this particular bait.
“I liked the action right away and on my first cast I got one. I was fishing with two other guys at the time and within 10 minutes, we had two more. I spent the rest of the day going hump to hump and it kept working. The next day the rest of the group came up and we just spread out and looked for high spots or breaks.”
The difficult part was finding spots while making sure no other competitors saw them using the secret bait.
“To see us casting would have tipped everybody off. We caught a lot of big fish and coming in we felt pretty confident. The disappointing thing was the wind on day one, which turned the trolling bite on. Today was just the opposite.”
Parsons said “The Next Bite” group plans on returning to the area in the near future to film a TV show.
“This tournament shows the importance of tournament angling to the industry. The guy that owns Moonshine Lures is going to have his life change overnight. This is going to change Great Lakes structure fishing forever. The people that say there is no innovation in walleye fishing are dead wrong. You can never stop innovating and never stop learning in this sport.
“We had a ball this week. For me to come back from 24th to second, I couldn’t be any happier.”
Parker soars to third
Like Parsons, Derek Parker sat in relative obscurity after day one with 22.41 pounds. But he too, improved his catch on the final day – weighing a limit worth 24.10 pounds to finish the tournament with 46.51 pounds. His kicker today was in the 10-pound range, one of the bigger walleyes of the event.
“Bays de Noc is such a wind-driven fishery,” said the Skandia, Mich., angler. “I started the tournament in an area I didn’t even practice in, just because of the conditions.”
Parsons began each day trolling spinners, then would switch to crankbaits in the afternoon.
“Yesterday anybody could have caught fish with that wind. I had 22 1/2 pounds and I wasn’t real happy with it. I just couldn’t get big fish. Today I knew the bite was going to be tough. So I stuck to one spot, grinded it out and just made them bite.”
Parsons opted for copper blades and red beads. Despite seeing fish on the bottom, he ran his baits approximately 3 feet under the surface today.
“They would come up over humps in 16 to 21 feet. And once they came up, they would commit. So I would fish really high in the water column even though they were positioned with their bellies on the bottom.”
With two hours left today, Parker was sitting on three fish. He switched to targeting weed walleyes up in 8 feet of water, which proved to be the ticket to filling his limit.
“I’m happy that among the trollers, I got first place. My hat is off to Keith and Gary; those guys are unbelievable. But what made the difference for me is that I just knew to stick it out. I only caught those five fish.”
Parsons wanted to acknowledge Kim Papineau, known in the area as “Chief.”
“The Chief is my mentor. He’s been retired from walleye fishing because of some health problems. But his guidance and confidence in me really helped me achieve this.”
Dempsey finishes fourth
With only two days of practice, Green Bay guide Ryan Dempsey finished the week fourth with a cumulative weight of 46.23 pounds. After catching 23.49 on day one, Dempsey stayed consistent and managed 22.74 today despite catching fewer fish.
“I was fishing the west shore, running down south about 40 miles,” said Dempsey. “Then I would come back and spot hop certain humps on the way up. It was tough today. I bet caught 12 or 13 yesterday and only a half dozen today. But we got our limit.”
Dempsey said the deepest water he fished was 18 feet and the shallowest was 8 feet.
“The best humps are usually the ones that aren’t on the map, Today the deeper humps worked. We were trolling slowly – about 1 mph or as close as you could get to it. We used spinners and night crawlers both days, and gold colors were best.
“We just grinded it out. The only thing different I was doing was fishing certain spots, not really community water. We made much smaller passes, where most of the field was fishing bigger pieces.”
Veteran troller Don Loch of Iron Mountain, Mich., rounded out the top five with a total weight of 46.22 pounds. On day one, Loch caught a 25.13-pound stringer and today he brought in 21.09 pounds.
Each day Loch brought in four walleyes, one short of the five-fish limit. He too fished the Cedar River area and employed spinners and night crawlers.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Bays de Noc:
6th: Jason Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., eight fish, 45.91
7th: Glenn Chenier of Gladstone, Mich., 10 fish, 45.78
8th: Ross Grothe of Northfield, Minn., eight fish, 43.78
9th: Tom Kemos of Oconomowoc, Wis., nine fish, 43.44
10th: John Gillman of Freeland, Mich., nine fish, 42.27
Barski brings home co-angler title
Marty Barksi has fished his share of professional tournaments, spanning both the walleye and bass worlds. While he’s achieved considerable success, he’s never won an event. That changed this week after two successful days on Bays de Noc.
“I fished with Jim Carroll from North Dakota the first day and we were pulling crankbaits down around the Cedar River,” recalled Barski, the Crystal Lake, Ill., native. “It was a really good day for numbers of fish, but the conditions were rough in terms of wind and waves.
“Today I fished with Don Loch and he also ran down to the Cedar River area but we were pulling spinners with night crawlers. We caught two nice fish right away on a double and then kind of struggled. That 30-minute fog delay really hurt us. If we would have been there earlier I think we would have caught a few more.”
With only four fish in the livewell, Barski didn’t think he had a chance at winning. But on the other hand, he didn’t see many fish caught around him. After weighing in early, he began to get optimistic as he saw more and more anglers come in with light bags.
“I had my fingers crossed, but it was such a long wait being in the first flight.”
Barski’s official two-day weight for nine walleyes was 46.16 pounds. He earned $6,000 for his victory.
“You really have to have the stars align to win as a co-angler. I was lucky to be able to pull two good pros. It’s exciting to win; it’s a dream come true. I’d like to thank Chris Burns, a practice partner of mine and my wife for letting me come out and fish.”
The fourth and final event of the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season is the year-end championship, which takes place Sept. 18-20 on Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh.
Images courtesy Cabela's National Walleye Tour