The cliché “timing is everything” couldn’t be any more appropriate than it is this week on Lake Winnebago, one of the premier walleye fisheries in the Upper Midwest. Unfavorable conditions, namely a surplus of bait, has turned a prolific system into a stingy playground for the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship. But it’s only appropriate to give the best of the best a true test and on day one Mark Courts passed his exam with flying colors.
As one of only four pros to reach double digits, Courts set out this morning simply hoping to get a five-fish limit and stay in contention.
“I started on a wind-driven spot, just off a whim and got lucky and got one,” said the Harris, Minn., native. “I went to my second spot and it was on like Donkey Kong. I was done at 9:45 a.m. with seven fish in the livewell, so we came back to the dock.”
Courts was amazed at how his fish came in the perfect order. For this tournament, anglers are allowed to keep seven walleyes, two of which can be saugers. At the end of the day, they weigh their best five. Upgrading or culling is not allowed, which means an angler has to decide whether or not to keep a fish immediately after catching it. Courts was paired with co-angler Chuck Jones on day one and their walleyes came in the following order:
21, 21 1/2, 18, 18, 15 1/2, 17 1/2, 25 1/2
“No. 7 was the 25 1/2-incher that weighed right around 5 1/2 pounds.”
Courts’ final weight for the day was 16.92 pounds, an impressive number for a fishery in transition. The pro leader was understandably reticent concerning his pattern. All he would say was that on Wednesday he completely dropped what he was doing in practice and started fresh.
“I made a major audible yesterday,” he continued. “We literally dropped everything we were doing and started doing this. I truly believe the Hydrowave is making a big difference for me. That’s about all I can say.”
Courts went on to put his 3-pound lead in perspective after what admittedly has been a difficult season.
“I’ve struggled all year. After Bays de Noc, I went home and kind of regrouped, started working out every day. I just changed it up, kind of like I did today. I didn’t feel like I was fishing well; I was angry. I don’t like to lose and this has been by far my toughest year. I’m a little pissed off so I wanted to go out there and pound on ’em a little. I feel really good after today, not only about the 3-pound lead, but just how clean I fished.”
Tomorrow Courts plans to put the first five keeper walleyes he catches in the box.
“Practice has been so difficult. Coming in to today, I was going to keep the first five over 14 inches. I think I’m in a position where I’d be stupid to throw fish back at this point. You can’t win it tomorrow but you can lose it.”
North Dakota rookie second
The second heaviest bag of the day came from rookie pro Jacob Ell and Steve Atkinson, as the two brought 13.80 pounds to the scale. Of Ell’s best five, four were walleyes and one was a fat 18-inch sauger.
“I was catching some decent saugers in practice,” said the Bismarck, N.D., pro. “I was confident
I could catch two 18-inch saugers and three walleyes around 16 inches, but that was about it.”
Ell’s first three fish followed that game plan to a T.
“My first fish was a 17 1/2-inch sauger, then the second was a 17-inch walleye, and then came another 17 1/2-inch sauger. I had those three in the box by about 9 a.m. Then the bite slowed and about an hour later I made a move to another spot a short distance away. I had a decent walleye buttoned up but I ended up losing that one. But not 30 seconds after that, we had another one on that ended up being a 21-inch walleye. Fifteen minutes after that, we pulled an 18-incher. And another 30 minutes later, at about 11:30 a.m., we got the other 21-incher.”
Ell’s action wasn’t finished. Towards the end of the day, he caught an 18-incher (walleye) to bump out one of the saugers.
“We just stayed in those two areas. The 16-inch walleyes were the norm in practice, so I was very happy with the bigger fish. I did have one 21-incher in that general area during prefish. You want to go for those, but also set your standards and be reasonable. You’ve got to be pretty conservative about what you keep on this lake, especially this time of year. I’d be happy to get two 18-inch saugers and three 16-inch walleyes tomorrow.”
Pro Korey Sprengel and co-angler Tom Samp sit in third place with a five-fish limit weighing 13.16 pounds.
“We started the day off making a long run,” said Sprengel, the Beaver Dam, Wis., native. “Then the plan was to hit a bunch of spots as I worked my way back. I wasn’t sure how good this first spot was, but 10 minutes after we got there we caught our first fish pitching jigs to rocks. By 9:30 I had my limit.”
Sprengel knew wind typically helps the rock bite, but he didn’t know if too much wind would negatively affect the water clarity in the area.
“In practice, it took multiple presentations in the same spot just to get one or two fish. Today the wind definitely helped. After I got my limit I was off to go for big fish. I never got a really big one, but I did upgrade one with a 19 1/2.”
Each of the five fish in Sprengel’s bag were solid Winnebago walleyes measuring between 18 3/4 and 22 inches in length.
“I’m pretty confident. It sounds like it’s going to blow harder tomorrow, but the spot where I got my fish today is pretty protected. And it’s not like they’re moving off it or leaving; they live there.”
In fourth place with 10.01 pounds is Mille Lacs expert and Isle, Minn., pro Kevin McQuoid and his co-angler partner Donnie Weiker.
“We figured 10 pounds a day is about what it would take to be in contention to win this thing,” said McQuoid. “So we’re on pace and we feel pretty good about it. Slow and steady is the name of the game and that’s hard to do on Winnebago.”
McQuoid said he only went through six legal fish, which made his decision-making process quite simple.
“Four of them came pretty fast, within the first few hours of the day and the last two came in the last hour of the day. We were getting pretty nervous there about not having a limit.”
Anchoring his stringer was a 21 1/2-inch kicker and his second biggest fish was an 18-incher. McQuoid said there are many fish in the area, including smaller walleyes and white bass. To get the bigger walleyes is simply a matter of sorting through numbers.
“This is a spot that will refill a little I think. It’s a big enough spot that I’m pretty confident we get can get another 9 pounds tomorrow. Our biggest goal is to be in that top 10. I’m guessing 19 pounds will put you there easy and 18 pounds will probably get you there.”
Ross Grothe of Northfield, Minn., and Craig Cayemberg of Valders, Wis., round out the top five with a day-one weight of 9.91 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship on Lake Winnebago:
- 6th: Brent Henriksen of Tea, S.D., five fish, 9.76
- 7th: Tommy Skarlis of Waukon, Iowa, five fish, 9.63
- 8th: Tom Keenan of Hatley, Wis., five fish, 9.52
- 9th: Jason Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., five fish, 9.51
- 10th: Gary Parsons of Glidden, Wis., five fish, 9.46
The second day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from Menominee Park. The day-two weigh-in also takes place at Menominee Park, beginning at 3 p.m.
Image courtesy Cabela's National Walleye Tour