HURON, Ohio – After Mother Nature’s relentless winds churned Lake Erie into chocolate milk, everyone knew the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season opener would be a grind. Instead of sorting through 7- and 8-pounders, most anglers struggled just to put a five-fish limit in the boat, proof that water clarity is essential, even on the most prolific fisheries. A handful of anglers located fishable water, including Ohio pro Mike Defibaugh. Instead of heading west out of Huron to the more traditional haunts, Defibaugh ventured east. Not only did he get away from the crowd, he also encountered a handful of prespawn walleyes.
Defibaugh started the day with a jigging rod in his hand. In a tough-bite tournament, he wanted to make sure he had a five-fish limit to bring back to the scale. When he discovered his jigging fish were shallower, his instincts told him that the spawn was imminent. His next move was to fish a flat adjacent to spawning areas.
“I ran about 8 miles to the east of Huron,” said the Ranger pro. “Where I was, the water clarity was more consistent and the fish were further behind (with the spawn). This area generally doesn’t turn on for another couple weeks. The jigging fish got more active for a reason. So I decided to try the females off the spawning grounds and it worked. It was funny this morning; I watched every boat turn left out of the channel and I turned right.”
Defibaugh averaged one fish per trolling pass during the middle of the day. He replaced his last jigging fish with an 8-pounder with four minutes left before it was time to head in.
“I kept dropping waypoints and shortening the pass. I was getting them 18 to 20 feet down over water 30 to 32 feet deep. Eighty-eight to 101 feet took all five of our big fish.”
In the stained water, Defibaugh preferred Deep Diving Bandits with Off Shore planer boards. His color combinations varied, but a chartreuse head, purple sides and a pink belly worked best. He said the more important adjustment was adding Pro-Cure, a gel scent, on the top of each crankbait.
“I think the scent was key to locating the crankbaits. They were hitting it hard; the boards would just rocket back. There was no mistaking there was a fish on.”
Defibaugh started the day in 22nd place with 22.39 pounds. After catching a 42.29-pound final-day limit, he finished with 64.65 and a 2-pound margin of victory.
“I think the key was a combination of the scent and just getting away from the other boats. With so much pressure out west, it was real spotty. We were fishing water that people hadn’t realized the fish had made it to yet. And I think not having a game plan or a set of waypoints played into my favor. I was able to adjust as the fish moved.”
Defibaugh’s win earned him a Ranger 1880 with a 175-horsepower Evinrude, plus $15,000 cash for a total purse of $61,000. While he was impressive on the water, what Defibaugh did on stage was even more remarkable. In a striking gesture of generosity, Defibaugh announced that he would donate his cash winnings to the local Make-A-Wish chapter, a non-profit organization that grants requests for children diagnosed with life-threatening diseases.
“My wife and I talked about it a lot. I’m living my dream out here and I thought it would be great to let somebody else live their dream.”
Buddie becomes bridesmaid
Fellow Ohio pro Ryan Buddie started the day in second place and finished there, but it felt like another missed opportunity at a tour-level win.
“It’s bittersweet for sure,” said the Delta pilot. “I didn’t have that good of a practice and my teammates were great about helping me with the spot and the program. For that, I’m so grateful.
“But raising that trophy would have been a whole lot of fun. I don’t do these just for the money; I do these because I’m a competitor and I want to win. I guess it’s more motivation to work harder at the next one.”
Buddie started the day fishing the edge of West Reef, located near North Bass Island.
“On my first pass I had three fish, and two were giants. I thought it was going to be on. But there was a lot of boat pressure and the fish just turned off. I tried sliding off away from the boats; I tried different angles, but it just didn’t pan out. There were tons of boats around and hardly anyone was getting bites.”
On his way back to Huron, Buddie also sampled a couple other spots to no avail. He finished the day with 23.28 pounds and a two-day total of eight walleyes weighing 62.61 pounds.
Four of his eight fish came from one crankbait he named “Dotty.”
“Dotty is a Deep Walleye Bandit custom painted (Spaced Out color) by Warrior Lures. I think she just had the perfect tune and the right rattle.”
Buddie ran his crankbaits anywhere from 40 to 110 feet back at speeds of approximately 1.5 mph.
“Yesterday they wanted higher baits. Today it was mixed. We were pretty much targeting fish between 10 and 20 feet down. The biggest key for me was when I got opportunities, I put them in the boat. And the fact that two or three of my fish were prespawn gave me an additional 6 or 7 pounds.”
For second place, the Mercury pro earned $25,692.
“All I needed was one more bite. But just to do well is a really awesome and gratifying feeling.”
Sprengel soars to third
Ranger pro Korey Sprengel, one of the most accomplished anglers in the sport, soared up the leaderboard on day two after catching a 37.35-pound limit. He said he changed nothing about his program, other than he made better decisions.
“I was an idiot on day one,” said the 2014 NWT Championship winner. “I caught three fish in my primary area by 11 a.m. yesterday. For some reason, I decided to leave and look for the motherlode.”
Sprengel never boated another walleye and limped to the scale with 21.28 pounds. Today, he stayed and caught seven. Sprengel found this area, located on the west side of North Bass Island, on the final day of practice. He caught only one fish there, but the water was clearing up. Sprengel described the area as a one-mile stretch in approximately 35 feet.
“I told myself if it’s going to be a tough bite, I’m going to fish the cleanest water I can find. The fish were scattered, but I could see my prop at times. I really felt like that gave me the best chance at catching five fish. And every fish that came out of there was a good one; they were all over 27 inches.”
Like the others, Sprengel ran deep-diving crankbaits with Off Shore planer boards. He said the fish were positioned low in the morning, at approximately 20 to 25 feet down. In the afternoon, they would raise up to 10 or 15 feet below the surface. He trolled his cranks at speeds of 1.2 to 1.4 mph, using his Power-Poles to eliminate surging and help slow the boat down. He used a snap-weight program with 2-ounce Off Shore Guppy weights that enabled his baits to reach 25 to 30 feet with less than 100 feet of line out.
“The key for me was using my Lowrance HDS 12s. Being able to graph fish on plane makes this body of water so much smaller. I was able to find a brand new school of fish that I had all to myself.”
Sprengel earned $20,303 for third place.
“I think I absolutely would have won had I stayed the first day. But this is Lake Erie. To catch one fish in a mile-long pass, you think there’s got to be something better.”
Robertson fourth, McQuoid fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Mike Robertson and Kevin McQuoid. Robertson, the local from Laura, Ohio, caught eight walleyes in two days weighing a total of 58.53 pounds for fourth overall. McQuoid, the veteran Cabela’s pro from Isle, Minn., caught seven walleyes for a total weight of 55.02 pounds, finishing fifth.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Lake Erie:
6th: Eric Olson of Red Wing, Minn., 51.93
7th: Joshua Vanderweide of Gobles, Mich., 48.06
8th: Mike Gofron of Antioch, Ill., 45.94
9th: Josh Hietpas of Kaukauna, Wis., 45.14
10th: Jerry Plourde of Cornell, Mich., 43.82
Mochan crowned co-angler champion
Co-angler Mike Mochan had the privilege of fishing with pros Scott Cisweski and Eric Olson. On day one, Mochan and Cisewski bagged a 31.99-pound stringer. Today, with Olson, Mochan caught five walleyes worth 37.96 pounds.
“The first day with Scott we caught all postspawn fish in much dirtier water,” said Mochan. “It was a good morning, but when the sun came out, the fish shut down. They go down and then they don’t want anything to do with it.”
Today, Mochan and Olson made a 40-mile run despite some seriously big waves.
“We got our fish early and we were in 45 minutes early. Today you couldn’t move much with a northeast wind so time management was crucial. Today we fished cleaner and cooler water; all of our fish were prespawn.”
Mochan said on both days he used Bandit crankbaits presented high in the water column. For a two-day total of 69.95 pounds, the North Ridgeville, Ohio, angler earned $7,492.
“It was an awesome week. I won at home and that doesn’t happen often. I’m so amped up; I can’t believe it.”
The next National Walleye Tour event is scheduled for May 11-12 on Lake Sakakawea in Garrison, N.D.