OSHKOSH, Wis. – Several rounds of overnight and morning thunderstorms made the Lake Winnebago walleyes think twice about biting on day one of the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event. But late May is primetime, and Winnebago is one of the better walleye fisheries in the entire Midwest. In the end, four bags over 20 pounds hit the scales and another 30 pros weighed over 15 pounds. On top of the tight leaderboard is Wabasha, Minn., pro Bob Bruegger, who caught 24.61 pounds.
Bruegger immediately credited his success to his travel partner Ed Stachowski, who found most of his fish. Stachowski himself sits solidly in 24th place with a 16.44-pound limit.
“He found these fish and we’re both in the same general area,” said Bruegger. “I’ve got to give a shout out to him.”
Bruegger caught only five legal fish all day. That’s noteworthy as this is a no-cull tournament, meaning anglers must immediately decide to keep or release each fish they catch. They can put seven in the livewell, and then they weigh their best five. With only five keepers, Bruegger never had to make any of those crucial and excruciating decisions.
“I just kept grinding. They were spread out; it was one here and one there. Overall, it was pretty slow.”
Bruegger said his practice was productive, but sporadic. He’d have one really good day but then he wouldn’t be able to replicate it. However, he believes his trolling bite, which is his primary pattern, will only improve if the weather stabilizes. A changing wind direction could also impact his pattern tomorrow.
“I’ve got a couple different areas and couple different presentations. I even have a back-up spot I didn’t hit today if necessary.”
Besides Stachowksi, there is other traffic in Bruegger’s primary area, but it’s not a huge group of boats.
“There’s some traffic; guys come and go. But it’s not bumper to bumper. I’m not in the river with the rest of the crowd.”
While Bruegger is a well-known river rat on Pools 3, 4, and 5 of the Mississippi River, this is his first time leading a national pro-am event.
“This is a first for me; I’m a little overwhelmed to be honest. I’m not the nervous or the emotional type. Waiting to take off and waiting to weigh in stress me out the most. Once I’m busy fishing, I’m fine. To me, it’s just fishing.”
With over a 3-pound lead, Bruegger doesn’t plan on being selective tomorrow.
“Pretty much any legal fish I catch is going in the box until I get to four. I’ve done that once or twice where I’ve put fish back (in no-cull tournaments) that would’ve helped. I’ve played that game. Here, the fish we’re getting are either short or it’s an 18-incher or better.”
Evinrude pro Bill Shimota sits in second place with a five-fish limit weighing 21.29 pounds. A river rat himself, Shimota is also trolling – using both crankbaits and night crawlers.
Shimota boxed a couple early in the morning before the storm, then hit a four-hour lull. Late in the day he reconnected with the school.
“We just got on them, kept turning on them. We made three passes in a row where we put a 21- to 24-incher in the boat. Up until that point, the fish were a little finicky.”
In total, Shimota caught 11 keeper walleyes in water he described as “mid-range.”
“Going into today, I planned to keep a couple 18-inchers in the morning because you have those two to play with. After that, the bites were mostly the better ones so I didn’t have to worry about it.”
Despite trailing the leader, he plans to take the same approach tomorrow, mainly because his area can be hit or miss.
“You just don’t know with the area I’m fishing. And I really don’t have another plan. I don’t have a scramble plan. I hate to jinx myself, but I feel pretty good about tomorrow. A lot of it depends on the thunderstorms. Things can shut down so fast. But if you get on the right school, it doesn’t take long out there. Ideally, I’d like some steady wind tomorrow. I’m a couple spots ahead of Korey Sprengel, so we’re going to have some fun.”
Hughes surprised with third
Local Oshkosh, Wis., pro Jimmy Hughes figured he had a 17- or 18-pound stringer when he bagged up his five biggest walleyes and headed to the scale. To his surprise, they weighed 21.16 pounds.
“It was a great day,” said Hughes. “Even though I live here, you just never know what they’re going to do.”
Hughes’ first two fish were a 6-pounder and a 7-pounder and he caught those within the tournament’s first hour.
While Bruegger and Shimota appear to be on a similar pattern, Hughes is doing something totally different.
“I’m not a troller. I’m slowly fishing rock humps. It’s a combination of jigging and rigging with crawlers. When it’s spot on the spot, I have to jig. It’s just about being patient; these fish feed in windows. The bite comes and goes.”
Hughes spot hopped seven different places on opening day. Tomorrow he plans to hit those again, as well as incorporate an additional two or three areas.
“From the get go, 20 pounds a day has been my goal. My thought process is that if you double your weight, you will go up the leaderboard. I think if I get 20 tomorrow, I have a shot at winning.”
Blosser fourth, Sprengel fifth
Rounding out the top five are young Wisconsin sticks Robert Blosser and Korey Sprengel. Blosser caught a limit weighing 21.22 pounds for fourth place.
“We got on them pretty quick this morning and then it died out there for about four hours,” he said. “Then it picked up right there at the end. When the wind blows, they push up and we got them shallow.”
Blosser said he trolled cranks, pulled wired and did some casting.
Sprengel, the winner of the 2014 NWT Championship on Lake Winnebago, sits in fifth with a 19.88-pound stringer.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2016 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Lake Winnebago:
6th: Mike Gofron of Antioch, Ill., five fish, 19.81
7th: Kevin Ellman of Oconto, Wis., five fish, 19.60
8th: Wade While of Mobridge, S.D., five fish, 19.51
9th: Jeremy Schreiner of Durand, Wis., five fish, 19.50
10th: Kevin Carstensen of Merrill, Wis., five fish, 19.18
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field of 140 boats takes off from Miller’s Bay/Menominee Park. The final weigh-in also takes place at Miller’s Bay/Menominee Park, beginning at 3 p.m.