PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. – The Mississippi River proved itself yet again as a confounding, yet capable walleye fishery on day one of the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event. While two anglers surpassed the 20-pound mark, several reputable sticks took a doughnut and failed to visit the scale. Leading the tournament with 20.66 pounds is pro Mark Courts, the 2015 Angler of the Year. Hot on his heels with 20.52 pounds is up-and-coming pro John Hoyer, the 2015 Co-angler of the Year.
For much of practice, anglers experienced falling water conditions, which tends to produce difficult fishing. However, an influx of water is on the way as the Twin Cities and southeastern Minnesota recently endured major storms that included several inches of rain. That water will eventually reach pools 9, 10 and 11 and it could arrive as early as tomorrow.
Courts believes he’s prepared for whatever the Big Muddy offers.
“I’m comfortable with how the river changes and I’ve been fishing confidently lately,” said the Hydrowave pro. “The bite is not great, but I’m confident with what I’m doing. It’s river fishing; it’s fishing a lot like pools 4 and 5 right now.”
“We’re using a lot of bass-style crankbaits because they have such an aggressive dive; they get down there so fast. The new Berkley Dredger and Digger have been working great. We also caught some fish on live bait when the bite was slower. We’re using both and both are working.”
After an extensive prefish, Courts knew he was around was some fish. However, he didn’t understand the full potential of what he located.
“We caught fish in practice, but then we’d leave because the last thing you want to do is wear a spot out. Every fish is going to count in this tournament.”
In this specific event, pros and co-anglers, fishing together as a team, are permitted to keep six walleyes and saugers per day and then weigh their best five. Culling, or upgrading, is not permitted. Courts promises not to be overly ambitious tomorrow. Today, he had his six fish, all of which were walleyes, in his Ranger livewell by 1 p.m.
“I want five tomorrow; that’s the goal. I’m not going to throw back 18-inchers. I don’t want to lose by a pound because I’m one fish short.”
Courts reiterated that he has several productive areas located. Today, one single spot produced better than the others.
“There were some other boats in the area, but not a ton. I don’t plan to hunker down tomorrow. I could run and gun, but I also want to see how this spot produces.”
Hoyer, the second-year pro from Orono, Minn., was confident in his area and his pattern this morning.
“I knew the potential,” he said. “But they came in the right order today and that was the difference.”
After boating a few small walleyes that he immediately threw back, Hoyer doubled up with a 23-incher and a 20-incher. His third keeper of the day, a 27-inch kicker, bit around 10 a.m. At 11 a.m., he experienced another double. His sixth and final finish went in at about 1:30 p.m.
“Everything we had was an easy decision. It was just a flawless day.”
Hoyer explained that he’s flat-line trolling, casting and live-bait rigging. He has three different areas, all of which possess different amounts of flow.
Hoyer is unsure how the feeding windows will change with tumultuous weather forecasted for tomorrow.
“I can’t help but be confident. I live by divine intervention. I feel like I can detach a bit from that pressure. But I’ve never been in this position before. I’ve been in this position for musky tournaments, but never on the pro side for walleye tournaments. I just pray they come in the same order.”
Hoyer credited much of his river knowledge to partner and friend Bill Shimota.
“Bill has taught me about 90 percent of what I know about rivers. I’m not Bill, but I feel like I know what to look for and how to eliminate water.”
In third place with 19.86 pounds is local legend Maury Schmerbach, who has been fishing pools 9, 10 and 11 for over 40 years. Schmerbach had his six keepers in the box by 9 a.m. and believes the bite is only going to improve.
“Normally it’s fishing a little better,” he said. “I think the fish are just starting to get going. Tomorrow should be a little better.”
Schmerbach said he caught his fish by soaking live bait on specific structure.
“Right now, I’ve got about 10 or 11 spots where I think I can catch fish.”
With thunderstorms predicted around noon, Schmerbach is hoping for another early haul.
“The thunder and lightning shuts them down. I’ve got to get them early, but I’m pretty confident that I can get the same weight or even a little better. Our smallest fish today was 19 inches so that’s going to be our benchmark again.”
Blosser fourth, Kavajecz fifth
Rounding out the top five are Wisconsin pros Robert Blosser and Keith Kavajecz. After a penalty for an expired fish, Blosser’s limit weighed 17.79 pounds.
Kavajecz, the veteran pro and host of the hit TV show “The Next Bite,” sits in fifth place with 16.62 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on the Mississippi River:
6th: Brent Henriksen, three fish, 16.09
7th: Robert Lampman, five fish, 16.00
8th: Korey Sprengel, five fish, 15.38
9th: Randy Hummel, five fish, 15.01
10th: Paul DeVoss, four fish, 14.59
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the field takes off from the PDC Marina Boat Landing, located at 374 Saint Feriole Dr. in Prairie du Chien. The final weigh-in also takes place at the PDC Marina Boat Landing, beginning at 3 p.m.