PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. – It’s extremely rare in tournament fishing that the bite improves on the second day of competition. The easy pickings are quickly plucked on opening day and the subsequent action becomes a game of fish management and adjustments. This week at the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on pools 9, 10 and 11 of the Mississippi River, a rare set of circumstances opened a window for an improving bite. As the Mighty Miss slowly rose, the increased flow positioned the fish in more predictable places. A falling barometric pressure system then triggered those walleyes to feed. For Mark Courts, those variables meant that he never had to change locations. By sitting on one single wing dam for two days, he encountered enough fish to take home the title.
Courts discovered this magical wing dam on Tuesday, his last full day of practice. In the process of sampling numerous wing dams, his practice partner fired out a crankbait and immediately caught a 20-inch walleye. Courts then followed up with a willow cat and hooked into an 18 1/2-incher.
“After that, we left,” explained Courts. “We knew fish were in the area, but we left not knowing the potential.”
Courts’ winning wing dam was located in Pool 10 near Marquette, Iowa. On the front side, the water was 10 or 11 feet. The Hydrowave pro described it as a short wing dam that tapered and ran down to an island.
“I positioned about 50 feet upstream with my Minn Kota Ultrex. Every fish came from that wing dam. I never moved more than 40 feet side to side. It wasn’t a difficult decision to stay, because I kept catching the right fish.”
On day one, Courts amassed his 20.66 pounds by 1 p.m. Today, he put 21.31 pounds in his Ranger livewell by 11 a.m.
“First thing this morning, my co-angler casted the new Berkley Dredger out there and caught a 20 1/2 before I even had my rods out of the locker. My next five fish all came on willow cats. I caught a 24, then a 21, then a 17, which I threw back. Then I boxed a 20 1/2 and a 19 7/8. At that point, I was relaxed and told myself the next fish I keep has to be in the mid-20s. At 11 a.m., I battled a 26-incher for about five minutes and finally got her in the boat.”
Courts focused on the base of the dam, which consisted of rocks and sand.
“Typically, you get bit right at the face of the dam. Today you couldn’t keep it there long because there was so much grass floating down. We were constantly cleaning our baits. There was a big flat behind the wing dam. The walleyes rest behind it and then slide up to eat.”
Of his 10 weigh fish, three came on the new Berkley Dredger 10.5 (Root Beer Splatter Back color). The others came on smaller willow cats fished with a 1/2-ounce egg sinker, 1-foot leader and a No. 2 Fusion 19 octopus hook.
“The key to winning was the Ultrex. The pinpoint accuracy of the Spot-Lock was huge. The Jog feature enabled me to move with a touch of the finger. The capabilities of the Ultrex allowed me to fish the wing dam efficiently.
“I also had my Hydrowave on today and I truly believe that it brings fish to me. If I get one or two more bites per day, that’s everything in a tournament like this.”
Courts, the 2015 Angler of the Year, reflected on his win, his first major tournament victory since the 2008 PWT Championship.
“I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of big moments in my career. But to go on a 9-year draught, it gets frustrating. I lost a championship a few years ago to Korey Sprengel and that gets under your skin. Every win is a memorable one and this one is special because it’s been a long time.”
For his victory, Courts earned a Ranger 620FS with a 250-horsepower Evinrude G2 outboard, plus $15,000 cash and an additional $1,771 in Anglers Advantage money for a total purse of $81,266.
Hoyer retains second
John Hoyer, the second-year pro from Orono, Minn., fished a near-perfect tournament, but ultimately came up one fish short. On day one, the 2015 Co-angler of the Year caught 20.52 and today he demonstrated remarkable consistency by bringing in 20.28. His official cumulative weight registered 40.80 pounds. While Hoyer was lucky to have his fish come in the right order throughout the week, he had the winning fish 6 feet from the boat only to see it turn and come unbuttoned.
“I lost a 6- to 7-pounder on my very last cast of the day,” said Hoyer, the Limb Lab pro. “My partner had two of the rods reeled up when it bit. We had her about 6 feet from the boat and it just let go. I had all the bites to win.”
Hoyer explained that he also lost two big fish in the morning. One was lost in a tree and the other folded up a willow cat.
In practice, Hoyer located a current seam of a small wooden cut. This seam, located in Pool 10, was about 8 to 10 feet deep.
“The fish would sit in the wood. I could see them sitting there with my Lowrance side imaging. They wouldn’t bite anywhere else but right on the current seam.”
The bite was so strong this morning that Hoyer was carelessly throwing back 19s and 20s. At 10 a.m., he had four quality fish in the livewell and at 12:30 p.m. he added another 3 1/2-pounder. With one spot left to play with, Hoyer was sitting pretty.
“My smallest fish was a 21-incher, so it was simple. I fished for that fish for 3 hours and then I got the bite I needed on the last cast.”
Hoyer would position two of his rods with creek chubs on a slider rig with a 1 1/2-ounce weight. On the other two, he and his co-angler partner would swing willow cats down the current seam with Lindy rigs. They employed a 3-foot leader and either a 1/4- or 3/8-ounce weight.
“As your bait was swinging you would tap rocks or the trees. Then the big ones would just smoke it.”
In total, six of his weigh fish came on willow cats, three came on creek chubs and one came casting a Flicker Shad.
“The key to my success was finding that spot and then making a good decision to stay in that zone and figure out how to catch them. I started in that area dragging a Dubuque rig and trolling.”
For second place, the part-time musky guide earned $19,654 with Ranger and Evinrude bonuses.
“It just came together. With the order the fish came in, I’m really fortunate. It happened in a simple fashion.”
Local legend Maury Schmerbach finished the event in third place with a total weight of 37.05 pounds. On day one, Schmerbach had his 19.86 pounds in the livewell by 9 a.m. Today, it took quite a bit longer to reach his 17.19.
“Yesterday I caught 10 good fish by 9 a.m.,” recalled Schmerbach. “Today, I only caught two on that same spot. I couldn’t figure out why my fish weren’t there. It surprised me. I really thought getting another 20 pounds wasn’t going to be a problem.”
When his current seam didn’t pan out, the Dubuque, Iowa, native scrambled to a wing dam, caught two and then finished his day by catching two more in a backwater slough. All these spots were located in Pool 10, although Schmerbach considers 11 to be his true home waters.
Schmerbach was primarily three-way rigging with night crawlers and willow cats. His kicker fish today, which came from a wing dam, was fooled by a Bomber Model A crankbait.
“I’ve been fishing these tournaments for about 40 years. Everybody always wants to win, but you don’t win them all. I was lucky to keep the first two, a 19-incher and a 21-incher, because I needed them. For me, it was a great finish.”
With Anglers Advantage money, the 70-year-old Schmerbach cleared $14,051.
Samson fourth, Hummel fifth
Rounding out the top five are Minnesota pros Bruce “Doc” Samson and Randy Hummel. Samson, the renowned Lowrance electronics expert who lives in Osakis, Minn., surged up the leaderboard with the heaviest stringer of the tournament. Samson’s five walleyes today officially weighed 25.75 pounds. That stringer could have surpassed 30 pounds had Samson not lost two giants at the boat. Combined with his day-one weight of 10.30 pounds, the 68-year-old finished the tournament fourth with 36.05, which earned him $12,243.
Hummel, the Windom, Minn., pro, also improved his catch. After managing 15.01 pounds on day one, he boated 20.21 today. With a two-day total of 35.22 pounds, Hummel took fifth.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on the Mississippi River:
6th: Keith Kavajecz of Kaukauna, Wis., 10 walleyes, 35.09
7th: Paul DeVoss of Prairie du Chien, Wis., nine walleyes, 32.89
8th: Steven Kopp of Dubuque, Iowa, 10 walleyes, 31.71
9th: Robert Blosser of Poynette, Wis., 10 walleyes, 31.39
10th: Dusty Minke of Walker, Minn., 10 walleyes, 30.60
Richardson wins Co-angler Division
Local fisherman James Richardson caught stringers of 8.56 and 25.75 to claim top honors in the Co-angler Division with a total weight of 34.31 pounds. On day one, Richardson fished with Brian Bjorkman and today he was paired with Samson, the fourth-place pro.
“Doc Samson is a master, a genius,” said Richardson. “The doctor was in the house today. He was not practicing medicine; he was performing walleye surgery. To watch him perform with those willow cats today was such a thrill.”
The 73-year-old Richardson said he and Samson worked a deeper current seam in Pool 9, just outside the fast current.
“I think the smallest fish we caught today was 20 or 21 inches. I have such an immense respect for these pros. These guys are really skilled, really talented and work hard at their craft.”
For winning his division, Richardson earned $6,000 plus another $782 in Anglers Advantage cash.
“This was my first one and I would recommend that any amateur try it. I know I’ll remember it for a long time. This was extraordinary.”
The most lucrative event in walleye fishing, the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship, is scheduled for Aug. 16-18 on Green Bay in Marinette, Wis.