DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Wicked weather during practice for the 2019 National Walleye Tour Championship, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, had the world’s best walleye anglers singing the tough-bite blues. A severe cold front, which felt more like winter than early fall, had many pros believing the sport’s premier event would be a grinder. Instead, the Devils Lake walleyes went on the chew as 16 pros weighed stringers in excess of 20 pounds. Leading the three-day championship after day one is veteran stick Mike Gofron with 28.22.
During prefishing, Gofron noticed an increase of shallow bait. That keen observation was critical to his early success.
“I have two distinct patterns – one shallow and one deep,” said the Mercury pro. “I’m spending about 75 percent of my time shallow, but the shallow bite is just materializing. It’s not there yet. It’s like musky fishing. You’re not going to catch a bunch of fish, but there are big ones to be had. You’re looking for certain areas where they’re relating from the past.”
“To catch our fish, we’re doing some jigging, and we’re also using some Berkley soft plastics and Berkley hard plastics. For now, all I can say is that it’s fun the way we’re fishing. It’s incredible.”
The Antioch, Ill., native started the day fairly close to Grahams Island only to leave an hour later with one 16-incher in the livewell. He then made a healthy run east to his primary area. There he boxed a 27, a 23, an 18, a 16, a 27, and a 23. He eventually ran back to his starting area and finished the day with a 25-incher.
“We were done around 1:30 p.m. I checked in early, but I waited for the first flight to weigh-in so my mom could watch the live stream and see us up on stage.”
The one factor working against Gofron could be the weather. More specifically, tomorrow’s forecasted wind won’t impact his primary area, but it could be a rough boat ride. Sustained northeasterly winds of 19 mph are predicted with gusts up to 30. In addition, Devils Lake could receive another inch or more of rain.
“The problem could be getting there,” Gofron concluded. We could have 4- and 5- footers in the morning, and it’s quite a ways away. I think I can get there if I take my time and take it easy.”
Local Mayville, N.D., pro Curt Hanson trails Gofron by less than three pounds. His 25.56-pound stringer was anchored by a 29 1/2-inch kicker.
“We caught a few smaller ones early,” said Hanson, who is competing in his first NWT Championship. “Around midday we found a good spot and caught the big one. At the end of the day, we finished with our second biggest, a 24-incher.”
Hanson said his three other weigh fish were 22, 20, and 20 inches. He hit a handful of spots, a mix of both shallow and deep.
“I’m starting shallow, then working a few deep spots, then going back shallow. They’re in transition. I think they’re working their way to the 15- and 20-foot range. I think the wind is helping. The water temperature has dropped 10 degrees in the last week. It’s now 62.”
Hanson predicted tomorrow’s blustery weather could hurt those that are jigging out deep.
“I still think it will take 65 to 70 pounds to win. I was surprised to see so many bags over 20 pounds today. This time of year it’s tough to get 20 pounds, but it’s much harder to do it three days in a row.”
In third place with 25.07 pounds is Minnesota pro Dusty Minke. He too was amazed, not only with his catch, but with the overall catch.
“This lake can really surprise you,” he said. “After a few days of not biting, I think because of the cold front, they switched up and bit today. Practice was pretty tough. We caught some good ones some days and other days we didn’t. There’s just not quite as many big fish as there used to be.”
Minke agreed with Hanson’s assessment that the fish are transitioning from summer to fall patterns. He caught all his fish today on artificial baits.
“I’m using all Northland Tackle. I’m using Northland Puppet Minnows, and I’m using Slurp Jigs with Northland plastics. I have two separate patterns – one deep and one shallow. I think I’m doing something a little different.”
Minke is unsure if he’s around tournament-winning fish. Today, he weighed a 9-pounder, a 7-pounder, and a 6-pounder along with two smaller keepers.
“It’s just too early to tell. This place can be good to you one day and humble you the next. Tomorrow they could be 15- and 13-inchers. I will say the spot I ended on is pretty precious. It’s got potential and there was no one else anywhere near me. My confidence is good, but it’s all about making adjustments the next two days.”
Bismarck boys round out top five
Rounding out the top five are Bismarck, N.D., pros Sheldon Meidinger and Gene Merck. Meidinger caught a limit worth 24.21, while Merck managed five keepers for 23.73.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2019 National Walleye Tour Championship on Devils Lake:
6th: Tim Abraham of New Ulm, Minn., five fish, 23.46
7th: Matthew Brown of Paterson, Wash., five fish, 23.43
8th: Tom Keenan of Hatley, Wis., five fish, 22.82
9th: Robert Crow of Paterson, Wash., five fish, 22.52
10th: Brett King of Hager City, Wis., five fish, 22.26
Currently sitting in 10th place, King moved one step closer to becoming the first pro to claim back-to-back Angler of the Year awards. King technically has an 18-point lead on Keenan. If King clinches a spot in the top 10 tomorrow, Keenan and others cannot mathematically catch him.
The second day of the NWT Championship starts tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from Grahams Island State Park, located at 152 S. Duncan Rd. in Devils Lake. The day-two weigh-in also takes place at Grahams Island, beginning at 3 p.m.