GARRISON, N.D. – When Duane Hjelm arrived at Lake Sakakawea to begin prefishing for the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event, he was optimistic, as he intimately understands the nuances of the Missouri River. During his first two days of practice, however, Hjelm failed to boat a single walleye. The next few days were mired by blustery weather that made travel treacherous. As the weather slowly stabilized, the bite steadily improved. With calm conditions, Hjelm ventured over 95 miles one way to an area known as White Earth. There, he located a sand-gravel transition line that held the winning fish.
Hjelm’s long runs severely reduced his fishing time. Each day he calculated the risk against Mother Nature’s forecast, as Sakakawea can turn ugly almost instantaneously.
“Everything in this tournament was a gamble,” said the Fort Pierre, S.D., native. “You gamble that your equipment can make it. You gamble that you can get gas. You gamble that your fish come in the right order.”
In this event, pros and co-anglers, fishing as a team, were permitted to keep eight walleyes and weigh their best five each day. Culling, or upgrading, was not allowed, which means anglers had to decide on the spot whether a keeper goes in the livewell as one of the eight.
On day one, Hjelm ran to White Earth and trolled up six solid walleyes. With two spots left to play with, he moved 15 miles south to the New Town area to sample a shallow hump. When he arrived, he promised himself he wasn’t going to keep anything under 4 pounds. To his surprise, the next two walleyes were his biggest and anchored his 23.51-pound day-one weight.
This morning, he agonized whether he should start on the jig spot or run past it and return to the trolling area.
“My gut told me to go White Earth, so that’s exactly what I did. There were other people fishing the area and I wanted to be there first. I wanted to make a pass on it before anyone else touched it.”
Two minutes into the day, as he was explaining the program to his co-angler partner, his inside rod bent over to where it nearly touched the back of the boat.
“I cleared the other lines just in case and my partner reeled in the fish like he’s done it a million times.”
That female walleye measured 32 inches in length and easily surpassed the 10-pound mark.
“I was so emotional and choked up.”
The action wasn’t over as Hjelm had three walleyes in the boat before the TV crew reached him. After three full passes, he had the 32, three 21-inchers, a 19-incher and an 18-incher in his Ranger livewell.
With his jig spot in mind, Hjelm knew it was time to get gas. At 10:30, he reached his destination in White Earth Bay. To his dismay, he was informed that the station was out of fuel and the next delivery wouldn’t arrive for another hour. As he mulled his options, the wind started picking up. Rather than wait and hope for the best, Hjelm ran 20 miles further upstream and refueled at Tobacco Gardens.
As the wind continued to increase, Hjelm’s next decision was whether he’d even have time to sample his jig spot.
“That extra ride ended up taking twice as long as it should have. There were easily 3- and 4-footers. It was an emotional rollercoaster.”
Hjelm opted to play it safe and bypass the spot that produced his day-one kickers. He eventually reached the weigh-in site in Garrison with plenty of time to spare.
“I got in at 1:30 p.m., but I didn’t have anything going in the Garrison area. Instead of risking a dead-fish penalty, I weighed in early. Those hours of waiting were just agonizing.”
In the end, Hjelm didn’t need the additional kickers. His final-day stringer weighed 21.90 pounds and gave him a two-day total of 45.41.
An electrical lineman by trade, Hjelm trolled with No. 7 Berkley Flicker Shads and No. 7 Flicker Minnows. The Flicker Shads were positioned on the inside lines with leadcore and the Minnows were on the outside with monofilament. The shallow outside line was set 45 feet back. The two leadcore lines were set 55 feet back and the deep outside board was set 75 feet back. Hjelm would troll these baits with his bow-mounted Minn Kota Terrova at 1.8 to 2 mph, so that the crankbaits were banging hard off the bottom. His two best colors were Slick Mouse and Purple Tiger.
“We targeted an old breakline with a transition from rock to sand. We were making about 1/2-mile passes. We could see the line and where the fish were positioned on my Lowrance graph. Then, we’d pull the crankbaits right through them in about 8 to 12 feet. There were people live-bait rigging in the area, but it seemed like I was getting bigger bites by staying out a bit.”
While jigging only produced two of his 10 weigh fish, they were critical.
“We found one little hump that sticks out. It comes up to 6 feet on the top, but has deep water all around it. We could never get the deeper ones to bite, but when they came up, they were ready to feed.”
Hjelm employed 1/4-ounce jigs with 4-inch Berkley Gulp Minnows (smelt color). He presented the bait slowly, with just an occasional lift as the fish were not particularly aggressive.
“The jig program was really a spot-on-a-spot deal. The key to the trolling pattern was finding water clarity of about 2 to 4 feet. If it was too dirty, they would short strike it. They were missing the bait.”
For his victory, the 28-year-old Hjelm earned a Ranger 620FS with a 250-horsepower Evinrude outboard, plus $15,000 cash and an additional $2,060 in Anglers Advantage money for a total purse of $86,555.
“This is life changing. The money is huge for one thing as my girlfriend and I are getting ready to build a house. But that money is going to come and go. The memories I’ve made out here with my friends and co-anglers…and that trophy is going to be talked about forever. Right when you walk in the house, that baby is going to be sitting right there.”
Votava retains second
Just like Hjelm, local pro Jason Votava flirted with disaster all week, but a different form. While Hjelm made huge runs, Votava stayed close in his 17-foot boat, never running further than 10 miles from takeoff. He was around the right fish, but triggering bites proved challenging. To illustrate this point, Votava said he received only five bites each day.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t have much going on before the tournament,” said the Minot, N.D., angler. I didn’t have a place to start and I’ve been fishing this lake for 32 years. I just went and found the warmest, stained water I could find.”
At 11 this morning, Votava had zero fish. After a short move, he had four in the livewell at 11:30. At 2 p.m., he returned to his best spot and popped a 29-incher. That kicker was his last bite as he was forced to weigh a 17-incher.
“If I would’ve got one more over 20, that would have been the difference.”
Votava’s day-two weight registered 20.63 pounds and he finished with a total of 43.15, earning $19,700.
“I caught everything jigging. I had Lindy Rigs, dead sticks and all kinds of crawlers and leeches. But every walleye came on a jig, either 5/16 or 3/8, with a fathead.”
Votava sampled six different spots with rocky edges. Typically, it was a shallow point with a deep cut next to it. His bites would come between 5 and 10 feet.
“I had a great time. I’m elated to take second place, especially with how worried I was going in. But deep down, when you know you got a shot at it, it always hurts.”
Gene Merck improved his catch on day two and finished the event with a total weight of 39.92 pounds. Merck, the Bismarck, N.D., angler, managed 16.07 on day one and today sacked 23.85 pounds, which was the second-heaviest stringer on day two.
With Anglers Advantage money, he cleared $14,989.
Bashore fourth, Takasaki fifth
Rounding out the top five are Sioux Falls, S.D., pros Brian Bashore and Ted Takasaki. Bashore surged up the leaderboard on day two after catching a 22.45-pound limit. Combined with his day-one weight of 17.46, Bashore finished the tournament fourth with 39.91 pounds.
Takasaki, the South Dakota transplant, also improved his catch on day two – putting together a solid limit worth 21.82 pounds. On day one, the veteran pro caught 17.46. With a two-day total of 39.28, Takasaki took fifth.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Lake Sakakawea:
6th: Karl Wenckebach of Lake Villa, Ill., 38.07
7th: Craig Kolden of Garrison, N.D., 37.89
8th: Mike Gofron of Antioch, Ill., 36.82
9th: Joe Okada of Cambridge, Wis., 36.22
10th: Chris Gilman of Chisago City, Minn., 35.85
Kuchenberg wins Co-angler Division
Wisconsin fisherman Steve Kuchenberg caught limits of 18.25 and 27.04 to claim top honors in the Co-angler Division with a total weight of 45.29 pounds. On day one, Kuchenberg fished with Chris Johnson and today he was paired with Wenckebach, the sixth-place pro.
“We were pitching jigs both days,” said the Abrams, Wis., angler. “On day one, we ran past New Town towards White Earth. Today, we stayed close and only ran about 7 miles to Douglas Bay.”
Kuchenberg fished gravel shorelines with a pink 1/8-ounce jig and fathead. On day two, chartreuse proved to be the more productive color.
“We would pitch it up in less than 2 feet of water, then drag it back to the slope. Then we’d hop it down the drop by picking the rod up 6 to 8 inches.”
Kuchenberg earned $6,000 for winning his division.
“This was my fifth or sixth event and I’ve been fortunate to draw some awesome anglers. From my perspective, I got some cash and that pays for the rest of my year. We’ve got Prairie du Chien coming up and then we end the season on my home waters of Green Bay.
“This was an absolutely fantastic experience. And it has been for every event I’ve entered. I really want to come back to this place. It’s absolutely beautiful and I like catching big fish.”
The next National Walleye Tour event is scheduled for June 15-16 on the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien, Wis.