MARINETTE, Wis. – Thanks largely to an unseasonably cool, wet spring, the bite during practice for the second National Walleye Tour event of the 2019 season, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, has been trying. While Green Bay’s status as a big-fish factory remains unquestioned, the best anglers in the world were largely struggling. However, the first real warming trend of the season has finally arrived, and the lethargic walleyes are beginning to respond.
Leading after a top-heavy day one is Simms pro John Hoyer. The Minnesota native has been steadily climbing the ranks over the past few seasons and is on the cusp of his first major victory. The problem is that the two pros behind him are not only elite walleye anglers, they’re also experienced Green Bay sticks. While Hoyer was the only pro to surpass 40 pounds, Korey Sprengel and Joe Okada are both within striking distance. Hoyer, who caught only five fish, officially weighed 41.37 pounds.
“We knew if we could get five, they would be in the mid-30s or higher,” explained Hoyer. “That’s the kind of bite we’re on, and to be honest, that’s all we really had going.”
Hoyer said he made a long run to a community area where he’s targeting one specific type of structure.
Hoyer received six bites – losing one big fish at the boat. He endured a four-hour lull without any action until finally boxing his fifth fish late in the afternoon. His smallest walleye was a 5 1/2-pounder, and his other keepers were all in the 9-pound range.
“If the wind is going to blow tomorrow, and I think it is, then I think we can get 10 or 12 bites. The fish are just starting to warm up. They just barely bite at all when it’s calm. When you put wind on them, it fires them up a bit.”
Hoyer wasn’t ready to discuss his area or his presentation, allowing only that he’s making a long run.
“I do have four spots on a different side of the lake, and I wouldn’t hesitate to hit that stuff if I need to tomorrow.
“Overall, I’m confident with what we’ve got going. I think it could be my time. If we land six fish, it’s going to be close; it’s going to be interesting. It might just come down to a coin flip.”
Sprengel, one of the most acclaimed pros in the game, sits in second with 39.68 pounds. The Berkley pro recently won the Sturgeon Bay Open, a regional smallmouth event, with partner Ryan Dempsey. He’s back to his walleye roots this week and hasn’t missed a beat.
“They were biting today, but it’s a complicated bite,” said Sprengel. “With this cold water, they don’t feed all day. You can be on the right spot, but it might not be the right time.”
Like Hoyer, Sprengel started in a community area. He caught one on his first cast and had five in his Ranger livewell by 8:45 this morning. Looking for a true kicker, he made a run in the opposite direction. After catching a few 27s and pitching them back, he stuck a 29-inch bruiser at 1:30 p.m. and headed in.
Sprengel is intrigued by his big-fish spot for two reasons. The first is that he never saw another boat near it, and the second is that the fish are simply built bigger.
“I think I’m going to start in the community area again. Maybe I’ll pluck a fish or two from someone else and then leave. I don’t know at what point I will leave, but I want to use up other fish first.”
Sprengel wouldn’t reveal any bait names, but he admitted he’s casting while the majority of anglers are trolling.
“I just got into the zone this morning. It was cast and keep moving.”
Five years ago, when Hoyer was a co-angler, he would team with Sprengel and practice together. While the two have great respect for each other, they’re both prepared for a shootout.
“John is a great fisherman, one of the best out there, but he’s going to have to earn it tomorrow.”
Green Bay continues to be kind to Okada, who weighed 38.19 pounds for third place. Okada has earned a reputation as one of the best open-water casters, and today was continued proof.
Okada typically runs north to play the casting game, even though he’s well aware of its fragile nature. After weigh-in, he admitted today was no different.
“This is the first limit I’ve caught since I’ve been here.” Okada revealed. “But I was fully prepared to take a zero. If the conditions hold tomorrow, we could be in good shape.”
The Green Bay casting bite has almost become an addiction for Okada.
“I just like catching big fish, and I don’t get to fish Green Bay nearly enough. You know the potential the bay has, even if it doesn’t always deliver. This time of year, it’s especially fickle, unless you’re Korey Sprengel and you can wave your magic wand around and the fish jump in the boat. The field becomes more educated every year too. The pie has to be sliced a lot thinner. It’s a gamble already, but now there are more boats to contend with.”
Okada believes another limit is possible tomorrow, but it’s certainly not a given.
“I’m just prepared to go get five bites. I never take a limit for granted on this area of Green Bay. You have to learn to take what the bay gives you.”
Gilman fourth, Hjelm fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Chris Gilman and Duane Hjelm. Gilman, the 2013 NWT Championship winner, caught a limit worth 37.49.
Hjelm, the rising young pro who lives in Pierre, S.D., managed five keepers weighing 36.27.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2019 National Walleye Tour event on Green Bay:
6th: Mark Courts of Harris, Minn., five fish, 33.07
7th: Bill Shimota of Northfield, Minn., four fish, 32.69
8th: Nate Curell of Little Suamico, Wis., five fish, 32.25
9th: Brett King of Hager City, Wis., four fish, 31.13
10th: Jason Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., four fish, 30.91
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from Menekaunee Harbor. The final weigh-in also takes place at Menekaunee Harbor beginning at 3 p.m.