SANDUSKY, Ohio – As one of competitive walleye fishing’s most accomplished anglers, Tom Keenan is rarely short on confidence. After day one of the 2016 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season opener, his confidence soared to new heights. Keenan had discovered the key to tricking the massive, yet oftentimes lethargic Lake Erie walleyes into biting. With one more day on the water to prove it, he could hardly sleep in anticipation. While he wouldn’t say it publicly, in private he stated that he’s never been more confident in his life. True to his word, Keenan delivered five walleyes that weighed 45 pounds and claimed another tournament title – his fourth pro-am win and first on legendary Lake Erie.
Despite all his angling accolades, which include three Angler of the Year and two Team of the Year titles, Keenan has been frustrated with his recent performances. His last win came in 2010, and while he’s been close several times, he’s come up agonizingly short. In his own words, the drought was “unacceptable.”
“It’s been five years since I won a tournament,” said the Evinrude pro. “I’ve had a little chip on my shoulder.”
While most of the 154-boat field ran north and west, Keenan headed east each day towards Loraine, Ohio. In fact, he saw only five tournament boats in two days of competition. His program wasn’t entirely unique, but he made critical and timely adjustments each day.“I trolled Rapala Husky Jerks (size 12) and 800 Series Reef Runners. White was the key color – purple and white or pink and white. Purple and white was probably the best.”
On day one, he figured out that most of the fish in his area were positioned near the bottom in water 32 to 26 feet deep. To trigger those fish, he had to let more line out and slow his trolling speed. Once he’d catch a few, he would spin around and troll right back through them. On day one, this technique produced a back-to-back double and triple.
“Today was a little bit of the opposite,” Keenan explained. “I set up my first couple rods and before I had them all set I had a double. So then I figured they were high (in the water column).”
Those first two fish were the only ones in Keenan’s livewell at noon. With calm conditions, Keenan needed something, some sort of change, to stimulate feeding activity.
“Five minutes later, the lake rippled up for about 20 minutes. We immediately raised our baits, bringing them up to the 20-foot level. In the next five minutes, we caught three in a row that were over 9 pounds. Those three probably weighed 28 pounds. As soon as the wind changed, they were easy to catch.”
In total, Keenan boated 16 walleyes today compared with 24 on day one. His day-two weight officially registered at 45.63, which gave him a total of 91.46 for the tournament. Keenan cited his trolling speed and a decision to swap out stock hooks on his crankbaits as keys to his success.
“Current makes a big difference out here on Erie and I’m always trying to measure it. Yesterday it was flowing east and today it switched and went west. I would troll at 1.6 mph into the current and 1.3 or 1.4 mph with the current.”
For his hooks, Keenan replaced the back treble on every crankbait with a bronze VMC No. 4.“That hook is a sticker. When I hook them on that, they don’t get off. In two days, I was 40 for 40; I never missed a fish. It makes a big difference when weights are this tight.”
Keenan’s latest victory earned him a Ranger 620FS with a 250-horsepower Evinrude outboard, $15,000 cash and an additional $2,420 in Anglers Advantage cash for a total purse of $87,420. The victory also pushed him past $1 million in career tournament earnings.
“It’s an indescribable feeling. Coming in, I needed $18,000 and today put me over.”
To conclude, Keenan reflected on the experience of being in the zone.
“The last time I was this confident was at Spring Valley in 2010. I was confident today that I could catch 42 pounds pretty easy. But I knew I needed two key bites to win, which is exactly what I got. This was so freaking fun. I’m really, really looking forward to the rest of the year.”
Van Dyke slips to second
Day-one leader Wayne Van Dyke caught more fish on day two than day one, but they weren’t quite as heavy. After weighing 47.61 Thursday, he weighed 42.98 Friday for a two-day total of 90.59 pounds.
“I’m happy with second, but there’s still a moment of frustration when you’re that close to a win,” said the Alpena, Mich., native. “I ran my program and I did what I could do. It wasn’t quite enough.”Van Dyke stuck to one area during the two tournament days – the point near Marblehead Lighthouse. Making half-mile passes, the sweet spot was right where the point extended and the water depth would change from 27 feet to 23 or 24 feet. Second-place finisher Daniel Bodinger also worked the area, just outside of Van Dyke.
“I was running Bandits (deep divers) 150 feet back. All week long chartreuse with pink and purple produced for me. I would occasionally hit bottom with those things, pulling them behind Off Shore Tackle Planer Boards. I could see them on my Lowrance graph. I could see the ones that looked like walleyes on the bottom. The sheepshead and the white bass were just up above them.”
Van Dyke was on fire early in the day and ended up with roughly 20 keepers. He knew, however, that he didn’t quite have the big kickers he needed.
For second place, he earned $25,124.
“What an awesome week of fishing. I feel blessed to finish where I did. If someone would have said before the tournament that I would finish second, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. What a phenomenal fishery Lake Erie is. This is the only place around where 26- and 27-inchers are small walleyes.”
Bodinger retains third
After catching 45.66 on day one, Bodinger caught another impressive five-fish limit Friday, this one weighing 42.67. With a total weight of 88.33 pounds, the Chilton, Wis., native finished in third place.
“I was happy to have a limit early today,” said Bodinger. “I had five fish before 9 a.m. and I was doing some good upgrading by 10 a.m.”A team tournament veteran but NWT rookie, Bodinger estimates he received nearly 40 bites today. Unfortunately, he also lost five big walleyes, which could have potentially won him the tournament.
“I was fishing Reef Runner Deep Divers and targeting the fish that were on the bottom. I owe it all to my good friend Mike Blanck and he knows it.”
Blanck not only showed Bodinger that the fish were positioned on the bottom of the water column, but he also clued him in on a good location – Point Marblehead, the aforementioned spot situated 5 miles from the weigh-in site in Sandusky. More specifically, Bodinger said he fished the edge of dirty water.
Bodinger used a weight system to get his crankbaits down between 24 and 31 feet, just below the white bass. He trolled at approximately 1.5 mph.
For third place, he earned $17,500.
“I just came down here to have a fun fishing week, so I’m really happy with third. All the money is a bonus. I never expected anything like this.”
Gilman fourth, Przekurat fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Chris Gilman and Jason Przekurat. Gilman, the 2013 NWT Championship winner, caught limits weighing 43.40 and 42.47. His total weight of 85.87 put him fourth overall. Przekurat, the veteran pro from Stevens Point, Wis., caught limits weighing 42.55 and 43.20. For a total weight of 85.75, Przekurat finished fifth.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2016 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Lake Erie:
6th: Bill Sutton of Lindenhurst, Ill., 84.57
7th: Chris Schmitt of Mentamora, Ill., 84.21
8th: Ed Stachowski of Canton, Mich., 83.65
9th: Ross Grothe of Northfield, Minn., 81.88
10th: Robert Cardenas of Gem Lake, Minn., 81.22
Spiegel crowned co-angler champion
Co-angler John Spiegel had the privilege of fishing with Van Dyke, who finished second in the Pro Division, and Przekurat who finished fifth. Paired with Van Dyke on day one, the two caught a 47.61-pound limit, the heaviest of the entire tournament. On day two, Spiegel and Przekurat managed 43.20 pounds.“Both partners pulled crankbaits, mainly Bandits,” said Spiegel. “Wayne was trolling a structure-related area and Jason was running the flats.”
Spiegel and Przekurat did catch three fish today trolling spinners, including two that made it to the scale.
“It was a pretty solid program. There was a little lull from noon to 2 p.m. and then the wind picked up and it was kind of a circus. We caught three almost back to back to back right before we had to leave to come in.”
Spiegel said he was grateful to draw two excellent partners.
“Jason is a great guy to fish with as was Wayne. I’ve never had two great pros like this back to back.”
For a total weight of 90.81 pounds, Spiegel earned $6,500, plus another $1,111 in Anglers Advantage cash.
“It’s kind of been a long time coming. I’ve been fishing since 2009 and I have had a few top 10s but I’ve never won. It’s phenomenal.”
The next National Walleye Tour event is scheduled for May 26-27 on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh, Wis.