OSHKOSH, Wis. – With a record field of 165 boats, enthusiasm for the 2019 National Walleye Tour season opener, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, was at an all-time high. Lake Winnebago, however, had other plans, as the world’s best walleye anglers were largely humbled by cool, dreary conditions. At last year’s Winnebago event, over 100 pros registered five-fish limits on day one. This year, only 23 pros put five walleyes on the scale. When the bite is tough, there are few in the game better than Tom Keenan, who took the early lead with 14.79 pounds.
While most anglers reported a miserable practice, Keenan found success early and often.
“Practice was good; we had several patterns going,” said Keenan, who surpassed $1 million in tournament winnings three years ago. “Three out of the last four days I’ve had a good bag. When I went out this morning, I had four or five presentations. To be honest, I had no idea the fishing was going to be that bad.”
Keenan, the Ranger-Evinrude pro, explained that the cold weather has dramatically slowed the system’s overall migration. As a result, anglers have access to a smaller percentage of the fishable population.
“We’ve had a terrible week of weather,” he added. “The water is still cold. A lot of the fish are way, way upriver and haven’t come back yet. We’re catching a small portion of the fish.”
To adjust, Keenan’s moving locations often and looking for active fish.
“I call it a garbage or a scrounge tournament. I caught one doing this technique, then I caught one doing something different. I think caught fish on six different spots today; I was seen on a lot of different spots.”
The Hatley, Wis., native was unwilling to reveal any pattern details at this point in the two-day tournament.
“All I can say is that I spent a lot of this week on my Humminbird Helix 10. I would look at the spots on my LakeMaster and then diagnosis them mainly on my side imaging. It’s really a spot-on-the-spot pattern. As for baits, the TV cameras won’t lie tomorrow. I’ve got something good going.”
Keenan anticipates an improved bite, specifically for the bigger females.
“I’m guessing tomorrow is going to be a little better. Personally, I’m hoping it’s rainy and cold again, just because I love garbage or scrounge tournaments. I’ve won a lot of money in these types of tournaments. Either way, I’m anticipating catching some fish tomorrow. I think I’m fishing the right pattern for the 3- and 4-pounders.”
The only other pro to crack 14 pounds on opening day was Lake Erie charter captain Randall Gaines. The Salem, Ohio, native weighed five walleyes for 14.18 pounds.
“I didn’t prefish yesterday because it was so nasty,” Gaines said. “But the last day I prefished my plan kind of came together. This morning I got to my spot, the spot that I was really feeling confident in, and I got nothing.”
Charter captain Randy Gaines (left) sits in second place with over 14 pounds.[/caption]Staying on the main lake for the entire day, Gaines did his best to improvise.
“I went to my second spot and caught a 22-incher and a 19-incher. Then I went back to spot No. 1, and I picked up a fish. Then the bite really slowed. We finally made a long run to a place where we only had 20 minutes to fish. I even set a timer on my phone. We made one trolling pass, went 100 feet, the board went back, and I was so happy to have four. I made one more turn to manipulate a breakline. When I turned, the outside board went back. I looked at my phone and I had 9 seconds to spare. To get our five, we used the whole day.”
Gaines did not spend the entire day trolling. He also jigged, casted crankbaits, and used slip bobbers.
“It took everything to put it all together. Chip said it best on stage. Adjusting to the conditions was the key today. Every spot was different. One time we ran 20 minutes just to make 15 casts. But that’s how it had to be. Hopefully, with the weather calming down, we’ll be able to go back to the spot I had high hopes for this morning.”
Gaines, who operates Nibble This Charters, is excited to be within striking range.
“Anytime you’re trying to chase down Tom Keenan, you’ve got a monumental task at hand. But if things happen the way I think they can, it’s possible.”
Local Pickett, Wis., guide Tim Euting sits in third place after catching a five-fish stringer weighing 13.71 pounds. Like Keenan and Gaines, Euting was running and gunning.
“I moved around a lot today,” said Gaines, who operates Get ‘em Hooked Guide Service. “They’re not concentrated in big groups by any means. I’m just reading the lake and reading the conditions. I have trolling rods, casting rods, bobber rods, and jig rods in my boat.”
Euting, who fishes the Winnebago system over 100 days per year, explained the water temperature dropped 10 degrees within the past week.
“When the water cooled, the bite pattern changed. That’s why I think these guys are struggling. You think you have a pattern and then the next day, they won’t touch it. I’m thinking it’s going to stabilize some and be a better bite tomorrow.”
Axtman fourth, Larson fifth
Rounding out the top five are Zachary Axtman and Thomas Larson. Axtman, the Rugby, N.D., native, boated a 13.50-pound stringer while Larson, the Estelline, S.D., pro, sacked 13.14.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2019 National Walleye Tour event on Lake Winnebago:
6th: Jarrod Fredericks of Estelline, S.D., five fish, 12.48
7th: Byron Peterson of Blair, Neb., five fish, 12.18
8th: Jeff Nuechterlein of Greenville, Wis., five fish, 11.77
9th: Todd Mueller of Appleton, Wis., five fish, 11.56
10th: Korey Sprengel of Beaver Dam, Wis., five fish, 11.40
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field of 165 boats takes off from Miller’s Bay at Menominee Park. The final weigh-in also takes place at Miller’s Bay at Menominee Park, beginning at 3 p.m.