Stier staves off Rhodes to claim NWT season opener
TRENTON, Mich. – Dan Stier left Elizabeth Park in suburban Detroit Saturday morning as a confident angler. Sitting in second place, approximately 4 pounds off the lead, Stier knew he was around a huge pod of Lake Erie walleyes, the kind needed to win the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season opener. But to reach those fish, he had to endure a 37-mile boat ride in 4- and 5-foot waves. And once he arrived at his primary area, he had to reconnect with the mega-school.
Stier aimed his Ranger southeast and after an hour and 40 minute boat ride, arrived on the north side of North Bass Island, near the Canadian line. The fish bit almost right away, but something was wrong; these weren’t the same 8- to 10-pound walleyes Stier was around earlier.
“On our first pass we caught four, but nothing over 4 pounds,” recalled Stier. “We turned around for pass No. 2 and caught three but nothing over 5 pounds. So I picked up and started cruising around with my Lowrance HDS-12 Gen 2 Touch.”
Two other moves yielded similarly disappointing results.
“At this point, I was getting real nervous. At about 12:15 I didn’t have much over 20 pounds. We moved again, this time to the north reef and it was game on. We caught 18 fish over 7 pounds and six over 28 inches in a matter of about an hour. Yesterday all the fish were set up on the south reef. Today they were tucked up against the north reef. We fished until 2:15 p.m. and then decided to head in because our check-in time was 4 p.m.”
Stier was thinking he would probably finish somewhere in the top five – likely third or fourth. In addition to all the catching, Stier also dumped five or six big fish. Little did he know Brian Bjorkman, the Jimmy John’s Freaky Good catch of the day winner yesterday, would struggle.
“Brian is a great fisherman and he was actually fishing by me; I could see him at times. I never would have guessed it.”
Stier said early in the week crankbaits were on fire. But by Thursday and Friday the fish started moving over to spinners.
“The spinner bite was so strong I stuck with it all week. The key for me was that I was going super slow – like .7 to .8 mph. If I went over 1 mph I wouldn’t hardly get bit.”
The Mina, S.D., pro targeted fish in 18 to 22 feet over water 34 feet deep. He employed a 1 1/2-ounce weight and set his lines 25 and 35 feet back, 25 for the 18-foot fish and 35 for the 22-foot fish.
“That 18- to 22-foot range seemed to be where the better quality fish were. If I went to the bottom it was small fish and if I went to the top it was 4- and 5-pounders.”
Stier has been visiting Erie since 1990 and in those 24 years he’s developed some clear favorites in terms of color schemes.
“I really like a No. 6 deep cup gold blade with alternating purple and gold beads. I used mostly 12-pound Vicious fluorocarbon, a No. 1 Gamakatsu hook (red) on the front and a No. 6 treble hook (bronze) on back. Those little subtleties make a big difference in open water.”
An accomplished veteran, Stier has won many major tournaments, including championship events. But his latest title ranks right up there.
“I couldn’t believe it and I still can’t believe it. I’m overwhelmed; it was a pretty fantastic experience. This means just as much to me as winning a championship or Angler of the Year. There are so many good fishermen out there.
“The tournaments you go into where you’re kind of uncertain, that’s when you typically do well. I had that feeling going out here and that’s what happened. I guess that uncertainty forces you to keep an open mind. If you’re not locked into one thing too hard, if you’re not too fixed on one area or one presentation than you can adjust.”
For winning the 2014 season opener, Stier claimed $15,00 cash and a Ranger 620VS with a 250-horsepower Evinrude engine, a total value of $73,780.
In addition to his winnings, Stier will head to stop No. 2 as the Lucas Oil Angler of the Year leader.
“This is such a bless blessing. I want to thank my wife for all the support she gives me. She makes all this possible.”
Rhodes runner up
Ronnie Rhodes started the final day in seventh place, but rocketed up the leaderboard on the strength of a 42.85 pound-stringer. With a two-day total of 84.49 pounds, Rhodes finished second and earned $17,124.26.
A charter captain who operates Fintastic Walleye Charters, Rhodes said his best bite in practice was off Kelleys Island. He started the tournament on the west side of North Bass Island, simply because it was closer.
“We caught a couple at North Bass, then I went to my best spot at Kelleys and it was a ghost town. I don’t know what happened. So I went right back to North Bass and immediately started pounding them.”
Rhodes fished North Bass exclusively on day two, oftentimes near Stier. But his approach was considerably different.
“Everyone that knows me knows I’m a crank guy; I think you get better fish. It was all on Reef Runners and it was all on one color – purple sunfire. I would run them 20 and 22 feet down over water 32 to 35 feet deep. I used Off Shore planer boards and had 80 feet out on the outside boards and 120 feet out on the inside boards. Eighty would get me down to 20 feet and 120 would get me to 22. On both days speed was everything. I trolled faster with my crankbaits – 1.3 to 1.5 mph.”
The Sheffield Lake, Ohio, native finished just .18 pounds behind Stier.
“Today I had an 8-pounder spit out a 7 1/2-inch perch. That turned out to be the deal breaker. I’m excited about second though. I got a lot of calls from friends and family this week and that means a lot.”
Rhodes dedicated his tournament to his close friend Bryan Huff, who passed away last week after a tragic boating accident on Erie.
Shimota up to third
Over the past five years, few walleye anglers have been as consistently good as Bill Shimota. Known more for his prowess on river systems, Shimota is now starting to shine on open-water trolling bites as well, a scary thought for the rest of the field. This week he started the tournament in seventh place with 41.56 and rose to third after catching 42.75 on day two. For a two-day total of 84.31 pounds, the Northfield, Minn., pro earned $16,959.29 (with Ranger and Evinrude contingency bonuses).
“Everything happened about as planned,” said Shimota. “It’s really that transition time from spawn to postspawn so we were looking for those heavier postspawn fish out on the lake that were starting to put weight back on.”
Shimota fished two general areas – Rattlesnake Island and North Bass Island. On day one both of his kickers came from Rattlesnake, but he started there on day two and his Lowrance HDS Gen 2 Touch unit was completely blank.
“I couldn’t find them so I went to North Bass and caught two right away. But I still wasn’t marking many fish; I knew I wasn’t really on the pod. So we searched around a bit and a 1/4-mile later the screen just lit up. We had a triple right away and it was kind of game on from there. There are so many walleyes out there it’s unbelievable.”
Shimota said he caught all his fish on spinners and night crawlers this week, using 1 1/4-ounce weights and placing his presentation 30 feet back. His best color patterns were chartreuse (beads) and gold (blades), with purple (beads) and gold (blades) accounting for some fish as well.
“We were fishing 33 feet of water and our program was basically to keep our baits near the bottom. We were trolling about .8 to 1.2 mph and making S turns. The biggest thing was just watching your electronics. You had to put yourself in front of fish. My Lowrance unit worked flawlessly for me.”
Shimota reflected on yet another high finish.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m kind of bummed. I had a 27 1/2-incher in the livewell today. I figured if I could get that one big bite I would upgrade by 2 pounds and it would be over. But that big one never came. We worked hard for it and took her right down to the wire.”
King retains fourth
Finishing in fourth place with a cumulative weight of 83.40 pounds was Claremont, Minn., pro Brett King. King started the day in fourth with 43.24 and never budged after catching 40.16 Saturday. He took home $11,300.98.
“We ran between 40 and 50 miles to the Kelleys Island area,” said King. “We dropped in basically where I finished off yesterday. I saw right away that the water was a little dingier than yesterday and that got me excited. I’m not kidding when I say we had between 38 and 40 pounds in the first pass. I maybe upgraded once after that; you lose track. It was mayhem for the first 45 minutes. Then the fish got smaller and smaller and the schools broke up as the pressure from other boats increased.”
King started the week pulling crankbaits. By midday Friday, he switched to two and two. Then his next three fish came on spinners so he put the crankbaits away for good.
“I was using JT Custom Tackle beads and blades. My best bead color was chartreuse and my best blade color was pink and white. I also did very well on the color baitfsh (blade).”
King fished between 17 and 25 feet over water 35 to 38 deep.
“I was running 1-ounce inline weights and staggering my presentation 25 to 45 feet. It was pretty typical planer board fishing. My speeds were 1 to 1.3 mph, maybe a little faster than most.”
King’s lone regret is not replacing a 6-pounder today.
“If I could have upgraded that fish I could have won. The last bite I got a half hour before I had to go in could have changed the tournament. She rolled the board like a big one. But that’s spinner fishing and that’s easy to say after the fact. I’m happy with fourth, but it’s so hard to put yourself in position to win these things. If it’s meant to be you get that fish in the boat.”
Henton finishes fifth
Spartansburg, Pa., pro Bob Henton finished the tournament in fifth place with a two-day total of 83.02 pounds. After barely cracking 40 pounds on day one, Henton improved to 42.64 today.
“We made a 45-mile boat ride over to Kelleys Island,” said Henton. “Yesterday it took an hour and 50 minutes to get there and today it took about an hour and 25. Today the bite was steady right from the get go. We probably caught 25 fish, all on spinners. Most guys were trolling crankbaits but we never put a crankbait down. Most guys say don’t use spinners until the water is in the 50s.”
Henton said he fished in water anywhere from 25 to 40 deep and the fish were suspended 10 to 15 feet down.
“I was pulling Dutch Fork spinnners – mainly their plastic ghost blade. Colors didn’t really make much of a difference. We used orange, white, pink and chartreuse beads. And we used a combination of blade colors too. Those fish were just ready to eat; they were turning on.”
Henton’s trolling speeds ranged from from .8 to 1.5 mph and he positioned his boards 20 to 40 feet back.
“I’m happy with fifth but I would have liked to have caught a few more pounds yesterday. It got real tight at the top and I would have been right there.”
With contingencies, Henton earned $13,340.17.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season opener:
6th: Rick Olson of Mina Lake, S.D., 10 fish, 82.96
7th: Tom Kemos of Oconomowoc, Wis., 10 fish, 82.65
8th: Pat Byle of Colgate, Wis., 10 fish, 82.35
9th: Brian Bjorkman of Fargo, N.D., 10 fish, 82.23
10th: Nick Schertz of Tomahawk, Wis., 10 fish, 81.02
Rookie claims co-angler title
John Hoyer of Orono, Minn., claimed the co-angler title with a total weight of 85.92 pounds. Hoyer fished with local charter captain Ryan Buddie on day one and today was paired with Iowa pro Steve Miller.
“It was amazing how it all happened,” said Hoyer, a part-time muskie guide in the Twin Cities. “I signed up late and I was on the waiting list. I found out I got in two days before the tournament.”
Hoyer’s tournament started incredibly slow as he and Buddie didn’t have a single fish until noon Friday. With four in the box late in the day, they began to pull their boards and make the long trek back.
“The main motor was running. We reeled in three of the lines and literally on the last board that was out we catch a 30-incher to give us our fifth fish.”
Hoyer experienced similar late-day heroics today.
“At 12:30 we made our last move. We were getting worried because we only had a couple fish and we had to give ourselves time to get back. But then it just started happening; it was unbelievable. Once we got on them we had 30 pounds in one pass. And from there we kept making 200-yard short passes.”
Hoyer caught all his fish on spinners on day one. On day two, the three biggest came via crankbaits.
“It’s funny. Everything this week came at the zero hour – from getting in the tournament to catching them right before we had to go in both days. But I guess better late than never.”
Hoyer earned $7,085 for his win.
“This is the first one I’ve fished. Winning is great, but I think I doubled my walleye knowledge with four days of pre-fishing and two days of tournament fishing. You would just never learn this much if you’re not in a tournament scenario. I got to prefish with Dusty Minke, Korey Sprengel and Bill Shimota. Watching them put it all together was fun.”
The next Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event is slated for June 27-28 on the Missouri River in Mobridge, S.D., the second of four tournaments.