GARRISON, N.D. – When the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season was announced, excitement began brewing over the prospects of visiting a relatively unknown fishery at an intriguing time. With few preconceived notions, most anglers expected a fun, but challenging post-spawn tournament. What they did not anticipate was an all-out slugfest. On day one, Lake Sakakawea produced 39 five-fish limits in excess of 15 pounds.
Leading the charge after the opening day was Duane Hjelm of Ft. Pierce, S.D. Hjelm stunned the crowd at weigh-in after dropping 23.51 pounds on the scale.
“I didn’t really catch that many fish, but we were fortunate to make the right decisions,” said Hjelm.
After making a 2-hour run, Hjelm’s first fish of the morning was a 23-incher. Then he boxed two 19-inchers to play it safe.
“Then we caught two more no brainers, fish that were between 22 to 23 inches,” he said. “At that point, we had six fish in the box and I told my partner that if the next fish were under 4 pounds we weren’t going to keep them. No. 7 and No. 8 were our two biggest fish. I don’t know how we got so lucky.”
In this event, pros and co-anglers, fishing as a team, are permitted to keep eight walleyes and weigh their best five each day. Culling, or upgrading, is not allowed. In total, Hjelm boated between 20 and 30 walleyes on day one.
“I expected to catch fish, but I didn’t expect this. Practice was slow early. The first two days I never even boated a walleye. But as the week progressed and the weather stabilized, we started figuring it out. This lake fishes a lot like Oahe, which is my home body of water. You have to find the right color and temperature of water. I feel pretty comfortable here.”
Hjelm said that he caught fish both deep (in 30 to 40 feet) and shallow via plastics and minnows. One constant was the presence of smelt.
“All the fish we’re catching are puking up smelt. These fish are jacked up on smelt.”
With another fairly calm day in the forecast, Hjelm plans to make the long run again, even if it cuts his fishing time in half.
“The great thing about our pattern is that there’s not many people around. But the wind can change everything. You only have 3 or 3 1/2 hours of fishing. If the wind picks up, you need to change what you’re planning to keep. If you throw a 19-incher back, you might not get another crack. I’m from Oahe, so throwing those 3-pounders back is so hard for me. If it’s blowing, the smart thing might be to put five in the box and get back home.
“My buddy coined a phrase the other night. He told me not to gamble with the first two, but to gamble with the last two.”
Local pro Jason Votava sits in second place with a five-fish limit weighing 22.52 pounds. While it looks impressive on paper, Votava managed only five walleyes the entire day.
“We fought for each and every one,” he said. “We had five bites by noon and five fish in the box with one 16-incher that we wanted to replace.”
While he caught several smallmouths and northerns, he never boated another walleye. His 28-inch kicker was his first fish of the morning.
“Catching that one right away really relieves the stress, takes some pressure off your shoulders.”
While many of the top pros are making extensive runs, that’s not an option for Votava, who fishes out of the smallest boat in the field. What he doesn’t possess in equipment, Votava makes up for with local knowledge.
“I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve been fishing on this lake since I was 2 years old.”
The Minot, N.D., resident said he’s dragging live bait and pitching jigs up shallow. When he’s dragging bait, he’s sitting off the second break line in about 15 feet.
“For how tough my prefish was, I’m really nervous about tomorrow. As long as the winds don’t blow cold water around and the water temps stay stable, the fish should cooperate.”
For Votava, every legal walleye he catches tomorrow goes in the livewell.
“In the past, one 15-inch fish out of the box has hurt me more than it has helped me. I’ve seen a 15-inch fish drop a guy 10 or 12 places in the standings. A pound and a half in the box is better than a pound and a half in the lake.”
In third place with 21.32 pounds is Tomahawk, Wis., pro Nick Schertz. Like the leader, Schertz is making an extraordinarily long run. In fact, he stops to get fuel along the way. Thus far, the risk has been worth the reward.
“In practice yesterday I had the same weight in the same amount of time,” said Schertz. “So I think I’m pretty dialed in.”
Schertz’s biggest fear before takeoff was that his primary area was going to be busy. To his surprise, he had the best stretch all to himself.
“We had four in the box in the first 40 minutes. Our first walleye was a 25-incher. Then I pulled back down the shore and caught my fifth and sixth fish.”
Soon after, Schertz boated a 21 and a 22 and elected to call it a day.
“After our run, we started fishing at 9:20 and I was done at 11 a.m. We fished for about an hour and a half and decided to quit.”
To catch his fish, Schertz said he’s both trolling and pitching shallow. While he’s hesitant to reveal specifics at the halfway point in the tournament, he explained that he’s targeting a transition line with a specific bottom.
Schertz is hoping for another 20 pounds again tomorrow, a weight he feels is realistic.
“I couldn’t be happier with where I’m at. Tomorrow is my long day. I’m going to run back up there and run the same program; hopefully it holds. The nice part is that half the fish I’m catching are big ones. If I box five, I still have room for three more, which should lead to a really good bag.”
Kolden fourth, Stier fifth
Rounding out the top five are Dakota sticks Craig Kolden and Dan Stier. Kolden, the local Garrison, N.D., angler, caught a limit weighing 20.79 pounds for fourth place.
Stier, the veteran tour pro and Oahe guide, sits in fifth with 19.04 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Lake Sakakawea:
6th: Joe Okada of Cambridge, Wis., five fish, 19.02
7th: Tyler Polzen of Mobridge, S.D., five fish, 18.54
8th: Eric Olson of Red Wing, Minn., five fish, 18.42
9th: Chris Johnson of Dickinson, N.D., five fish, 18.25
10th: Chase Parsons of Denmark, Wis., five fish, 17.78
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from Garrison Bay Marina at Fort Stevenson State Park, located at 1252A 41st Ave. NW in Garrison. The final weigh-in also takes place at Garrison Bay Marina, beginning at 3 p.m.