OSHKOSH, Wis. – Korey Sprengel has been tearing up the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour ever since its inception in 2013. In those five years alone, his accolades include four wins, starting at the inaugural NWT event on the Mississippi River. While he’s proven to be successful on every type of fishery, Lake Winnebago has been especially good to him. In 2014, he won the NWT Championship on Wisconsin’s largest inland lake, and today he clinched yet another pro-am win in impressive fashion.
The 2018 season opener was originally scheduled for the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minn., but historic April snow lead to flood conditions and ultimately a change in venue. Sprengel was pleased with the switch, but at the time, felt largely unprepared to tackle his dynamic home water.
“I had to fish this one on the fly,” explained the Ranger-Mercury pro. “I told my co-angler on day one that I didn’t exactly have a game plan, but that we’d eventually come across some fish.”
“With migrating fish, if you run enough spots, you’re eventually going to run into them.”
Instead of focusing on the lake, Sprengel spent his time in the Upper Lakes and in the Fox River.
“I prefished this event for six days, and I never fished the main lake. I wasn’t going to get suckered into fishing the main lake and catching skinny walleyes. A lot of people were catching limits of 18- to 20-inch fish there, but they would only weigh 13 or 14 pounds. The fish in the Upper Lakes were healthy. This was a tournament where understanding the build of your fish really mattered. Those same fish in the Upper Lakes weighed 16 or 17 pounds.”
Sprengel spent the majority of his time in Butte Des Morts, especially on day two. The fish there were further along in the migration. Sprengel described Butte Des Morts as a shallow lake with an abundance of food. Being further away from the spawn meant the walleyes were on the chew.
“I targeted shallow, active fish in 3 feet or less. I was fishing weeds (curly-leaf pondweed), cane beds and rock piles. With the amount of flow we had from the snow and rain, that really set the fish up in certain areas. My practice wasn’t a lot of fishing; it was a lot of looking at new weed beds and new rock piles.”
On day one, Sprengel hit around 20 spots, and on day two, he trimmed down to 15 in the brutally wet, cold, and windy conditions. Despite the challenging weather, his weight increased from 17.35 pounds to 17.98 pounds.
In Butte Des Morts, Sprengel mainly threw a Berkley Cutter Shallow 90 in chameleon pearl. When he fished the Fox River, he primarily used a Berkley Digger 8.5 (also in chameleon pearl).
Sprengel explained that the current flows west to east in the Winnebago system. With today’s east wind, he was casting into the wind.
“That’s where the Cutter was working well, because it casts so well into the wind. I was throwing chameleon pearl, which is a version of white, and my co-angler would throw firetiger. Winnebago has a tannic color, and white baits really stand out and pop.”
Sprengel said the key to his latest victory was running numerous spots.
“On Winnebago, you know real quick if it’s going to happen. I would spend 10 minutes on each spot and then move if they weren’t there. I threw back a lot of 18- and 19-inchers. I threw back skinny 20s, just to get a fat 19-incher.”
For claiming the 2018 season opener, Sprengel earned a Ranger 620FS with a 150-horsepower Mercury outboard, $15,000 cash, and another $2,635 in Anglers Advantage cash. His winning purse totaled $82,635.
“This one is right under the other Winnebago tournament (championship). I’ve never focused so hard as I did in 2016. I don’t know that that one will ever be beat. This one I came in so laid back; I didn’t know what to expect.”
Gahagan rallies to second, McQuoid third
Sheboygan, Wis., pro Russell Gahagan sat in third place after catching a 16.34-pound limit Thursday. Today, he demonstrated remarkable consistency and caught another 16.02 to finish second with 32.36 pounds. Gahagan earned $18,506.
“I’m very pleased with the finish,” he said. “I’m mainly a salmon fisherman. To be able to compete with the best walleye fishermen in the world, I’m pleased.”
“We pulled flies in the Fox River. We used a 1-ounce pencil weight on a three-way set up and ran two flies, one with a 6-foot leader and one with a 10-foot leader.
“It’s totally a reaction bite. They just can’t resist that thing coming by. Today, the guys that were pulling live bait struggled.”
Gahagan would pull the flies forward while traveling .4 to .8 mph into the current.
“I like to hold the rod straight out the side, snap it forward, and let it hit the bottom. The darting motion is what those walleyes can’t resist. Every time I fish them it intrigues me even more. I’ve tried it other places, and it’s never worked anywhere else. I don’t know why it only works on Winnebago. It’s the oddest thing, but it’s amazing how many walleyes are caught on flies, especially in May.”
Of his 10 weigh fish, eight came on flies in the Fox River, and two came via trolling Salmo Hornets in Butte Des Morts.
Cabela’s pro Kevin McQuoid surged up the leaderboard after catching a 16.29-pound day-two stringer. On day one, the Isle, Minn., fisherman caught 15.17. His total weight for the tournament was 31.46. With boat, motor and Anglers Advantage bonuses, he cleared $18,238.
McQuoid employed a similar strategy to Sprengel in that he fished shallow in Butte Des Morts.
McQuoid’s crankbait of choice was also the Berkley Cutter Shallow 90, which he fished over rock piles in 3 feet. When he trolled spinners, he covered shallow flats with a size 3 or 4 blade and night crawlers.
“I was trolling 1.2 or 1.3 mph and catching my fish in between 3 and 6 feet of water. I used a size 4 split shot and put anywhere between 8 and 30 feet behind the board.”
Late in the day, McQuoid was regretting pitching back an 18-incher. He had only four fish in his Ranger livewell, and it was almost time to head in.
“With 1 minute to go, I was still sitting on four, and I caught a little 14 1/2-incher that saved me. I was starting to kick myself, but it all turned out just fine.”
Stadler fourth, Leanna fifth
Rounding out the top five are Wisconsin pros Richard Stadler and Luke Leanna. Stadler, the Berlin, Wis., local, was steady both days, catching a 15.35-pound limit on day one and a 14.77-pound limit on day two. Stadler finished the tournament fourth with 30.12 pounds.
Leanna had a bit tougher day two, catching 14.11 pounds. On day one, the Fitchburg, Wis., angler caught 15.91 pounds. With a two-day total of 30.02, Leanna took fifth.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2018 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Lake Winnebago:
6th: Bob Bruegger of Wabasha, Minn., 29.37
7th: Tom Kemos of Oconomowoc, Wis., 29.04
8th: Mike Defibaugh of Bellefontaine, Ohio, 28.89
9th: Tim Abraham of New Ulm, Minn., 28.83
10th: Brett King of Hager City, Wis., 28.82
The next National Walleye Tour event is scheduled for June 14-15 on Saginaw Bay in Bay City, Mich.