BAUDETTE, Minn. – When 20-year-old Dylan Nussbaum won the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Devils Lake earlier this year, the walleye fishing industry collectively took notice. At the time, it was inexplicable that someone so inexperienced could outperform the world’s best walleye anglers. Fast forward six weeks and the unthinkable has happened again. This time, 21-year-old Wisconsin angler Max Wilson took his knowledge of deep basin fishing and applied it to Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods. After three days, three overs, and a total of 45.83 pounds, Wilson won the 2018 National Walleye Tour Championship and delivered a clear message: “A new generation is here.”
This was only Wilson’s second full season on the NWT. Prior to that, he fished as a co-angler and dabbled as a pro on other circuits for two years. After a strong season opener on Winnebago, his home waters, he struggled at Saginaw Bay and Devils Lake.
“I came into this championship with an open mind,” said Wilson, the Triton pro. “I really did not expect to do well. I only caught three overs in all my practice and all three came within 15 minutes of each other.”
Wilson had two separate patterns, one for unders and one for overs. In this event, all walleyes between 19 1/2 and 28 inches had to be released. Anglers were allowed to keep one walleye over 28 inches in length per day, hence the term “over.” Likewise, fish less than 19 1/2 inches are known as “unders” or “slots.”
For his overs, Wilson ran to the Knights and Bridges area, located near the Canadian line, just south of the Garden Island complex. There, female walleyes were actively feeding on big tullibees.
“There were smaller fish on the bottom, but I was intentionally fishing above them. They would sit just off the sharp, jagged rock structure. In the morning, they would sit up closer to the structure and then slide out into the abyss during the day.”
Each of the first two days, Wilson was without an over with 15 minutes left to fish. Then, he’d turn to his “Hail Mary,” a No. 9 Rapala Tail Dancer painted by Viper Custom Tackle (green UV coated).
This morning, Wilson switched it up and caught his over at 8:15, which enabled him to fish for unders all day. His under spot was located another 5 to 7 miles further north near the islands.
“I could get a limit within an hour every day up there. Today I bet we caught 75 fish. It was a sand-mud flat in 15 feet of water, and they would position just off the bottom. By 10:15 we had a limit, and we only upgraded one time.”
For his unders, Wilson trolled custom-painted No. 7 Berkley Flicker Shads (purple, chartreuse and pink). Both his crankbaits were fished with leadcore line and trolled at 2.4 to 2.6 mph.
“I was using the new 8-foot Ascendant trolling rods. Those rods could tell if it was an 8-inch sauger playing with it, and there were a lot of saugers. I could tell what the crankbait was doing at all times.”
On day one, Wilson caught 14.37 pounds and sat just outside the top 10. On day two, he caught another 12.84 and rose to fifth place. Today, he managed a near-perfect 18.62 pounds, which gave him a cumulative weight of 45.83 pounds.
“I knew I had a good day, but honestly, I didn’t think I had won. The anglers in front of me were just outstanding. You had Nick Schertz, Brett King and Robert Blosser. I didn’t think I had enough to beat them.”
For winning the year-end championship, Wilson earned a Ranger 620FS with a 225-horsepower Evinrude outboard, $15,000 cash, and an additional $2,120 of Anglers Advantage cash for a total purse of $88,585.
“It’s absolutely crazy to win this. It was great to see Dylan win the last one; I was so happy for him. It’s great to see the next generation showing up. It really makes me happy. For any young anglers out there that are looking up to me, I want this to be an example of why you never, ever give up. It’s been a rough journey leading up to this. I stuck with it; I kept my head in the game, and I worked harder than I ever thought I could. This was an incredible experience. This is what every walleye angler dreams of.”
Schertz retains second
Besides Wilson, Nick Schertz was the only other pro to catch an over each of the three tournament days. Today, Schertz’s five walleyes weighed 14.30 pounds, giving him a total weight of 45.55 pounds. Officially, he finished .28 behind Wilson.
“We had a great day and went through a lot of fish,” said Schertz, who finished fourth at last year’s championship. “When we got out to our primary area, the bite was just on fire. We just sat there and clobbered them all day.”
This was Schertz’s first time ever fishing Lake of the Woods. He focused on the Bridges area and was further north than most of the top 10.
“There was a really good transition there from hard bottom to soft bottom out in 32 to 33 feet. I was basically following an edge.”
Schertz’s big-fish bait was the Deep Walleye Bandit in an opaque pink color. For his unders, he would downsize to a Lucky John Shad or a Berkley Flicker Shad. All of his crankbaits were conventionally hitting bottom.
While Schertz was thankful to catch an over today, he also boated a 27 3/4-inch pig that was significantly heavier than the skinny 28.
“It was at least a pound bigger, and that makes it a little rough. I also took a dead-fish penalty yesterday that cost me half a pound. He died in the livewell within the first hour. Sometimes when you land a really big one out deep, by the time you get them in, they’re just done.
“It’s not so bad in that I feel like I fished a clean tournament. I executed well, made good decisions, and caught a ton of fish.”
For second place, Schertz earned a Ranger 620FS with a 250-horsepower Evinrude outboard and a handful of contingency awards.
“If there was ever a tournament to take second, this is it. That’s a pretty good consolation prize.”
Blosser slips to third
For two consecutive days, Robert Blosser looked invincible as he caught back-to-back 17-pound stringers. Today, his big-fish luck ran dry, and he weighed five unders for 10.24 pounds. Blosser finished with a three-day total of 44.93 pounds. All week long, Blosser was unsure if two or three overs would be needed to win the tournament. Ironically, Blosser could’ve won the event without an over today.
“I was fishing in the same area as Wilson, and I saw him catch the big one this morning,” Blosser explained. “So I spent the entire day working for an over. We did lose one decent fish, but I can’t confirm how big it was. It was a decent fish, but a 27 feels just like a 28 1/2, so who knows.”
Thinking he needed an over, Blosser stayed in his big-fish area and ended up weighing two smallish 16-inchers. Had he upgraded those with 18-inchers, he would have won the tournament.
“It’s a double-edged sword. If you would have told me beforehand that I would’ve taken third, I’d be ecstatic. But once you get in position, it’s disappointing. The frustrating part is that I could’ve easily upgraded those two, and the margin was so slim.”
Like Wilson and Schertz, Blosser fished the Knights and Bridges area.
“I was using a No. 9 Rapala Tail Dancer. I had a few that were painted by JT Custom Tackle and a few that were stock colors. I used both matte and chrome colors, but the chrome-plated colors worked great in the sun.”
Olson, King round out top five
In fourth place was rookie pro Michael Olson of Thompson, N.D., with a three-day total of 42.71 pounds. Olson whacked 17.71 on day one, 8.87 on day two, and 16.13 today. Rounding out the top five was Brett King, who slipped from third to fifth, but more importantly clinched Angler of the Year. King started the morning near the leaders in the Knights and Bridges area while looking for an over, but then ran to his shallow unders area to secure AOY. King finished the season with 753 points, three more than fellow Wisconsin pro Tom Kemos.
“Everything has to go right to win Angler of the Year. I won it, and nobody can ever take that from me. It will take a few days, but I’m very happy with it.”
For his latest feat, King earned paid entry fees into the 2019 National Walleye Tour events.
King’s second-day stringer, which weighed 19.26 pounds, was the heaviest of the entire championship. He finished the tournament with a cumulative weight of 41.80 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2018 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship on Lake of the Woods:
6th: Drake Herd of Alexandria, Minn., 39.35
7th: Gary Maher of Menoken, N.D., 36.36
8th: Rick Olson of Mina Lake, S.D., 36.07
9th: Jason Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., 34.06
10th: Kevin McQuoid of Isle, Minn., 32.55