HURON, Ohio – Lake Erie’s reputation as the Walleye Capital of the World is safe, despite challenging conditions on day one of the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season opener. After an ice-free winter full of big females, most anglers expected an all-out slugfest with several stringers surpassing 50 pounds. Mother Nature abruptly changed those plans on Friday as gusty winds transformed the lake into chocolate milk. Quite simply, walleyes cannot eat what they cannot see. Instead of finding the right-sized fish, anglers first focused on finding clear water. Local pros Zak Jobes and Ryan Buddie found the right clarity, and in turn, caught the biggest stringers of the day, each exceeding 39 pounds.
While most of the field was essentially prefishing, the morning bite was strong for Jobes, the official day-one leader with 39.63 pounds. Jobes said he caught around 10 fish and threw back two 6-pounders that wouldn’t help the cause.
“We did most of our damage before noon and then went looking for a Plan B for tomorrow,” said the Ranger pro, who lives in Barberton, Ohio.
Jobes was not impressed with what he found elsewhere and will start the final day on the same stretch. However, he’s open to adjusting on the fly, if necessary.
“I’m kind of just hoping this spot holds, but I’m also not afraid to leave if it’s not producing. Conditions are changing so fast; those spots that were chocolate milk yesterday could produce tomorrow.”
To illustrate this point, Jobes explained that he had an extremely difficult practice. It wasn’t until yesterday, with one hour left, did he locate his honeyhole.
“When the wind changes, the water clarity changes. Being a local pro and knowing where to go and what to look for is key.”
Not surprisingly, Jobes was reticent concerning his pattern, allowing only that he’s “trolling crankbaits.” The highlight of the day was a brief moment of what he termed “controlled chaos.”
“My co-angler had one fish already in the net and then our big fish hit the outside (planer) board. To get the big one in, he had to get the backup net out. I told him he got to sample Erie’s controlled chaos.”
Jobes, a second-year NWT pro, reflected on the day and what lies ahead.
“It’s only halftime; we’re only halfway there. I honestly think tomorrow you’re going to see much better weights. I think to win I’ll need between 35 and 38 pounds. It’s going to be tough; it’s not going to be easy.”
Hot on the heels of Jobes is Buddie, another local Ohio angler. Jobes and Buddie practiced together and shared water during the morning. Buddie’s day-one weight registered 39.33 pounds.
“It was good early, but then the spot we were on totally died,” said the Delta pilot.
Buddie ended up catching six walleyes on three different spots. Ironically, four of his five weigh fish came on one exact crankbait.
“I have one lure that is a certain color and it must run a certain way. It’s custom painted, but I have duplicates. The duplicates just don’t work. It must just have a better tune or a better rattle. There must just be something about it. When the crankbaits come out of the factory, it’s not like they’re all the exact same.”
Buddie named his lucky lure “Dotty.” In addition to Dotty, he explained the key to his success is finding marks in the right water color.
“Of course, I’m using my Lowrance electronics for that. We were also six for six on our bites today and that’s huge. I’m sure a lot of guys had six bites today, but most of them didn’t bring six fish into the boat.”
Between himself and Jobes, Buddie believes he’s on the winning program. While he’s won several local tournaments, he’s never claimed a tour-level event.
“I’ve been in position to win a big one and I’ve never quite done it. I’m going to try and be like Sergio Garcia and get that first Major.”
In third place is Laura, Ohio, pro Mike Robertson, who caught a five-fish limit weighing 37.93 pounds. While Robertson’s weight looks impressive on paper, those five were the only fish he caught all day.
“Man, it was a grind,” said Robertson. “Believe it or not, those were the only five bites we got all day. The last one came with 20 minutes left in the day.”
With the changing conditions, Robertson said he used today as an extension of prefishing.
“I hit three spots that were 12 miles apart. I went to what I thought was my best spot and only caught one. To be in contention after only getting five bites, it feels really good.”
McQuoid fourth, Hietpas fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Kevin McQuoid and Josh Hietpas. McQuoid, the Cabela’s pro who calls Mille Lacs Lake home, caught a limit weighing 34.49 pounds for fourth place. Hietpas, the Kaukauna, Wis., angler, sits in fifth with a 34.21-pound stringer.
“I’ve fished out here for about 10 years now, mostly fun fishing,” said Hietpas. “But I’m finally getting to the point where I know what to expect. I’m fishing around other boats, but I’m doing something different. It’s a lot of the same program, but there are subtle tweaks.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2017 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event on Lake Erie:
6th: Ronnie Rhodes of Sheffield Lake, Ohio, five fish, 34.08
7th: Mike Gofron of Antioch, Ill., five fish, 32.95
8th: Chad Schilling of Baltic, Ohio, five fish, 32.07
9th: Scott Cisewski of Stevens Point, Wis., five fish, 31.99
10th: Scott Perz of Crystal Lake, Ill., five fish, 31.47
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Eastern time as the full field of 153 boats takes off from the Huron River Boat Ramp. The final weigh-in also takes place at the Huron River Boat Ramp, beginning at 3 p.m.