By Brett Carlson
MOBRIDGE, S.D. – John Hoyer, regarded as one of the best walleye sticks in the sport, isn’t used to being desperate. But after a lackluster second event on the 2021 National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, that’s exactly the situation he found himself in. Hoyer failed to catch a legal walleye in what ended up being a weather-shortened Green Bay event. That goose egg earned him zero points, which greatly hindered his chances at being one of the 40 pros to qualify for the no-entry-fee 2021 National Walleye Tour Championship. Today on Lake Oahe, Hoyer swung for the proverbial fence and didn’t just hit a home run; he knocked it straight out of the park.
“Green Bay was really frustrating, and I could give you all kinds of excuses,” Hoyer recalled. “The bottom line was that I knew I had to have a top 10 at Erie and Oahe.”
Hoyer took sixth at Erie, the season’s third event, and has continued to fish with his back against the wall.
“Not very often do you have the need to go for it, but it’s making my decisions more clear. I’ve never had to think like that in my career.”
In this event, anglers are allowed two walleyes per day longer than 20 inches. Culling, or upgrading, is not permitted, so there are difficult decisions to be made when catching an average-sized over, especially in the morning.
Hoyer caught both a 6- and a 4-pound over and threw them back without breaking a sweat. While that sounds like madness to most, it turned out to be an astute decision. The Simms pro later caught a 32-inch, 12-pound behemoth, a walleye he estimated was the biggest he’s ever caught in his life. Soon after, he paired it with a 30-incher that was a bit skinnier with not as many herring in its stomach.
“I knew I had about 22 pounds with just those two fish. Then I was debating making a long run south for slot fish. Based on the math, I ultimately decided not to.”
Hoyer explained that slot fish, walleyes under 20 inches in length, have been a struggle for him personally. He was able to cobble together three more keepers – a nice 19-incher and two 12-inch squeakers, but that was it. He finished the day with a limit weighing 24.23 pounds.
“Those 12-inchers probably only weighed 6 ounces a piece, but I will take them. They looked hilarious next to the big ones, but they count. My co-angler caught the last one, and I told him that those 6 ounces could end up being the difference; you never know.”
While qualifying for the championship is still top of mind, Hoyer plans to continue fishing aggressively.
“I’m going to try to win it, at least up to a certain time in the day. First things first, I need to get my two bigger ones, then I’ll decide what to do for my unders. The problem with the unders is they involve a lot of mileage and fuel. It would have to be perfect conditions, and I would need plenty of time. I’m planning on only keeping 8-plus overs. That way I don’t have to worry about catching unders.”
The Orono, Minn., native, who won the 2019 NWT Championship, explained that he dialed his big-fish pattern in during the last day of practice.
“I think the bigger fish have started coming out of the full-moon funk. There were some pretty serious changes recently. I found out where the fish moved to and where they are feeding. This is something I didn’t know the first six days of practice.”
Hoyer said he’s casting five different presentations – using both spinning and downrods.
“It’s a run-and-gun thing. I have to credit my Lowrance electronics. I would mark these spots on my 2D sonar, and then come back with side imaging and throw at them. I figured out a few variables. If there’s three things happening on the spot, it’s game on.”
Sitting less than a pound back from Hoyer is Humboldt, S.D., pro Darin Lewin, who owns and operates Torrey Lake Hunting Lodge.
“I grew up fishing Oahe a lot with my dad back in the day,” said the Ranger pro. “We went there just about every vacation we had.”
Like Hoyer, Lewin had two massive overs anchor his day-one stringer, which officially weighed 23.53 pounds.
“My biggest was 31 1/2 inches, and I bet it weighed 12 or 13 pounds. With two overs alone, I had 21 pounds. There are certain pods of fish that are active right now. At one spot, I saw three fish on my electronics, and two of those were my two big ones. If you can get on them at the right time, you can pull a couple.”
After getting his big fish early, he spent the rest of the day trying to find the right slots. With his final three measuring 14, 14 and 15 1/4, he felt he largely failed.
“I ran both north and south of Mobridge today, and I used everything in my boat. It didn’t work out on the slot fish.”
More specifically, Lewin said he used creek chubs, worms, Jigging Raps and crankbaits on leadcore.
“What I’m learning is that if you’re marking them on your electronics and they don’t go, you’ve got to leave. You’ve got to move on.”
Lewin will not start the day with a big run, and hopes to not have to make the long run south at all.
“There’s active fish closer; I really believe that. The pods aren’t as big, but I think guys are driving by fish. I’m hoping to fish for the W without running that far south.”
New Ulm, Minn., pro Tim Abraham entered the final regular-season event 34th in the standings. After catching 22.68 pounds today, Abraham has all but punched his ticket to the championship.
“I figure if I can come in with a limit of fish tomorrow, or with a couple good fish, I made the championship,” he said.
Abraham experienced an excellent practice both for slots and overs. On Tuesday, however, his walleyes disappeared and smallmouth took their place. He was thankful they returned in time for the tournament.
“I caught five fish in the first hour and a half, but we never improved after that. We had a 28 1/2, a 27 1/2, a 19 3/4, a 19 1/2 and a 14 1/2. I left the area with over 3 hours left and went back to Mobridge. I didn’t even do my Plan B today, which is trolling trees, but I’m confident in that too. I’ll know if Plan A is working in the first two hours tomorrow.”
Abraham said he traveled 55 miles each way to reach his primary area.
“What I’m doing is no secret. I’m fishing certain points that extend out further. I jump on them and graph on them. If there’s fish there, I Spot-Lock and spend about 15 or 20 minutes casting.”
Abraham’s bait of choice is the larger Rapala Jigging Rap.
“I think if I can come in with 20 to 22 pounds, I have a really good shot tomorrow. Eighteen or 19 might even do it.”
Hjelm fourth, Freeseman fifth
Rounding out the top five are South Dakota sticks Duane Hjelm and Josh Freeseman. Hjelm, the Pierre, S.D., pro, caught a limit weighing 21.10 pounds for fourth place. Walleye fans might remember that Hjelm won the 2017 NWT event on Lake Sakakawea.
Freeseman, the Arlington, S.D., native, sits fifth with 20 pounds even.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros after day one on Lake Oahe:
6th: Travis Coffey of Glenwood, Iowa., five walleyes, 19.33
7th: Todd Zemke of Red Wing, Minn., four walleyes, 16.88
8th: Jacob Ell of Bismarck, N.D., five walleyes, 16.87
9th: Drake Herd of Alexandria, Minn., five walleyes, 16.59
9th: Kent Andersen of Amery, Wis., five walleyes, 16.59
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from the West Ramp at the Indian Creek Recreation Area. The final weigh-in takes place at Wrigley Square, beginning at 3 p.m.