OSHKOSH, Wis. – A record 165 boats commenced the 2019 National Walleye Tour season, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, with unbridled optimism. That bliss, however, was short lived as Lake Winnebago, typically one of the premier fisheries in the Midwest, confounded the world’s best walleye anglers. Wet, cold, and dreary conditions put both the anglers and the fish in a funk. To adjust, a few astute pros went with the tried and true slip bobbering technique, including champion Zach Axtman.
Axtman, the second-year pro, refined his bobber skills on North Dakota’s Devils Lake, and those skills payed off in a big way. While some of the biggest sticks in the sport were struggling, Axtman finished early both days. On day one, he boxed his seventh keeper at 12:30 p.m., and today he was back in Oshkosh by 11:30 a.m.
“I’m from North Dakota,” chortled the Ranger pro. “That’s just what we do when the bite gets tough. When the water temp starts to drop, that’s the first bite that gets going. I wanted to make sure I had the bait in front of them for the longest period of time possible. I tried trolling for three days, but I could not get a consistent bite going.”
Axtman caught everything off one rock pile on the northwest side of the main lake. The pile was located approximately 200 yards off the bank and served as a rest area for postspawners that were returning from the river. On top, which was covered in medium-sized rock and gravel, it was 5 1/2 feet, and the sides dropped off to 7 to 10 feet.
“I only caught two fish off it in practice,” added Axtman. “I honestly didn’t think I could pull more than three fish off it per day. The area was so small; it was definitely a spot-on-the-spot deal. The more I fished, the more I realized what was on there. Today I could be more selective.”
Zach Axtman claimed the 2019 season opener on Lake Winnebago.His five weigh fish came in the following order: 20 1/2, 20 1/2, 20 1/2, 21 1/2, 20 3/4. In between, he boxed an 18- and a 19-incher. His official weight today was 13.90, which nearly emulated day one’s 13.50. He finished the tournament with a total of 10 walleyes weighing 27.40 pounds.
“I didn’t think I won. I was thinking I screwed up by keeping a fish and not giving myself a chance to find one truly big fish.”
Axtman’s bobber setup was a bare No. 4 red hook with medium-sized leeches. His main line was orange-colored 14-pound Berkley Fireline. On his leader, he used 6-pound Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon.
“My bobber bite was better with the northeast wind. That wind would blow it into the pile. I would just let it drift; I didn’t manipulate the bobber in any way. We did have to make sure the bobbers were out away from the boat. Otherwise, they wouldn’t hit it. They wanted it 6 inches off the bottom too. If you were any higher, they didn’t want it.”
After experimenting with crawlers in practice, Axtman noticed one of his fish spitting up several leeches.
“When I realized that, the light bulb went off. They were stopping there and feeding on leeches after dumping out of the river. The spot just reloaded. The next school would just come in. It was a matter of waiting for the right-sized school to come through. The key was having enough confidence in the spot to sit there and go through the fish.”
Pro Zach Axtman (left) and co-angler Michael Bertrand (right) proudly display their trophies.For claiming the 2019 season opener, the Rugby, N.D., native earned a Ranger 620FS with a 225-horsepower Mercury outboard, $15,000 cash, and another $3,719 in Anglers Advantage cash. His winning purse totaled $84,614.
“To be honest with you, it hasn’t sunk in it; I can’t believe it happened. My dad basically stopped being my partner in the MWC as a way to make me do this. To win the biggest tournament in NWT history, and beat out 165 anglers of this caliber, it’s a great feeling.”
Euting rallies to second, Gaines third
Local guide Tim Euting sat in third place after catching a 13.71-pound limit Thursday. Today, he caught another 11.46 to finish second with 25.17 pounds. Euting earned $28,840.
“Honestly, I’m super excited with second,” said Euting, who operates Get ‘em Hooked Guide Service. “I came in at 12:45 p.m. yesterday with my seven fish. Today, I had no fish in the box at 12:45. I hit the spots that I normally catch them on, but they weren’t eating. I went back several times, and they never worked.”
Euting eventually cobbled together a limit and then upgraded two times in the last hour of the day.
“I had to keep hopping around and grinding it out. I fished the same area of the lake; they just came on different spots today.”
The runner up focused on the west shore of the main lake and targeted shallow rock. The key depth was 6-7 feet. Euting estimated that he hit 15 different piles and nearly 30 spots altogether as some piles had multiple sweet spots.
“They come up to the rocks for food and for warmer water. I caught them mainly on a jig and a minnow. It was a 1/8-ounce jig with a fathead. I did catch two on crawlers, but it was mainly fatheads. I would give it a slow lift, and if I felt a bite, I’d give them time to suck it in and then set the hook.”
Euting tied his jigs to Berkley Fireline Crystal (white).
“You can feel everything with that line. Plus, you can visually see if it hits bottom, and you can see your bites.
“My only regret, and it’s not really a regret, is that my fish came in the wrong order on day one. I kept two 17s, and then 19s and 21s showed up. If I wouldn’t have kept those, I would have had two spares to play with. I couldn’t let a 21 go; I had to keep her.”
Lake Erie Charter Captain Randy Gaines fell one spot from second to third after catching a 10.96-pound limit. On day one, the Salem, Ohio, fisherman caught 14.18. His total weight for the tournament was 25.14. With an Anglers Advantage bonus, he cleared $22,613.
Gaines too spent the week on the main lake, fishing mainly the north and west shores.
“I ran the same spots I did yesterday,” said Gaines, who operates Nibble This Charters. “We caught a dozen fish today compared with only five yesterday, but I don’t know where the bigger fish went. I think my whole program, at least for the bigger fish, was based on really nasty weather.”
Gaines’ 1-2 punch was trolling and slip bobbering, both of which were done in shallow water.
“We were fishing shallow-water humps. I never weighed a fish in water that was over 4 feet.”
When he was trolling, Gaines would long line his No. 5 Flicker Shads, No. 4 Salmo Hornets, and No. 3 Phantom Lures Banshees so that they were crashing into the rocks. His bobber setup was a standard slip rig with a bare hook and leeches. Overall, trolling and bobbering produced an even split. Today, bobbering proved more effective.
“I tried to get the bait low and close to the bottom. I was continually putting action into it by jigging the bobber.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with third. Things came together really well.”
Larson fourth, Fredericks fifth
Rounding out the top five are South Dakota pros Thomas Larson and Jarrod Fredericks. Larson, the Estelline, S.D., native, was steady both days, catching a 13.14-pound limit on day one and an 11.30-pound limit on day two. Larson finished the tournament fourth with 24.44 pounds.
Fredericks, also from Estelline, S.D., managed similar weights. On day one, he caught 12.48 pounds, and today he brought in 11.28 pounds. With a two-day total of 23.76, Fredericks took fifth.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2019 National Walleye Tour event on Lake Winnebago:
6th: Tom Keenan of Hatley, Wis., 23.58
7th: Max Wilson of Campbellsport, Wis., 22.34
8th: JR Carter of Mandan, N.D., 21.65
9th: Jeremy Schreiner of Pepin, Wis., 21.17
10th: Kurt Grable of Oshkosh, Wis., 20.97
Bertrand crowned Co-angler champion
Michael Bertrand claimed top honors in the Co-angler Division with a two-day total weight of 23.44 pounds. Fishing with Fredericks on day one, Bertrand boated 12.48 pounds. Today Bertrand was paired with Gaines, and the two combined for 10.96. On both days, Bertrand caught most of his fish slip bobbering.
“I don’t know what to say; I’m just blown away,” said Bertrand, the Fergus, Ontario, native. “This has been a long time coming.
“Prefishing was tough. There were some days that definitely were not fun. This makes it all worth it.”
Bertrand will return to Ontario with a first-place purse of $6,000, plus another $1,425 in Anglers Advantage cash.
The next National Walleye Tour event is scheduled for May 30-31 on Green Bay in Marinette, Wis.