by Kyle Wood
TRENTON, Mich. – While the fishing improved on the Detroit River for day two of the National Walleye Tour presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, it still wasn’t an easy tournament. Cold, dirty water had the bulk of the walleye population in the river shut down, making just getting a single bite quite the accomplishment. That’s where the local advantage can really shine and shining the brightest this week was Paul George of Trenton, Mich., who took the lead on day one and never looked back. Catching four worth 18.50 Friday, the Michigan pro caught a limit today that hit the scale at 22.44 giving him a 40.94 total to win by over 5 pounds.
Being his first NWT event, George was determined to make the most of, especially considering on of his best friends and former walleye pro Josh Vanderweide was part of the reason he signed up.
“I always said I wanted to fish one of these if it came to the Detroit River and Josh (Vanderweide) sent me the link to this tournament and I couldn’t believe it,” said George. “Josh told me to enter and thought I’d do phenomenal, so I did, and the end result I can’t say enough about. I feel so privileged.
“There was a lot of luck involved in this tournament, but I ground it out and put a lot of time into. I dedicated over a week pre-fishing alone.”
Given the conditions, George knew what hunkering down in areas that held fish would be the best use of his time. That’s why he focused on the Trenton channel, and more specifically, about a half mile from takeoff at Elizabeth Park Marina.
“My No. 1 spot I targeted were walleye in the Trenton channel, because a lot of people overlooked it,” George said. “I was fishing a break and the fish were just stacked in there. It was anywhere from 15 to 20 feet.
“My second spot I was fishing a break, but the fish were stacked on the break and at the bottom of it anywhere from 15 to 30 feet.”
To catch his fish, George employed a Detroit River staple – handlines. While he doesn’t claim to be an expert at, he has learned a few tricks over the years that helped separate himself from the pack this week.
“You have to present your baits where the fish are,” he stressed. “A lot of people can go out and handline but not catch anything. Well, there’s variable reasons for that, but I think people don’t usually look at how you can use it to put your bait right in the fish’s mouth.
“You have to rig your leads up right on your rigs. Just because there are places on your leads to put your lines doesn’t mean you’ll be in the zone to catch the walleye that you’re targeting. When you’re going slow like I was, .8 to 1 mile per hour, your baits won’t dive to where the fish are. So I used a lighter weight on my handline and put my leads lower on my shank. I busted a couple bills off some baits, but hey, I caught some big fish too.”
For his crankbaits, while others downsized because of the conditions, George went bigger. Running stock-colored (anything with chartreuse or orange and bleeding hot olive) Rapala Original Floaters in the No. 11 and 13 size was the ticket. The only customizing he did to his crankbaits was changing the stock hooks to Gamakatsus. He figured big, pre-spawn females would want a bigger meal to make it worth their while, and he wasn’t wrong.
“This morning I had a fish in the boat with two pumps of the handlining reel,” said the 41-year-old pro. “And in five minutes setting down at our secondary spot we had a fish over 7 pounds in the boat, I must have hit it right in the head and got lucky.”
A customs officer by trade, George isn’t looking to leaving his day job anytime soon, however bringing home a new Ranger 2080MS with a 250 hp Mercury and over $17,000 cash with a total purse of $88,215 isn’t bad for a few days of work.
“I can’t be happier, this is pretty amazing,” said George of the win. “I do want to thank the people of the Downriver Walleye Federation here in Detroit. The organization is top-notch and full of some really good and nicest guys around. I was a member for so many years as a tournament director and I met so many guys and learned so much about how to catch walleye on the river and Lake Erie. I can’t be thankful enough for those guys.”
Bjorkman rallies for second
After sitting in 19th place with two fish for 6.56 on day one, Brian Bjorkman put on his rally cap for day two and sacked the biggest bag of the event – 28.55 – to settle in the runner-up position.
The Detroit River has treated Bjorkman well throughout his career so it’s not a surprise to see him finish near the top, though it kind of was to him, especially considering the conditions.
“Any time you can take second place with the field of anglers we have here it’s certainly an accomplishment,” Bjorkman said. “This was some of the worst conditions I think I have ever seen on tour. With the frigid cold temps and high winds, it was nuts all week.”
Sticking to his game plan all week, Bjorkman was all-in on handlining despite being a relative newcomer to it.
“I felt handlining was going to put me in a position to catch fish even as the water was cleaning up,” he said. “Day one I went to spot I caught them in practice and I just couldn’t run the baits. There was so much grass floating and debris that I couldn’t keep any of the crankbaits from fouling up.
“I went back down there this morning and things were getting a little better and I could keep the baits cleaner and the fish cooperated for the most part.”
Catching nine keepers today, Bjorkman ran textbook handline crankbaits.
“I was just using original No. 9 Floating Rapalas. That’s just kind of what people run in that river. I was trying to work the structure a little more with that handline than other people by moving it up and down the break line. It seemed like it helped trigger some of the bites.
“Handlining for me is pretty new. I’ve been doing this a long time, but never really had the opportunity to handline. I’ve owned handlines for a long, long time, so I was thankful I was given the opportunity to use them.”
Allred locks in third
Local and fellow NWT rookie like George, Chris Allred took advantage of the tough conditions to skate away with a third place showing. After catching just two fish, though good ones, on day one worth 11.53, the Michigan pro caught a limit today that hit the scale at 22.30. With 33.83 total, Allred is more than happy with how things went.
“For this being my first [NWT] I’m ecstatic with taking third place,” said Allred.
With years of experience on the river, Allred already knew the program he thought he needed to run and after practice, he confirmed it.
“I knew where the fish should be for this time of year and where they should load up first, and that played a big role,” Allred said. “With this being a cold year, I knew it would keep the females from spawning and they’d be down in that deep water and it worked out in our favor.”
Running about eight miles from takeoff into Canadian water, Allred handlined in 24 to 34 feet of water to catch his limit today. Though jigging produced his fish yesterday, he had to roll with what the river gave him on Championship Saturday to get bit.
“I went back to the spot that was loaded with fish yesterday where I caught them jigging and actually had about 2 feet of visibility,” he said. “But our fish disappeared. I made four or five passes through it and didn’t pull a fish. So, I went to my second spot and it was clean and usually good for at least one big one and nothing. Got to my third spot, the water and garbage like the weeds had cleared out and we were able to pull wire through there and caught six fish total, but five pretty good ones.”
Reluctant to disclose too much about his pattern with another big tournament coming up next week, Allred did say that custom-colored No. 11 and 13 Rapala Original Floaters were the ticket.
“We caught all of our fish on one bait all week and couldn’t get them to go on stock colors,” he said. “We only had two of these baits with us, and there’s three boats that we fish together on our team. One of my tournament partners and really close friends drove home Thursday back to Linwood and painted 16 of those baits we could all have some.
“A lot of work went into this tournament.”
Lenz, Ragotzkie round out top five
Eric Lenz of St. Clair Shores, Mich., takes the fourth spot after catching one walleye weighing 5.76 on day one and a limit worth 23.04 today. With 28.80 overall, Lenz is happy to pocket over $13,000 for his efforts. Meanwhile, Austin Ragotzkie of Edgerton, Wis., locks down fifth by adding 19.68 to his 7.22 day-one weight.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2022 NWT event on the Detroit River:
6th: Benjamin Teets of West Fargo, N.D., six walleyes, 25.63
7th: Kevin McQuoid of Isle, Minn., five walleyes, 25.54
8th: Matt LaFreniere II of Tawas City, Mich., six walleyes, 25.03
9th: Dustin Minke of Forest Lake, Minn., six walleyes, 24.78
10th: Dale Helgeson of Delavan, Wis., seven walleyes, 22.96