GARRISON, N.D. – After a rollercoaster practice period, which included blustery winds and bitter frost, day one of the third National Walleye Tour event, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, was a welcome respite. Warm sunshine and a surprisingly calm prairie breeze allowed anglers to travel freely over 360,000-acre Lake Sakakawea. The result was a stacked leaderboard that included 46 stringers over 15 pounds and 13 five-fish limits over 20 pounds.
Leading the pack with 24.99 pounds is Minot, N.D., pro Gary Hodge, who owns and operates the White Tips Guide Service. In addition to guiding, Hodge fishes every tournament held on Sakakawea. He took off this morning confident that he was around big fish, but unsure if they’d bite without the wind.
“The fish have been in that area now for about a month,” said Hodge, the Mercury pro. “The bite has been on and off. Today was actually a slower day, especially for numbers. A week ago Friday I had 27 pounds off there.”
In this event, pros and co-anglers, fishing as a team, are permitted to keep eight walleyes and weigh their best five each day. Culling, or upgrading, is not allowed. Hodge never had to make any difficult decisions as he boated only seven walleyes.
“At 1 p.m., I only had two fish in the box. I went back to my starting spot and caught three more. The good news is that today they came in the right order. The first four fish were big, and the last one was a 23-incher that weighed over 4 pounds.”
Hodge explained that he has four spots all located in one general area. He described his run to this area as “fairly long.” However, Hodge did not have to stop to refuel. While many pros thought this event would be dominated by trolling leadcore and Berkley Flicker Minnows, Hodge said he caught his fish with two techniques – Shiver Minnows and live bait.
“I absolutely think I’m around the fish to win. I could definitely back it up again tomorrow. There are no guarantees in fishing, but this is a wind-driven spot, and we’re supposed to get more wind tomorrow. Where I’m at, I’m going for the “W” tomorrow.”
If his primary area fails to produce, he does have two other backup spots that have been kicking out 20-and 22-inch fish.
“I’ve got to do it again tomorrow. But just seeing my name on top of that leaderboard today was unreal. I never would’ve dreamed I would see that. I feel privileged just to fish with these top guys, let alone lead it.”
Manhattan, Kansas, pro Jaran Cox sits in second place with a five-fish limit weighing 23.80 pounds. While it looks impressive on paper, Cox managed only five walleyes the entire day.
“The bite had been pretty good all week,” Cox said. “I had a good practice, but everything was wind driven. Without the wind today, we only had five bites. It was nice to keep them all buttoned up.”
After a 35-mile run, Cox coaxed his first bite at 9 this morning and had three in the box by 11.
“It took the rest of the day to get those two more.”
Cox has five productive spots in total, two of which he considers “big-fish spots.” Ironically, none of his kickers from day one came from the aforementioned big-fish spots.
“Everything was kind of flipped around today. The plan was to go get five easy bites. With a full livewell, I was then going to hunt bigger fish since we’re allowed to keep eight. That’s not how it ended up.”
While Cox trolled considerably in practice, everything today came from casting in 40 feet.
“I’ve got my trolling sticks ready to go tomorrow if I need them. The big thing is you have to have wind. The wind is supposed to be coming the right way on two of my spots tomorrow. So that’s better than we had today.”
Local fisherman Cody Northrop of South Heart, N.D., is third with a five-fish limit weighing 22.71 pounds. Northrop was unavailable for an interview.
Geitgey fourth, Johnson fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Scott Geitgey and Josh Johnson. Geitgey, the Canton, Ohio, pro, made a 21-hour drive to fish Sakakawea. Johnson, on the other hand, traveled 2 hours from South Heart, N.D.
For Geitgey, the long trip was worth it as he boated 21.65 pounds.
“This is my first time here, and I have to say, it’s one of the most gorgeous, awesome fisheries I’ve ever been to,” said Geitgey. “We found our main area a few days ago, but a teammate of mine really dialed it in. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but luckily they came in the right order.”
Geitgey started the day with three good fish and finished with a 24-incher and a 26-incher. In total, he caught between 20 and 25 walleyes.
“Today I fished three different spots and used three different techniques. And they all caught fish. Of the eight we put in the box, five came on Rapala Jigging Raps. I think we can do well again tomorrow. I’m not worried about getting to my area, but I am concerned about the winds and getting back.”
Johnson’s five walleyes weighed 21.26 pounds, which has him fifth among the 120 pros.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2020 National Walleye Tour event on Lake Sakakawea:
6th: Jason Votava of Minot, N.D., five fish, 21.03
7th: Ryan Rieger of Belle Vernon, Pa., five fish, 20.71
8th: Mike Defibaugh of Bellefontaine, Ohio, five fish, 20.61
9th: Dusty Minke of Walker, Minn., five fish, 20.46
10th: Bill Shimota of Northfield, Minn., five fish, 20.36