Insider Report: Maher’s megabag brings him first NWT title
By Brett Carlson
PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. – River tournaments are notorious for changing conditions, and perhaps no walleye fishery is more dynamic than the Mississippi River. This leads to a tournament phenomenon called flip-flopping, where the leaderboard undergoes all kinds of chaotic changes. On day two of the National Walleye Tour event, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, pools 9, 10 and 11 were generous to some and stingy for others, allowing veteran pro Gary Maher to stun the field and steal his first NWT win.
When the day started, Maher sat in the middle of the pack with a nondescript 7.40 pounds. By noon, he had nearly 20 pounds in his Ranger livewell as he completed an improbable comeback. The Menoken, N.D., pro experienced a mediocre practice, but there was one spot, located 12 miles south of the takeoff in Pool 10, that he believed held potential.
“I was fishing an island break that swung next to the shore in a secondary channel,” explained Maher. “I would put the Spot-Lock on and work the current seams back and forth in 12 to 14 feet. It was a transition area where they could visit coming out of a back bay or the main river. On the bottom, it was a mix of rock and clams. I thought they would eventually show up, and they did.”
Maher is accustomed to fishing the Missouri River back home, and he’s always enjoyed reading moving water and deciphering current breaks. This was his first time on pools 9, 10 and 11, but his river acumen paid dividends.
“You just develop a sense of where you think the fish should be. That’s what led me to this spot. You could see it wouldn’t be as affected by all the possible river variables.”
On day one, this honeyhole was not firing immediately. With just one keeper, the Mercury pro left, but noticed a series of no-wake buoys that were recently placed. Not wanting to waste valuable minutes idling to and from, he turned around and returned to his primary area.
“I ended up catching two more quality keepers, and we lost a few as well. It gave me more confidence to stay. All eight of my fish came from that spot.”
On day two, it was still difficult to get bit as Maher managed only five keepers. However, four of his walleyes were perfect slots between 19 1/2 and 19 3/4 inches, and his 27 1/4-inch over was every bit of 8 pounds. His five fish Friday weighed 19.62 pounds, giving him a two-day total of 27.02 pounds.
“We figured it out better today. Everything we caught came on willow cats and live-bait rigs with slip weights. The heavier the current, the bigger the weight. We had to feel bottom and stay in that perfect zone.”
For over 20 years, Maher has competed at the sport’s highest level. While he’s had many successful tournaments, this was his first pro-am victory.
“I’ve been up there quite a few times,” he said. “I’ve been waiting all my life to do this. It took me a lot of years, but it finally happened, and it’s incredible. It’s something I’ve always dreamed of, but never truly expected. Even when I came in today, I never expected to win. You’re fishing against the greatest walleye guys in the world. I’m honored.”
The 59-year-old cattle rancher will head back to North Dakota with a Ranger 620FS Pro with a 250-horsepower Mercury Pro XS, $15,000 cash, plus $2,293 of Anglers Advantage cash for a total purse of $101,288.
Hjelm up to second
South Dakota stick Duane Hjelm, the winner of the 2017 NWT event on Lake Sakakawea, nearly became a two-time NWT champion this week. After crossing the 16-pound mark on day one, Hjelm caught a solid limit of slot fish today weighing 10.33 pounds. He finished the week with a cumulative total of 26.36 pounds.
“Practice was difficult, and we spent most of our time trolling back channels in 2 to 6 feet of water,” explained the Pierre, S.D., pro. “We were trolling No. 4 and No. 5 Berkley Flicker Shads. What happened is that we learned these channels really, really well. When you’re trolling, you see certain holes and sweet spots.”
By tournament time, Hjelm basically put the trolling rods away and rotated between three small sweet spots in Pool 9, located roughly 30 miles north of takeoff. Each spot was about a half mile from the next.
“We found one trough that was near shore. The water dropped down to like 10 or 12 feet, and there were trees overhanging it and giving it shade. I could see maybe 40 or 50 fish laying there on my Lowrance, but it was still only one fish every 20 minutes or so. As the tournament went on, I got more dialed in, but it was never fast and furious.”
In river tournaments, some anglers usually end up racing to specific, well-known spots. Hjelm was able to get away from the crowd in Pool 9, where he never saw a single tournament boat. It would take roughly an hour and a half to get there, depending on the timing of the lock, but it was worth it.
“At first, I was just focused on trying to get a limit of 15-inchers up north,” Hjelm added. “Then you sort of learn the potential of your spots as you fish them hard. I’m happy with second, and I’m super happy for Gary. I actually bought my first Ranger boat from Gary way back when. I talked him into giving me this 14-foot rod with it. I still carry that rod in the boat to this day, and I used it a lot in this tournament.”
Of Hjelm’s 10 weigh fish, three came on a jig and crawler, and seven came on live-bait rigs and willow cats. Hjelm said the willow cat set up was similar to a Carolina rig with egg sinkers.
“Overall, I have no regrets. I didn’t make any bad decisions; there were no lost fish. I just wish he would’ve beat me by 10 pounds.”
Robert Lampman caught the second heaviest stringer of the tournament today and soared to third place. Lampman’s limit on day two weighed 18.63 pounds. On day one, he boated two keepers weighing 4.98 pounds. The De Soto, Wis., river rat finished the tournament with 23.61 pounds.
Walleye fans may remember Lampman winning the 2005 FLW Walleye Tour Championship on the Mississippi River. Affectionately known as “Big-fish Bob,” Lampman has spent over 40 years fishing the Mississippi and still guides today.
“We had a high river, but then it was gradually dropping,” he explained. “When it drops, the fish start moving. There were a few days where the water stabilized, and they bit. In general, falling water can be frustrating with how it moves the fish. They should’ve been back in the sloughs, but the bigger fish weren’t there.”
Lampman expected to have a big bag the first day. While he caught 13 fish, only two were scorable. He estimated the average size was 24 inches. Included in those 13 was a heartbreaker that measured just shy of 27 inches.
“I was dealing with big fish and big fish only. That’s what I was trying to put together for this one. I never caught a fish under 18 inches.”
Lampman opted to stay in Pool 10 during the tournament, although he had spots in Pool 11 on standby.
“I didn’t have any boats around me. I was totally to myself. At times, I almost forgot I was fishing a tournament.”
On day two, everything came in the right order. His 28 1/2-incher over, which bit at 11 a.m., was his fifth fish, and he decided to weigh in early.
Lampman was targeting shelves with three different presentations – willow cats, creek chubs and jigs with plastics.
“I was anchoring in 22 to 25 feet of water. I would cast up to 2 or 3 feet of water, and they were sitting in 6 to 7 feet, so it’s a pretty steep drop off.”
Lampman uses ringworms, paddletails and flukes as plastics, but the flukes produced best this week.
“There were a lot of great fishermen in this tournament out there who can do the job, so I’m happy with where I finished. I know I was in the right location to do the job. Day one should have been equal to day two, but that’s river fishing.”
Miller retains fourth, Lester fifth
Rounding out the top five are fellow river rats Harry Miller and Dave Lester. Miller, the Bellevue, Iowa, angler, started and finished the day in fourth place. On day one, he weighed 12.29 with only three walleyes. Today, he managed a limit worth 11.20, giving him a total weight of 23.49 pounds.
Lester, the Onalaska, Wis., fisherman, climbed up the leaderboard after catching 13.30 pounds today. On day one, Lester boated a 9.55-pound limit. He finished the tournament fifth with 22.85 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros on the Mississippi River:
6th: Dwayne Smith of East Moline, Ill., nine walleyes, 22.497th: Chad Osthoff of De Soto, Wis., 10 walleyes, 21.448th: Wayne Van Dyke of Spruce, Mich., eight walleyes, 21.349th: Mike Zell of Huron, S.D., 10 walleyes, 20.8410th: Randy Hummel of Windom, Minn., 10 walleyes, 20.41
The fourth and final regular-season event takes place July 14-15 on the Bay of Green Bay in Marinette, Wis. The season’s final qualifier determines the top 40 pros and top 40 co-anglers who qualify to fish the no-entry-fee NWT Championship.