HURON, Ohio – As predicted, nearly everyone competing on day one of the 2020 National Walleye Tour Championship, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, was able to coax a limit of Lake Erie walleyes. After all, the Walleye Capital of the World is teeming with fish. With an extremely tight leaderboard, the challenge was, and still is, finding kickers, something bigger than the cookie cutter 3- and 4-pounders. Some anglers insisted finding larger walleyes was simply a matter of sorting through numbers and receiving good luck. Pros Keith Kavajecz, Gary Parsons, Tommy Kemos and Chase Parsons took just one day to emphatically debunk that theory.
It’s no coincidence that the current top four are some combination of friends, family members, and co-hosts on the popular “The Next Bite” television show. In fact, they’ve been filming and fishing together for over nine years. The elder statesmen, Kavajecz and Parsons, pretty much wrote the book on open-water trolling and have worked together for over 30 years.
Those two lead the charge with five-fish limits weighing 25.49 and 24.68 pounds, respectively.
Kavajecz did not experience the strong morning bite that several others did.
“It was slower for me the first few hours,” said the veteran Berkley pro. “Around 10 a.m., I found some that looked like the right marks, so I spent some time experimenting with different colors, weights, and lead lengths. The big marks eventually turned into bites.”
By noon, Kavajecz had a limit in the box with four good ones. He finished the day targeting deeper water and was able to trick a 5-pounder with half an hour left.
“That was a nice cull of about a pound. All my fish today were just really fat.”
After day one of the biggest tournament in walleye fishing, Kavajecz understandably wasn’t ready to discuss specific baits.
“All I can say is that we’re trolling crankbaits with a combination of Off Shore snap weights and Off Shore boards. We’re trying to run the baits about 3 feet above the marks.”
Kavajecz explained that this is not the Erie of old. While it’s true that the population has never been greater in number, the famous Erie giants are unmistakably absent.
“I think the biggest fish weighed today was a 7-pounder; that’s just unheard of on Lake Erie. When I came in, I knew I had a good day, but I didn’t think I’d be leading. I’m really surprised nobody had an 8-, 9-, or 10-pounder.”
After reflecting on the day, the Kaukauna, Wis., native is more optimistic that his program and his area could deliver a championship victory.
“Coming into the tournament, the best I could do was catch 23- to 25-inchers. I looked far and wide for bigger fish, but we never came across them. If nobody stumbles into a big one, who knows; we’ve been catching this size fish all week. I will say that after today I’m a lot more confident that it might be enough.”
Parsons trails his brother-in-law by less than a pound. He too, is feeling a surge of confidence after a successful opening day.
“When you have all four of us there at the top, it tells you there’s a certain quality of fish,” said Parsons, the Bass Pro Shops pro. “It’s not a confidence. It’s the result of a lot of hard work during practice. We found some better quality fish, and we got lucky our area didn’t get too muddy. All four of us are fishing this larger area, and we’re all running slightly different setups.”
Parsons explained that there were a few other boats in the area – most of which were charter captains.
“Today I found a pod of big fish at the end of the day and had it all to myself. I lost a really good one too – around a 6- or 6 1/2-pounder.”
While Parsons no longer cares for Erie’s relentless waves, he reminisced to the 1991 PWT event held on Lake Erie in April.
“Back then, they didn’t start trolling yet. They were still fishing the reefs. We went right to the open water and pretty much dominated. We’ve had some really good runs out here on Erie. We have enough experience to know where to look.”
Tommy Kemos, who finished second at last year’s championship, sits in third place with 24.55 pounds. Kemos explained that he’s trolling the same general area as his teammates, but each angler has plenty of space.
“It’s a big 8-mile stretch,” said Kemos, the Strike King pro. “I think I saw each of them for about five minutes today. We’re all pretty well spread out. It’s just a matter of staying on the individual pod of fish and making sure you’re staying in the right color water.”
In terms of technique, Kemos said he’s trolling bigger, deep-diving stickbaits.
“There’s nothing that we’re doing that I would call super special. We’re running crankbaits with different lead lengths. Sometimes we’ll go with no snap weight; sometimes we’ll add one. It’s just kind of the area that we’re in more than anything. I don’t think it’s getting as much pressure. The nice part was there wasn’t any crazy run to be made. We’re fishing fairly close – within 30 miles or so of takeoff.”
Kemos said he experienced a strong morning bite. On his first pass, he filled his limit with two above-average fish. In this event, Kemos considers anything over 4 1/2 pounds to be a good one.
“I had no giants today, just all slightly above-average fish. In fact, all week the four of us have only caught two fish over 25 inches.”
Kemos doesn’t believe tomorrow’s blustery weather will ruin his area.
“The beauty about this area is that it has survived the big winds before, and I think it will survive this one as well. I’ll be flat-out shocked if one of us doesn’t win this tournament.”
Younger Parsons fourth, Schertz fifth
Rounding out the top five are Wisconsin pros Chase Parsons and Nick Schertz. Parsons, the Denmark, Wis., pro, managed a limit worth 24.37. Schertz, the Tomahawk, Wis., native, caught five walleyes Wednesday weighing 24.09 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2020 National Walleye Tour Championship on Lake Erie:
6th: JR Carter of Mandan, N.D., five fish, 24.07
7th: Corey Heiser of West Fargo, N.D., five fish, 24.01
8th: Dusty Minke of Walker, Minn., five fish, 24.00
9th: Mike Defibaugh of Bellefontaine, Ohio, five fish, 23.70
10th: Ryan Buddie of Amherst, Ohio, five fish, 23.66
Berkley pro Korey Sprengel strengthened his Angler of the Year lead after day one of the championship. He came into the season-ending event with a three-point lead over David Kolb and a five-point lead over John Hoyer. Sprengel currently sits in 12th place while Kolb is 26th and Hoyer is 40th. Unofficially, Sprengel leads with Mike Defibaugh sitting in second.
The second day of competition begins tomorrow at 8 a.m. Eastern time as the full field takes off from the Huron Boat Ramp, located at 41 Cleveland Rd. East in Huron. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the Huron Boat Ramp, beginning at 4 p.m. The full field fishes the first two days and the top 10 pros and top 10 co-anglers fish the final day. The winner in each division is determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.