SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – As soon as the National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, announced their revamped schedule, both anglers and fans alike started speculating about the potential for long runs at Sault Ste. Marie, the second tour stop of the 2020 season, better known as the “Soo.” While risky, the potential for thick, beefy 4- to 6-pound walleyes was real. To make it happen, pros would have to complete a treacherous run south on Lake Huron towards Alpena, Mich. In the end, pro Peter Schaefer proved the risk was worth it as he hauled in 10 walleyes over two days that weighed 45 pounds.
Even before practice, Schaefer knew his winning area was a spot that warranted extra attention.
“Those walleyes are summering there,” said Schaefer, who serves on the board of directors for the Saginaw Bay Walleye Club. “This time of year, that’s just where they’re living. They live in the cracks and crevices of big Volkswagen-sized boulders.”
To reach his spot, Schaefer would venture 86 miles south from Sault Ste. Marie. To complete his roundtrip trek, he would have to refuel on the way back. Today, he plowed through 3- and 4-footers on his journey north as he could only manage top speeds of 36 or 37 mph.
“My main spot down there was like 38 to 48 feet deep,” Schaefer explained. “I was trolling crankbaits – mainly Bandits and Smithwick Top 20s with 2-ounce snap weights. Chrome bases were key – purples and blues with orange bellies.”
With speeds of 1.7 to 2 mph, Schaefer would pull the cranks 1 to 5 feet from the bottom. Today, the wind picked up and blew the bait, eventually pushing some walleyes to his secondary area, an adjacent shoreline piece of structure.
“My second area was like 17 to 24 feet of water. Today it accounted for my biggest one and a 4-pounder.”
On the shallower spot, Schaefer would have the crankbaits ticking the tops of the rocks. He trolled these cranks 100 to 120 feet from his planer boards.
“On my way back, I stopped at a jigging spot within sight of the ramp. At 3:48, I popped a 5-pounder on a jighead and pork-tail minnow (fluke-style plastic). That fish gave me a 3-pound upgrade.”
What Schaefer didn’t know was that his late cull also secured his first national win.
“I’ve been tournament fishing for 13 years. I’ve won a few local tournaments, and I’ve done well on the Michigan Walleye Tour and the MWC. But to win on this level, it means a lot. I’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to this sport; I’m addicted to it. This is the real deal, and I’m ecstatic that I won.”
The 34-year-old, who works as an account manager for American Maintenance and Cleaning Services, said the key to his victory was finding his productive, yet unpressured area.
“I have to thank my partner Jake Trombley. Without him, we wouldn’t have been able to put this together. There was a lot of pressure up north by the islands, and there was no pressure around me. I figured the risk versus the reward was worth it, and I was right.”
For winning the second event of the 2020 season, Schaefer earned a Ranger 2080MS with a 250-horsepower Mercury outboard, $15,000 cash, and an additional $2,280 in Anglers Advantage cash for a total purse of $80,380.
Kemos continues hot streak
In his last three NWT events, Strike King pro Tommy Kemos has finished second, seventh, and second. His recent hot streak more or less started after a disappointing “Soo” event last year. This year, Kemos opted to make the unfathomable 110-mile run south near Alpena.
“We would stop for fuel at Presque Isle on the way down,” Kemos said. “On the way back up, we would get gas at DeTour Pass.”
Kemos described the journey as the second toughest of his long career. The other led to him missing his check-in time.
“I’m going to be sore for a couple days, but this run was absolutely worth it.”
After traveling, Kemos would leave himself between 2 1/2 and 3 hours to fish. Knowing that the wind was increasing, he gave himself 3 hours to return today. He checked in with 7 minutes to spare.
“I promised myself I would leave by noon today. When it was time to go, I was graphing a small pod of fish. I started turning on them, and then realized I was making a mistake. It was super tempting, but if I would’ve stayed and fished those fish, I wouldn’t have made it (back in on time).”
The Oconomowoc, Wis., native was pulling crankbaits with snap weights like Schaefer.
“I was basically following the smelt migration. The walleyes move to follow the smelt. In my area, the water was crazy clear. What I found is that they wanted the more natural colors – blue or blue chrome and silver with white and chartreuse bellies.”
Kemos was fishing 45 to 50 feet. In the clear water, the fish were positioned near the bottom, but coming up 15 feet to hit the crankbait.
“It’s weird. You actually want to make them work for it in the clear water. If it’s too close, they get too good of a look at it.”
Kemos said his Garmin LiveScope was crucial for spotting fish, especially in that he was able look out ahead of the boat in the clear water.
“The fish were definitely spooking off the boat. You would come across a small pod of two, three, or four fish. When I saw them, I would adjust my speed. If they were real low, I would slow down because I was using snap weights. But I would also get a lot of bites speeding up so the baits would rise. My normal speed was 2 mph, but if I was trying to crank them up I would go 2.2.”
For second place and a two-day total of 42.72 pounds, Kemos earned $16,571.
“Second stings a little, but overall, I’m pretty happy with it. It was a super tough week of practice. All things considered, as tough as the bite was, I’m happy with it; it worked out. The difference for me lately is that I’m figuring out how to use that LiveScope. Now that I have that understanding and confidence, I’ve been on a roll.”
Vandemark rallies to third
Linwood, Mich., pro Steve Vandemark demonstrated remarkable consistency and finished the tournament third with 37.33 pounds. On day one, Vandemark sacked 18.35, and today he backed that up with 18.98. Unlike Schaefer and Kemos, Vandemark opted to stay close to takeoff.
“We stayed right in the river system,” said Vandemark. “Nobody was fishing close, so we made a pact to poke around and find fish close, and it worked.”
Vandemark would start his day 8 miles from the launch by trolling spinners over matted grass in 12 to 16 feet. Once the sun would come up, he would switch to jigging deeper water.
“We jigged both the mouth of Lake George and the Garden River. I was using lead-head jigs, either a 1/2-ounce or 3/8 tipped with half a crawler. This year, the fish were positioned right on the breaks where there was no current. If you get in the seam, you catch them.”
The two-pronged attack resulted in nine keepers yesterday and 14 today. With a Ranger bonus, Vandemark earned $18,892.
“As someone who fishes this system often, I’m surprised the long runs paid off (for first and second place). They got extremely lucky to make it two days in a row. It’s never that calm. I’ve made those runs when I was younger, and I know what it’s like. Those guys earned it.”
Defibaugh fourth, Stanaway fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Mike Defibaugh and Dane Stanaway. Defibaugh, the 2017 Lake Erie champion, finished fourth. After catching 18.91 pounds on day one, Defibaugh slipped to 17.91 today. His two-day total weight was 36.82.
Stanaway, the local pro, took fifth with a combined weight of 35.77 pounds. On day one, he boated 15.88 pounds, and today he improved to 19.89.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2020 National Walleye Tour event at Sault Ste. Marie:
6th: Gary Gorsuch of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., 35.15
7th: Jim Schiefelbein of Marseilles, Ill., 35.02
8th: Benjamin Teets of West Fargo, N.D., 34.60
9th: Ed Stachowski of Canton, Mich., 32.32
10th: Aaron Marzean of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., 31.77
Nickel earns co-angler title
Tyler Nickel took home top honors in the Co-angler Division with a total weight of 35.25 pounds. On day one, Nickel fished with Defibaugh, and the two caught limit worth 18.91. Today he fished with young stick Dylan Nussbaum, and together they weighed five walleyes for 16.34.
Nickel, the Oshkosh, Wis., native, earned $8,428 with contingencies.
The third event of the 2020 National Walleye Tour season is slated for Sept. 10-11 on Lake Sakakawea in Garrison, N.D.