By Brett Carlson
CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. – The National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, is set to commence the 2021 tournament season, a season filled with both intrigue and optimism. New for 2021 is a no-entry-fee championship in which only the top 40 pros and top 40 co-anglers qualify. Instead of three tournaments and a championship, the 2021 slate features four qualifiers and concludes with the most lucrative event in professional walleye fishing. The venue for the 2021 NWT Championship will be Otter Tail Lake, a smaller, yet diverse walleye fishery in western Minnesota. The season begins with another new and intriguing venue – Lake Francis Case in southern South Dakota.
With the coronavirus pandemic altering initial plans, the 2020 NWT season didn’t commence until July 23. The 2021 season officially kicks off April 29-30 on the Missouri River. While the weather will likely be cooler than last year’s opener, the spring walleye bite is expected to be hot.
“Francis Case is a great place to go to catch a lot of fish,” said Ranger pro Korey Sprengel, the reigning NWT Angler of the Year. “If it’s not too muddy from runoff, we’re going to catch a lot of walleyes.”
“I’ve been there three times around that time frame,” recalled Hardcore pro Jason Przekurat, who last fall became the first angler to win two NWT Championships. “The one thing I know is that we’re going to catch ‘em. It can produce 30 to 50 fish a day. It’s a weird system where you can pitch a jig in 2 feet of water or vertical jig out in 35 feet. Both methods will catch fish during the postspawn.”
Sprengel is thrilled about the new championship format, partially because the smaller championship field opens up new and interesting venues like Otter Tail, but also because it alters one’s approach to each and every regular-season tournament.
“It puts a whole ‘nother spin on your season,” he explained. “Now you have to qualify to get to the end. You can’t always swing for the fences. At some point in your tournament day, you have to scramble and get what you can because those points matter. It’s going to make guys change it up a bit. It adds a whole ‘nother layer of drama to the season.”
Przekurat likes the schedule’s mix of new and old venues. The traditional venues offer nostalgia, but the new ones level the playing field.
“As much as I’m looking forward to getting the season rolling at Chamberlain, I’m also excited for Sturgeon Bay at the end of May. The weights will look good, but it’s going to be super tough to catch five walleyes. You’re not going to catch 20 walleyes that time of year; you’re just not. Mentally, I like those tougher tournaments.”
Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s pro Brian Bashore runs The Walleye Guys Guide Service, spending most of the spring on the 102,000-acre Francis Case. Bashore believes the timing for the season-opening event is excellent.
“The fishery is extremely healthy,” he said. “We caught over fish 50 today and had our three-man limit in just over an hour. It’s not always that easy, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see everyone in the field with a five-fish limit. Most of the walleyes are between 15 and 19 inches. In fact, I’ve caught only one fish under 15 inches in three weeks.
“We had an early ice out this year. Right now, they’re milking, and they’ll be spawning soon. By tournament time, they’ll be postspawn – scattering between deep and shallow.”
Bashore said the prominent patterns will include trolling leadcore in 20 to 30 feet and then pitching jigs shallow with either minnows or plastics.
“Shad is the main forage base, so your Flicker Minnows, Shad Raps and Flicker Shads will be popular. Guys will also do some rigging with live bait.”
With rocky shorelines, Bashore explained that the Fort Thompson Dam is a prime spawning location, and then the fish generally migrate south. With higher water and more current, the fish tend to linger near the dam. Right now, Bashore said there’s not much current, so the north end may or may not be a factor.
“As it stands, I think the field will split up pretty evenly between north and south. There’s 107 miles of river to explore, but there’s no place to get fuel except Cedar Shores, which is the tournament takeoff. I honestly don’t see the need to run more than 20 miles; I don’t think you have to make a mega-run.”
“More than likely, it’s going to be a rod-in-hand kind of event, at least for me,” Sprengel predicted. “We could be casting crankbaits, rigging or pitching jigs. I think there will be multiple rods on my deck. I know one of them will have a Berkley Half Head jig with a PowerBait Rib Worm and another will have the Berkley Hit Stick tied on.”
“The key is going to be finding two bigger fish each day,” concluded Przekurat. “I haven’t been there enough to know if the unders and the overs mix in the same places, or if you need separate big-fish spots. I do know that in South Dakota, those overs are everything. If you want to win, you’re going to need two overs a day.”
“This year, I’ve seen more big fish caught than the last several years,” explained Bashore. “The 20 to 22s are pretty common, but you need the 5-pounders, and they’re still hard to come by. The big-fish numbers are better, but they’re not like Mobridge or Oahe. The one-day tournaments are being won with about 17 pounds.”
“With southern South Dakota, it could snow 4 inches the first day of the tournament, and the next day it could be 70 or even 80 degrees,” Sprengel added. “That’s how fast things change there, especially that time of year, so you better be prepared.” Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time from Arrowwood Resort & Conference Center at Cedar Shore, located at 1500 Shoreline Dr. in Oacoma. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the Arrowwood Resort Ramp, beginning at 3 p.m. The full field fishes each day with the winner in each division being determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.