By Brett Carlson
HURON, Ohio – Lake Erie is known as the premier walleye factory in the country, and the opening day of the season’s third National Walleye Tour qualifier, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, only solidified that claim. The sheer numbers of walleyes swimming around the Western Lake Erie Basin and slowly, but surely, migrating east is astounding. This spring, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that there are more than 150 million walleyes in Erie right now that are at least 15 inches in length. The only thing more legendary than Erie itself is the pro currently on top of the leaderboard, Gary Parsons.
While Gary’s son Chase won the season-opening event on Lake Francis Case, dad still has the upper hand in overall accolades. The older Parsons is a three-time Angler of the Year, owns several tour-level victories, and is even a member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. At age 66 and currently battling inclusion body myositis (IBM), a degenerative muscle disease, one might assume his career is in the later stages. But once again, the angler more commonly known as GP is in contention to win on the biggest stage in walleye fishing.
“I knew the area held good fish; we had a couple other days in practice just like this,” said Parsons. “I’m fishing one large 5- or 6-mile square area. Today I just drove around until I found the marks I wanted.”
Walleye fans might remember that the younger Parsons bucked the trend at Francis Case and ran 65 miles south. Instead of sorting through dozens of fish like most competitors, Parsons was specifically targeting larger walleyes, knowing bites would be at a premium. Dad is employing a similar strategy this week on the Great Lakes.
“I bet we caught 25 walleyes or so. But I know I could have caught 60 or 70 in other places. But in this area, I don’t catch hardly any small ones. Most are 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pounders. They’re not all giants, but there aren’t any small ones.”
On Parsons’s first pass, he coaxed one of his two kickers – this female measuring 29 inches. Soon after, he caught a few 24s. Then the fish shrunk to 22s, so Parsons got back on his main motor and drove around.
“I run my Lowrance graph on medium chirp with double the screen speed, and then I pump up the sensitivity. This allows me to drive around 26 or 27 mph. When you’re moving that fast, if there are any high fish, you see them. It’s a pretty good system. Once I saw the thick orange bands, I started to fish again.”
Parsons then tricked a 27-incher, drove around some more and finished his day with a 30-incher. His official weight for five walleyes was 31.36 pounds.
“It’s a bummer that I had my short day, because I really believe that school of fish was just starting to fire up. That’s how it was in practice too. At 2 p.m., they start biting. With more time, I think I could’ve caught 40 pounds.”
Parsons revealed that he’s trolling with four different baits.
“Keith (Kavajecz) and I have worked with Berkley for years. One of my best baits right now is a Berkley test bait, a prototype. It’s a 3D printed bait, and I only have a few. And to be honest, they’re more fragile, because they’re not the final plastic. It’s fun, but it’s nerve wracking. This bait won’t be out in production for a while, but it’s coming, and it’s going to be a good one.”
With Parsons’s medical condition and a strong southerly wind in tomorrow’s forecast, the pro leader is unsure if he’ll be able to reach his primary area.
“I’ll try. If it’s too dangerous, I’ll have to settle for staying closer. You have to treat these big bodies of water with some respect. With my condition, I do lean on my partners more than I used to. I can still fish, but I have to make accommodations. I’m keeping a positive mindset. I want to fish as long as I can, but I just don’t know how long. It’s nice to be in this position, and I really enjoy running with these younger guys.”
Rookie McQuoid second
The newest father-and-son combination on the NWT is Kevin and Eric McQuoid. While Kevin has been a mainstay on tour for years, Eric is just getting started at 21 years old. Today the rookie caught a limit weighing 29.03 pounds, and tomorrow he’ll have the chance to unseat one of the legends of the sport.
“It’s definitely exciting to be in contention,” said the pro. “It’s hard to put into words really. I just have to duplicate it again tomorrow. I know you can’t win it on day one.”
On McQuoid’s second trolling pass, he doubled up with a 6 1/2-pounder and a 4-pounder. An hour later, he coaxed another 6-pounder, and at noon, his 8 1/2-pound kicker bit.
“We lost one other big one that we didn’t see. Overall, we’re really happy with it. Coming into today, I was realistically hoping for 24 or 25 pounds. It was a small pod of bigger fish that made the difference. They’d turn on for a half hour or so and then the smaller ones would move back in. The big thing was changing depths and changing baits.”
McQuoid said he spent 100 percent of his time trolling crankbaits. He didn’t reveal specific crankbaits, but described them as “nothing crazy.” His father, an expert troller in his own right, has been giving him guidance throughout his rookie season.
“We help each other out in practice, and he keeps me calm. I’ve picked up a lot of his habits – mostly good with a few bad ones mixed in too.”
In third place is Detroit Lakes, Minn., angler Craig Teal with 28.93 pounds. While Teal is excited to be in contention, the bigger picture is qualifying for the 2021 NWT Championship, held on Otter Tail Lake, his home pond.
“If I don’t get to fish my home water I will be down in the dumps,” said Teal. “I’ve fished a lot of tournaments on Otter Tail; I have a lot of experience. I need to be in that top 40 (to qualify).”
Two days ago in practice, Teal caught a 28-incher and swiftly dropped a waypoint. Today he passed through that same waypoint and caught the biggest walleye of the tournament thus far.
“I caught a 21-incher right away,” he recalled. “Then low and behold we caught a 32-incher that probably weighed 11 pounds. It was just a brute. It had the head of a 14- or 15-pounder, and it had shoulders.”
Teal believes truly giant walleyes don’t roam with the pack. While he was fortunate to receive that bite, it wasn’t all luck either.
“Those big fish, the 28- and 32-inchers, like to be lazy. They don’t like to compete for food.”
The action then slowed as Teal made three additional mile-long passes and never caught another walleye. He stuck with his program of trolling crankbaits, but decided to move areas.
“At 11:30, I told myself that I need to fill out to get a decent bag. We moved to an area with more boat traffic, and we got four or five fish every pass.”
With minutes left in his day, Teal replaced two 21s with a 4 1/2- and 5-pounder. In fact, all his lines were in but one, and that last board went back just as his co-angler was about to reel it in.
“It was a very lucky day, and that’s fishing. I’m not a superstar like a Korey Sprengel or a John Hoyer. Erie has been good to me.”
Fredericks fourth, Arnoldussen fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Jarrod Fredericks and Dean Arnoldussen. Fredericks, the South Dakota pro, caught a limit weighing 28.21 pounds for fourth place.
Arnoldussen, the 2017 NWT Championship winner, sits fifth with 27.61 pounds.
“I love this place,” Arnoldussen said on stage. “We caught fish all day. It’s great to be back.”
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros after day one on Lake Erie:
6th: Roy Vivian of McFarland, Wis., five walleyes, 26.56
7th: Kris Walcker of Minot, N.D., five walleyes, 26.47
8th: John Hoyer of Orono, Minn., five walleyes, 26.46
9th: Chase Cominsky of Hermitage, Penn., five walleyes, 26.33
10th: Bill Sutton of Salem, Wis., five walleyes, 26.20
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Eastern time as the full field takes off from the Huron City Boat Ramp, located at 41 Cleveland Rd. E. in Huron. The final weigh-in also takes place at the Huron City Boat Ramp, beginning at 3 p.m.