Sprengel sacks 18-pound stringer to take title

Beaver Dam, Wis., pro rallies to win Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship

OSHKOSH, Wis. – With five major victories in the past four years, Korey Sprengel is arguably the hottest walleye pro in the game. But if the young 26-year-old lacked anything on his angling résumé, it was a championship victory in a pro-am event. Sprengel rectified that today and notched win No. 6 in impressive come-from-behind fashion at the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship.

Sprengel trailed pro leader Mark Courts by 3 pounds heading into the final day of the tournament. While Courts is a Minnesota native, Sprengel resides in nearby Beaver Dam, Wis., and fishes Lake Winnebago often. Even so, he was puzzled after an extensive practice and didn’t know what to expect as the event unfolded.

“Going in to the tournament, I had no idea how it was going to go,” he said. “It’s basically my home body of water and I had to relearn it on the fly.”

Sprengel started each day on the south shore of the main lake, approximately 15 miles from Oshkosh. There he targeted rock humps in 6 to 7 feet of water that topped out at 2 to 3 feet.

“There was one main hump and then small isolated humps off the main one. It’s something that’s not on a chip; I found it using my Lowrance StructureScan. In practice, I was catching more largemouth bass there than walleyes. I really didn’t know what I had. Each morning I would put that Mercury Pro XS to the wood. It was strictly a morning deal and I had to get there as fast as I could.”

After arriving, Sprengel would pitch an 1/8-ounce jig with a purple and white PowerBait Rib Worm. He opted for plastic instead of live bait because it allowed him to be more efficient, which was critical in the snaggy cover. Tied to the jig was 10-pound Fireline in Flame Green.

“About the fifth cast this morning, I land a 23-incher. My co-angler catches one on the crankbait not long after that. Then I catch another one on the jig. We had those three fish in the first 30 minutes.

“An hour or so later we landed a 17-incher. We kept it, but I was really hoping I didn’t have to weigh that fish. At 11:30 a.m., I stuck another 22-incher for No. 5. Then I really had to think about what I was going to do.”

The previous two days Sprengel would run back up to Oshkosh and search for big ones in the Fox River. But both days he came up empty handed. Calling a late audible today, he instead decided to embark on a milk run along the south shore. He first hit a weed spot, and then another hump.

“On the third spot, I found some more protected weeds, some coontail in 3 or 4 feet of water. Then I basically started flipping that same jig. Ten minutes into it, I caught another 22- or 23-incher. I knew if there was one in there, there would be many in there. So I eventually stuck another 23-incher and we were done with seven fish at 1:30 p.m.”

Sprengel weighed four walleyes between 22 and 23 inches in length and his smallest fish was a 19-incher. Together they combined to weigh an astonishing 18.42 pounds, the heaviest stringer of the entire tournament.

“I 100 percent knew that was possible. I said there was going to be a 20-pound bag this week. I was so surprised we couldn’t catch anything big in practice. All the big ones were just eating shad in practice. But those weed fish, if they’re in there; they are there for one reason, to eat.”

Sprengel then reflected on his latest win, one that garnered him a new Ranger 621FS and over $15,000, a total prize package with bonuses of $84,424.

“I’ve never worked so hard in a fishing tournament in my life. I had to do all I could to keep an 1/8-ounce jig under control in those (windy) conditions. And I was only getting those 5 to 7 bites a day. When I landed that seventh one today, I took a nice boat ride back and when I got in the harbor I could have slept.”

Ell’s comeback comes up just short

Second-year pro Jacob Ell commented yesterday after weigh-in that you can’t lose fish in a major championship and expect to win. At the time, he didn’t know how prophetic that statement would be. After catching a huge 18.26-pound stringer today, Ell finished the tournament with 43.08 pounds. Despite weighing only 14 of the allowable 15 fish, Ell was within a half pound of victory.

“This morning was slow and then all of a sudden this afternoon we just started catching big fish,” the Bismarck, N.D., native recalled. “Coming back in I definitely thought I had a chance to win.”

Like Sprengel, Ell had an area all by himself. But unlike Sprengel, he fished the northeast side of the main lake, approximately 14 miles from takeoff.

“It’s where the deepest part of the lake comes to the shoreline, a rock shoreline. It’s a shelf that goes from 4 foot and then drops into 11 feet and then further drops into the basin. I would put the boat in 11 feet and run the baits in 8 to 10 feet.”

At times Ell would troll up to 3/4 of a mile, but there was a definitive sweet spot within that stretch. Once he got honed in, he would continue working that area at speeds of 1.8 to 2 mph.

“I was running three of my planer boards on the shore side. I was using No. 7 Berkley Flicker Shads. On cloudy, overcast days, Black Gold and Black Gold Sunset were the best colors. When the sun would come out, Purple Tiger was the bait to be running. Today I switched over to Purple Tiger at 12:30 p.m. and the area just caught fire.

“I made sure those crankbaits were smacking the bottom. I definitely lost plenty of lures out there. The key for me was that I had to be hitting bottom to trigger those bites.”

After a tough practice and rumors of a tough bite before the tournament, Ell was ecstatic with his 18-pound final day.

“I couldn’t have even fathomed that driving out here. But still, I came in one fish short. Losing by a half pound sucks, but you’ve got to get past that. It’s still an awesome feeling to go out there and prove that a body of water can put out some good fish this time of year. Having this second-place trophy with me is surreal.”

In addition to the trophy, Ell also takes home a Ranger boat, his a 620FS.

Courts falls to third

This morning before takeoff, Courts was aiming for a solid weight in the 12-pound range. With a 3-pound lead, he figured that would be enough to take home his second tour-level championship. He ended up catching 11.44 today, but it was nowhere near enough.

“He flat crushed them today,” Courts said of Sprengel. “I’ll tell you what, I have a lot of respect for Korey. I was feeling pretty decent when I came in. All in all I fished a really clean tournament. We had one good fish on this morning that got away, but we didn’t see what it was.”

Fishing the mouth of where the Fox River dumps into Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh, Courts again experienced a strong bite Saturday.

“They were biting today; we caught probably 15. The only lull we had was later in the afternoon.”

Courts termed his technique rod-lining.

“The first fish I caught of the tournament came from pitching a jig and everything I caught after that was from rod-lining. My go-to bait was either the No. 7 or No. 9 Rapala Original Floater in Purpledescent. Today it switched and the best color was orange. We were running a hand-line shank with a weight. The crankbaits were always within 6 to 8 inches of the bottom, which had a mix of clam beds and rock. The target depth was 13 or 14 feet. For speeds, we were trolling at 1.5 mph.”

Courts used both his Evinrude E-Tec 15 H.O. kicker and his bow-mounted Minn Kota Terrova to troll – making repeated passes over the same stretch of water. The kicker provided the bulk of the power and the trolling motor did the steering.

After a poor regular season, Courts came to Oshkosh with a chip on his shoulder. In the end, he finished the event third with a total weight of 39.69 pounds.

“I absolutely wouldn’t have done anything different; I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It was a good spot, a spot the tournament definitely could have been won on. Finishing third is a nice boost of energy to take me into the offseason with some momentum. When it comes down to it, there are a lot of guys that would have liked to have been in the place I was in.”

McQuoid retains fourth

Kevin McQuoid figured the 10 pounds he caught on day one would be about the pace he needed to stay in contention. But even after improving his weights significantly on days two and three, McQuoid remained in fourth place throughout, finishing the tournament with 36.09 pounds. Needless to say, he and others grossly underestimated Winnebago’s potential, even during the summer-fall transition.

“This was awesome; it’s been a special week,” said McQuoid after weighing in. “Yesterday we had two 23-inchers and today we had one 23.”

McQuoid shared the same 1/2-mile stretch of water at the mouth of the Fox River with Courts. He trolled his crankbaits over water 10 to 20 feet, some of it breakline and some of it basin.

“We were handlining with No. 7 and No. 9 Original Floaters. Today orange was the key. Yesterday it was a mix of colors and the first day orange was the best again.”

Grothe finishes fifth

Ross Grothe of Northfield, Minn., started the tournament Thursday with a solid 9.91-pound bag. From there he steadily improved, bringing in a five-fish limit worth 13.33 pounds today. For a three-day total of 34.26 pounds, Grothe finished fifth.

“The first thing you want to do here at the championship is make the top 10,” said the veteran pro. “And then once you’ve done that, you shoot for the moon. Today, I caught only one of the fish and netted four. My partner was on fire, but it’s a team effort.”

Grothe too trolled the same general area as Courts and McQuoid.

“We were using Floating Rapalas and pencil sinkers.”

Rest of the best

Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour Championship on Lake Winnebago:

6th: Ted Takasaki of Sioux Falls, S.D., 33.48
7th: Tommy Skarlis of Waukon, Iowa, 30.91
8th: Robert Cardenas of Gem Lake, Minn., 28.61
9th: Tom Keenan of Hatley, Wis., 27.37
10th: Jason Doyon of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, 21.58

Kemos claims Angler of the Year

Tom Kemos of Oconomowoc, Wis., claimed the prestigious 2014 Lucas Oil Angler of the Year award after four events.

“It’s a huge deal for me,” Kemos said. “I’ve been close several times. I can still remember the fish I lost that cost me the title in years past. Going into this one, I was 19 points back, so I figured I was probably going to have to swing for the fence. After a rough opening day, I assumed it was over. To be able to finally pull it off, it’s awesome.”

Kemos wanted to thank his wife and his teammates and practice partners Gary and Chase Parsons and Keith Kavajecz.

“This is certainly one of the biggest titles I have,” said the 2006 PWT Championship winner. “To fish an entire season and be the top guy, it means a ton, both to me and to the great sponsors I have. I really see this season as the start of a new chapter for me.”

Cayemberg crowned co-angler champion

Craig Cayemberg was the fortunate co-angler to be along for the Korey Sprengel show Saturday. Cayemberg, a veteran co-angler, knew something special was under way after making the long run south and almost immediately picking up a game-changing fish.

“I haven’t hugged too many men in my life,” joked Cayemberg. “But when that big one bit within the first five minutes, that was the biggest man hug I’ve had in my life.”

That big fish was just the start of the 18.42-pound stringer. Combined with 9.91 from day one and 11.57 from day two, the Valders, Wis., resident finished the tournament with 39.90 pounds.

“I’ve really got to thank all my boaters first and foremost. The quality people you meet as a co-angler is second to none. This morning I was 4 1/2 pounds out of the lead. I didn’t really think that could be done.”

Cayemberg caught two of the seven keepers and one of the five that was weighed.

“I caught a 21-incher. I was the crankbait guy in the back. I was casting the No. 7 Flicker Shads (Firetiger). Winning really hasn’t sunk in it. I know I’m just a co-angler and it’s nothing like winning as a pro, but I work hard.”