OCONTO, Wis. – The professional walleye fishing season typically begins in April with an early springtime cold-water clash. This year, however, has proven to be anything but normal as the National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, was forced to delay the start of the 2020 season by several months. When the revamped scheduled was announced, no one was happier than Berkley pro Korey Sprengel. After day one on Green Bay, the Beaver Dam, Wis., native has even more to smile about. Sprengel’s five walleyes Thursday weighed an incredible 42.13 pounds as he kicked off the new season in style.
With winds out of the northeast, most anglers didn’t have lofty expectations this morning, despite Green Bay being one of the best walleye fisheries in the world. Sprengel himself decided to deliberately target shorter, fatter walleyes instead of the true 30-inch Green Bay giants, the type of fish John Hoyer won with last year.
“I was realistically shooting for 35 pounds this morning,” Sprengel said. “When I got to my first area, I downgraded that; I thought maybe 30 to 35 was realistic. The northeast wind is the worst possible conditions. The wind just blows right down the bay; it brings cold water and cold current.”
Sprengel’s plan was to fish slow and stay in the right area – waiting for a sign. His first fish came at 9 a.m. and although it was only 21 inches (and was thrown back), it hit twice.
“That was a sign that they would still bite for me today, so I threw it back. I knew if I could get a few bites I could figure them out. We’re allowed to keep six and weigh five, so I only had one fish to play with. My second was a 5 1/2-pounder that we kept. Then I just started throwing back 5-pounders. At 10:30, I caught a 30-incher right after catching and throwing back a 5.8. After that, it was like they would bite in pairs. I was getting one pair an hour or so, maybe a little better than that. At 12:20, I put my sixth fish in the box, and we were done. That was a 28-incher that weighed 7.7 pounds.”
Sprengel is meticulously weighing every walleye he catches. This time of year length alone can be misleading. The plump, healthy fish are likely the key to bringing home the title tomorrow.
“I wanted the 25- and 26-inchers that were 6 3/4- to 7 1/2-pounds. I got lucky today that they were both long and fat.”
Sprengel has had considerable success over the years both casting and trolling on Green Bay. While casting has proven popular lately, today he stuck with trolling.
“I never did cast today,” Sprengel went on record. “I maybe should’ve casted, but I was getting bites, so I stuck with what I was doing. I wasn’t going to change until I got my five.”
Sprengel also revealed that he’s pointing his Ranger north out of Oconto, but he described it as, “not too long of a run.” Tomorrow he plans to revisit the same area, but he’s not as optimistic as one would think.
“The pattern itself is bulletproof, and it has nothing to do with the spot really either. I’ll try it, but I don’t think it’s going to hold up because the currents are going to change. Even if I have to change spots, my goal will be the same – 35 pounds. I’m not giant fishing; I’m not. Those fish are just not easy to catch yet. I’m targeting smaller, fatter fish that are feeding. Those can win it tomorrow.”
Captain Mike Lewis sits in second place with a five-walleye limit weighing 36.03 pounds. The Seymour, Wis., native owns and operates the Exclusively Walleye Guide Service. The 50-year-old Lewis describes himself as an “old-school troller.” Today, his trolling pattern was in jeopardy until he located warmer water.
“My plan was to set up and fish just like the previous day in practice,” explained Lewis. “I went to the same area, but I didn’t mark a fish, didn’t see a fish; it just wasn’t happening. Then I noticed the further I went the warmer the water got. So I kept going and then almost immediately a board went back, and it was a 27-incher.”
Lewis is well aware that tomorrow’s forecast calls for light winds, which could hurt the trolling bite.
“It doesn’t matter; I’m trolling again tomorrow. I know how to cast; I can catch fish doing it, but I’m not Korey Sprengel or Max Wilson. I’ve got nothing but respect for those young kids. I don’t think I can catch Sprengel, but it’s possible. I got a few tricks up my sleeve.”
Rookie Lakich third
In his first ever National Walleye Tour event, Isaac Lakich sits in third place with 33.19 pounds. While Lakich is new to the NWT, he’s not new to walleye fishing. In 2018, he won the MWC Team of the Year award with partner Max Wilson. Like Wilson, Lakich prefers to cast whenever possible.
“I was casting today; Max and I fish a lot alike,” said the 24-year-old from Richfield, Wis. “The bite has been tough, so I’m happy with 33.19.”
Lakich explained that he did lose a couple key fish at the boat, leaving another 3 or 4 pounds out there.
“You can’t cry over spilled milk.”
Despite catching only nine keepers, Lakich is confident that he is in the right area.
“I’m feeling good about tomorrow. They’re set up on that area pretty well, and there’s a ton of fish. It’s more about triggering them to bite. It’s not really about finding them anymore.”
Lakich isn’t quite sure how aggressive he’ll be in chasing down Sprengel.
“I’m going to play it by ear. If my first couple fish are big, I might go for the win. I don’t think Sprengel is out of reach by any means. I don’t think anyone in the top 20 is out of it.”
Nussbaum fourth, Kemos fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Dylan Nussbaum and Tommy Kemos. Nussbaum, the young gun from Pennsylvania who won the 2018 event on Devils Lake, caught a limit worth 30.81.
“I wasn’t really expecting that to be honest,” said the Rapala pro. “I only had 3 1/2 days of practice. My main plan was to troll, but in practice it just wasn’t that easy for me. My partner (Ryan Rieger) ended up getting on a Jigging Rap bite. We never got any big ones, but the spot just felt right. Today we were fortunate to get a 28 1/2 and a 30-incher.”
Nussbaum explained that he was casting glide baits up to shallower rock – going up and down the break line in 8 to 20 feet of water.
“It wasn’t a fast bite by any means. We only had eight fish today, and they kind of came in the wrong order, but I’m not complaining based on my practice.”
Kemos, the veteran Wisconsin stick who nearly claimed last year’s championship, managed five keepers weighing 30.56.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2020 National Walleye Tour event on Green Bay:
6th: Curt Reeff, five fish, 28.99
7th: Paul Mueller, five fish, 28.59
8th: Jacob Ell, five fish, 28.25
9th: Ryan Buddie, five fish, 28.21
10th: Rodger Riggs, five fish, 27.56
The final day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from Breakwater Park and Harbor. The final weigh-in also takes place at Breakwater Park and Harbor at 3 p.m. The full field fishes each day with the winner in each division being determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.