By Brett Carlson
HURON, Ohio – In the past decade, tournament walleye fishing has undergone a transformation of sorts. A new generation of young sticks, who largely prefer casting to old-school trolling, has taken the sport by storm. Anglers such as Korey Sprengel, John Hoyer, Max Wilson, and Dylan Nussbaum have recently dominated the headlines. This week at the third National Walleye Tour event of the 2021 season, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, that trend went in reverse. Day one on Lake Erie saw 66-year-old legend Gary Parsons troll up the early lead, and today 57-year-old Bill Sutton clinched his second NWT victory.
In 2015, Sutton notched his first win by employing three-way rigs in a small backwater of the Mississippi River. That win was somewhat ironic in that Sutton considers himself an open-water troller.
“This is by far more my style,” chuckled the affable Ranger pro. “Open-water fishing is where I’m comfortable, and I love Lake Erie.”
Practice for this tournament was not great, however. On the first day of competition, Sutton opted to run 80 miles east of Huron to an area he’d never even fished.
“The key for this one was trusting my teammates. I went to an area that I had only seen on my Lowrance units. Not only did it carry a heck of a fuel bill, but points for the championship were on the line too. I have to give a lot of credit to Matt Kleis and Brian Chandler, who found the spot. From there, it was a matter of staying and grinding it out.”
Not knowing the area, Sutton believes he was east of Fairport, but not as far as Geneva. After running 55 miles, he would opt to get gas in the morning.
“With the fuel stop, it took about an hour and 45 minutes on the way there. Coming home I was allowing over 2 hours, and today it took me 2 hours and 10 minutes. The conditions were not easy; there were definitely rough patches in the afternoons. The southern winds were pounding us pretty good, but my Ranger 621 and 350-horsepower Mercury Verado handled them beautifully. Yesterday, I had close to 5 hours of fishing time, and today I got about 4 1/2.”
Fishing 5 miles offshore, Sutton then displayed his trolling skills.
“Normally you troll with the wind. The way this set up we had to trough it. Most of the time the wind was at a T, but sometimes the wind kind of wrapped us, and we had to troll into it. My second biggest fish came that way today.”
Sutton employed Deep Walleye Bandits with Church Tackle planer boards. He praised the planer boards for not sinking, despite the 3- and 4-foot waves. Sutton said at times the waves were crossing each other, creating a washboard effect. His trolling speed was typically 2.8 to 3 mph.
“We were trolling Bandits, both with stock and custom colors. The best color was Wild Thing, a bright orangish pattern. I was using the kicker for propulsion, but the electric trolling motor on the front for steering. I was also using the Power-Pole Drift Paddle to help me steer. It was all three at once.”
On day one, Sutton’s program was all 2-ounce snap-weights. Today, he literally played with fire and opted for long-lining with straight 10-pound Berkley Fireline.
“It didn’t take long to figure out that something wasn’t right today. The adjustment I made was putting the Bandits straight on 10-pound Fireline. It worked great, but it also gives you very little margin for error. The only forgiveness you have is in your rod. And the fish this week fought like they were on a triple dose of steroids. With every violent head shake, we were terrified. But it ended up being the right adjustment.”
Fishing a break between 38 and 42 feet, the Bandits were diving about 24 feet down. Sutton described the area as a trench.
“Yesterday we caught a lot of fish; it was steady. And then with 10 minutes to go I got a 28-incher, and that put us in 10th place. Today the first three fish were rapid fire, but all were under the 15-inch mark. That made me extremely nervous; I was almost in panic mode. Then my co-angler said we had one on the outside board, and it ended up being the 31-incher.”
Sutton then boxed a few more keepers, but not the quality he was looking for.
“At about noon, we got a 30-inch fish. Now I know I’m not leaving in the last little bit of time I have. We ended up upgrading two of the three smaller fish, but I still didn’t think it was enough. I figured I needed that third big fish. Low and behold, I didn’t.”
Sutton’s official weight Friday was 29.62 pounds. Combined with his 26.20 pounds from day one, the Salem, Wis., pro finished with a total of 55.82 pounds. For his second NWT win, he earned a Ranger 620FS Pro with a 250-horsepower Mercury outboard, $15,000 cash, plus an additional $2,461 of Anglers Advantage cash for a total purse of $93,756.
“After a while, I felt like the first one was kind of a fluke. In 2016, I finished high in the points standings, but after that, I started second guessing myself and my fishing career if you will. To come out and compete with these guys and then come out on top, that’s what feels the best. Knowing I can compete with this younger generation is gratifying. My nerves were nothing today; coming from behind is the way to do it.”
Berthold soars to second
After catching 22.42 pounds on day one, local pro Tyler Berthold was middling right around check range. Today, the 27-year-old made a serious run at the title – coming up less than a pound short. His day-two limit weighed 32.46 pounds, giving him 54.88 for the tournament.
“I’m definitely bummed we didn’t win,” said the Columbia Station, Ohio, native. “We just barely missed, but it was a heck of a comeback, and overall, it was a great experience.”
Berthold was fishing roughly 15 miles north of Huron towards the Canadian border. On day one, he fished the well-known weather buoy, and today he fished just south of it.
“Me and my co-angler (Devon Phillips) talked about it this morning. He was sitting in second place and wanted to go for the win. It was rough, but it was worth it. He won on the co-angler side, and I took second. The weather buoy is known to produce big weights this time of year, if the weather allows you to get to it.”
Berthold boxed five “pretty good” fish on his first pass. The action was steady, and late in the day he caught an 8-pounder out in front of Huron.
“A couple weeks ago we won the Big Water Walleye Championship with 45 pounds. In comparison, the weights were down, but it just shows you what an incredible place this is.”
The 27-year-old was fishing 48 feet and his Deep Bandits were running 34 or 35 feet down with the assistance of 2-ounce snap weights. His best color was Neon Golden Boy, a custom hue from the Bait Doctor.
In his first NWT event, Berthold cashed a $30,000 check.
“There’s something about tournament fishing that’s just amazing. There’s a certain rush. You see that big head finally get in the net, and then you and your partner start going bonkers. That’s what it’s all about.”
Like Berthold, local pro Steve Hendricks rallied hard on day two and finished the event in third place with a total weight of 54.14 pounds. On day one, the Wellington, Ohio, fisherman managed 23.80, and today he sacked 30.34 pounds.
“I’m happy with third, but I dumped an 8- or 9-pounder yesterday about 10 feet behind the boat,” said the 40-year-old director of operations for S.A. Comunale Fire Protection. “That’s fishing, but we were just about to net it, and then it shook its head and popped off.”
Hendricks also ran his Ranger east, but only about 18 or 20 miles. There he located a small pod of deep-water walleyes.
“We were trolling about 15 miles offshore. We were using Bandits and Reef Runners. Greens, chartreuses and purples were our best colors.”
More precisely, Hendricks said he oftentimes would mix and match with spinners. The outside boards would have the crankbaits, and the inside boards would have crawler harnesses (double willow, silver back and perch colors).
“Our speeds were about 2 mph, and with either Dipsy Divers or 2-ounce snap weights, that would bring our baits down 45 or 46 feet. The water in the area was 48 to 51 feet. The biggest thing was finding them and then staying on them.”
Dakota anglers finish fourth, fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Gary Maher and Jarrod Fredericks. Maher, the Menoken, N.D., angler, soared up the leaderboard today after catching a 33.32-pound stringer, the heaviest of the tournament. Combined with his 17.62 from day one, he finished the tournament fourth overall with a total weight of 50.94 pounds.
Fredericks, the Estelline, S.D., native, managed limits of 28.21 and 22.69. He finished fifth with a two-day total of 50.90 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2021 NWT event on Lake Erie:
6th: John Hoyer of Orono, Minn., ten walleyes, 50.72
7th: Dustin Kjelden of Brookings, S.D., ten walleyes, 50.63
8th: Ed Stachowski of Canton, Mich., ten walleyes, 50.48
9th: Zachary Jobes of Canal Fulton, Ohio., ten walleyes, 49.76
10th: Dean Arnoldussen of Appleton, Wis., ten walleyes, 49.38
Up next The fourth and final NWT qualifier is slated for July 29-30 on Lake Oahe in Mobridge, S.D.