DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – For the third time in its seven-year existence, the National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, will hold its championship on North Dakota’s Devils Lake. The season-ending event, held Sept. 11-13, is the world championship of professional walleye fishing, awarding two fully-rigged boat packages and determining who claims the coveted Angler of the Year award. Devils Lake delivers the perfect playground as a wide variety of presentations will be employed on North Dakota’s largest natural lake, known as “Sportsman’s Paradise.”
Last July, young pro Dylan Nussbaum stunned the walleye world with an impressive Devils Lake victory. The then 20-year-old Nussbaum bested a star-studded field despite never having visited the Prairie Pothole Region.
“It’s going to be awesome,” exclaimed the second-year Rapala pro. “I think it’s a great place for the championship. Last year, I was just excited to go to Devils Lake. It was a bucket-list trip for me. I’m even more eager to return. Devils Lake is a lot of fun; it’s just filled with fish.”
Nussbaum won last year’s event by bucking the convention and trolling considerably deeper.
“I was using leadcore in 35 to 45 feet, just going up and down the breakline on rock structure. I’m keeping an open mind this year, but I’m definitely going to try and find that school again. The timing is close to the transition period, so they might be scattering with some fish moving shallow. I’m curious to see if deep water can be a player again.”
Nussbaum said trolling with bottom bouncers, casting Rippin’ Raps, and casting Flat Jigs will also get considerable use.
“It’s a diverse lake that always seems to be changing. It sets up a lot like the Allegheny Reservoir back home in Pennsylvania. There are old road beds, foundations, stumps, and lots of manmade structure. One way or another, I think we can find them.”
Leading the AOY race after three events with 580 points is Lowrance pro Brett King. The 49-year-old King dramatically rose from third to claim last year’s AOY title and is now positioned to become the first pro to win AOY back to back.
“Obviously going back to back would be incredible; I would love to add it to the list,” King offered. “I remember I won the AIM Angler of the Year in 2011 and I had a chance to go back to back and win the FLW in 2012, but I finished third. I’ve always left that one on the shelf thinking it would be cool. Fortunately, I now have the chance. It doesn’t happen very often, and chances are it won’t happen again.”
King continued to build a reputation this year as a risk taker, often venturing on extensive runs in search of tournament-winning walleyes.
“You either go for it, or you play conservative. More often than not, going for it works. The interesting part is that I haven’t had a tournament where I’ve got a limit both days. I was short one fish on Winnebago, one fish at Marinette, and two at the “Soo.” Last year, I felt fortunate to win AOY coming in without a limit on just one day. I’ve already had three of those days this year.”
King described Devils as a “fun, but challenging venue.” What startles him is a scarcity of walleyes between 18 and 24 inches.
“It seems that there’s a pile of 15- to 17-inch fish; it just seems really hard to separate yourself from the field. It’s not like going to Marinette and getting three big bites. When you’re stacking a field, half a pound is a lot. That can mean 20 spots (on the leaderboard). They key is going to be unlocking a few of those mid-20s fish. Those are the separators, and that’s the challenge that’s laid in front of us. Devils always seems to be about finding the next sunken road, or the next rock pile that’s just right, or the freshest weeds that are just right. And that’s what I hope it is this year.Forget what you know and go learn from actually fishing.”
Trailing King are fellow Wisconsin pros Korey Sprengel and Tom Keenan, both of whom are sitting on 560 points. While King possesses a substantial lead, he has two of the most credentialed fishermen in the sport breathing down his neck.
“They’re both incredible anglers,” King said of Sprengel and Keenan. “Just being 20 points ahead of them after three events is incredible. It’s certainly a different race this year. Last year, I was 12 points back heading into the championship. This year, if I can be fortunate enough to be in the cut, I won’t have to worry about Angler of the Year. I’d love to make a run and win the championship itself. I’ve won smaller championships, but never a major one. It’s one of the last things I want to do.”
Working against King is Sprengel’s history on Devils, which includes a 2014 MWC victory. In addition, Sprengel puts in 60 to 70 days per year on Devils as an ice fishing guide for the Perch Patrol Guide Service.
“There’s a lot of tournament history on Devils Lake, so there are few secrets,” said Sprengel, the Berkley pro. “The interesting thing is that every year is a little bit different. It’s like turning over a new leaf. Lately, the water has leveled off, and it’s fishing more like a lake.”
For many years, Pelican Bay, located on the northwest side of the lake, was popular with tournament anglers. Last year, Nussbaum focused on East Devils Lake and East Bay.
“The East Lake is just deeper, cooler. and there’s a ton of perch,” explained Sprengel. “They don’t have any reason to leave, so they end up staying out there. But now East Lake is getting overcrowded. The bite has been great all summer, but they don’t reload like they used to. I know some big bags were caught this summer on the main lake too. Overall, I think it’s going to take between 65 to 67 pounds to win it. Twenty pounds a day is definitely doable. It depends when that first summer cooldown arrives.”
Despite all his accolades, Sprengel has never won the NWT AOY. In 2013, he accumulated the same number of points (757) as Robert Blosser, but lost in a tiebreaker.
“Being 20 points back is not where I want to be, but it’s still doable. I threw fish back at Winnebago and fished too aggressively at Green Bay and didn’t come in with a limit. It can still happen. It’s Devils Lake, so the weights will be tight. I’m not even thinking about Angler of the Year though. Whenever I think about it, it never happens. It’s always my goal to stay consistent and finish in the top 10 in the standings. If I do that, it will happen one of these years.”
“I hope it’s a slam dunk; I hope there’s no suspense,” concluded King. “But this field is an incredible bunch of fishermen. You gotta bring it, period. I would not doubt for one minute that this one will come down to the wire again.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time from Graham’s Island State Park. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at Graham’s Island State Park, beginning at 3 p.m. The full field fishes the first two days and the top 10 pros and top 10 co-anglers fish the final day. The winner in each division is determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.