For the better part of 30 years, Cody Northrop has been fishing Lake Sakakawea, located 100 miles from his residence in South Heart, N.D. Recently, Northrop has been branching away from the 360,000-acre reservoir as he expands his tournament-fishing career. While he’s grown as an angler, Northrop also felt he was losing touch with his home water, specifically with how the influx of smelt has changed the lake. Today, he reconnected with his roots and won the third National Walleye Tour event of the 2020 season, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, proving there is no place like home.
The dock talk leading up to Sakakawea was that trolling leadcore with Berkley Flicker Minnows was going to dominate. That all changed in practice when Mother Nature threw a nasty cold front into the mix, complete with freezing temperatures and relentless winds. Instead of trolling, casting and jigging took over post front, and Northrop was one of the first to adjust.
“The west end, from McKenzie Bay to New Town, that’s my home water,” Northrop explained. “My main spot was 60 miles from the ramp in the Van Hook Arm. It was a submerged island 5 miles north of Shell Village.”
On day one, Northrop fished the outside edges of the island in 35 feet of water. Today, the southeast wind pushed the bait up to 20 feet. When the day started, Northrop was not necessarily swinging for the fences.
“I’ve had three tourneys this year with good first days, and then I fell off the second day. I was just going to put weight in the box today. My first fish was an 18-incher, which I kept. Then I caught a 23- and 20-incher, both of which I kept. Then I drifted 40 or 50 feet down the island. That’s when I hit the bait, and it went crazy. I’ve never seen that much bait in that area. It was thick from the top of the screen to the bottom. I saw that, and I knew it was going to be game on.
“My first two were 25 and 26 – almost back to back. Then I caught a 26- and a 27-incher. Then I went through a few smaller ones, and at 10:30 we caught another 27, and we were done.”
At that point, Northrop knew he wouldn’t go backwards in the standings, but he wasn’t sure he was going to win. Either way, his day was finished as anglers are permitted to keep eight walleyes and weigh their best five. Culling, or upgrading, was not permitted. His official weight for his best five was 28.20 pounds.
“I didn’t know I was going to win. I really thought the rest of the lake would fire up.”
Northrop’s main bait was the No. 9 Rapala Jigging Rap. Custom greens and whites (from Alex and Christina Gorske at Team Ultimatum Customs) were the best colors. While he would vertically fish the Jigging Rap, he would dead stick a 4-to 6-inch creek chub on the bottom. Of his 10 weigh fish, eight came on the Jigging Rap, and two came on the chub. Today, all his fish came from the sunken island, but on day one he upgraded an 18 and a 16 from milk-run spots on the way back to the ramp.
“These fish are so full of smelt that it takes a big bait to get a reaction bite out of them. The key to the win was just my knowledge of this lake. I’ve fished this spot numerous times before in tournaments. I think the MWC was won on this spot earlier in the year. But in all my years I’ve never seen it light up with bait like today.”
Combined with his 22.71 from day one, Northrop won with a two-day total weight of 50.91 pounds. The victory earned him a Ranger 2080 MS with a 250-horsepower Mercury Pro XS, $15,000 cash, plus an addition $3,003 of Anglers Advantage cash for a total purse of $82,598. This was only Northrop’s third event as an NWT pro.
“I’m just overwhelmed; it’s a dream come true. To fish and win against the guys of this caliber is humbling. I’m grateful to have the opportunity, and I’m thinking we’ll do the whole schedule next year. I hope we come back here again next year.”
Cox retains second
Manhattan, Kansas, pro Jaran Cox retained second place after brining in five walleyes weighing 22.42 pounds. Combined with his 23.80 from day one, Cox finished with 46.22 pounds.
“I’m happy with second, but the win was right there,” said Cox. “We lost a few fish, but I’m not sure they would have made the difference. It’s fishing, what do you do? I’m fortunate to take what I can get. Congratulations to Cody.”
Cox stayed relatively close to Fort Stevenson State Park. His milk run included stops both west and east of takeoff.
“We were fishing both shallow and deep, anywhere from 3 to 35 feet. Our big fish of the day came from a point in Douglas Bay that was only 3 or 4 feet of water. The way it bit and went sideways, I thought for sure it was a musky.”
Cox primarily used a Rapala Rippin’ Rap. The No. 7 was his most popular size, but he would downsize to the No. 6 when he fished his shallower spot.
“I had every color they make plus some custom colors, and it just didn’t seem to make a difference. You just had to get it in front of their face.”
In addition to the Rippin’ Rap, Cox also dabbled with the No.9 Jigging Rap out deep. Of his 10 weigh fish, seven came on the Rippin’ Rap, and three came on the Jigging Rap.
“Overall, the wind didn’t really turn them on as much as I expected. We really weren’t marking as much out deep. We did have five in the livewell by 10:30, but we never upgraded. That was kind of the dagger right there.
For second place, the Ranger pro earned $32,530.
“I want to thank the men and women in blue, all the first responders out there, and the veterans. If it wasn’t for them, none of us would be able to do what we do. Today is about honoring those brave men and women, and those we lost on Sept. 11. This plaque is for them.”
Wisconsin fisherman Josh Hietpas, a teammate of Northrop’s, finished third with a cumulative weight of 45.72 pounds. His weight improved today from 20.30 to 25.42. While Northrop made the long run north and west to Van Hook, Hietpas only traveled 15 miles to Berthold Bay.
“There’s an island in the middle of the bay that has deep breaks,” said the Kaukauna, Wis., pro. “The wind had been crashing in on that for four or five days, including today. We found good bait out there, and at the edge of the bait, we found fish, so we targeted the shallow edge of the bait.”
Yesterday the edge of the bait was in 33 to 52 feet. Today, that shifted shallower to 17 to 30.
“We were doing a combination. We were rigging live bait with creek chubs at .5 mph, but we’re also ripping the No. 9 Jigging Rap. The live-bait rod was sitting in the rod holder. If you would see a tick, you would open the bail, feed it some line, give it at least 20 seconds, and then close the bail, feel the weight, sweep, and reel.
“Yesterday was mainly Jigging Raps, and today 100 percent of the fish that went in the box were on chubs. Yesterday was mostly deep, and today was mostly shallow.”
Hietpas explained that the Jigging Rap pattern was purely a reaction bite, and thus colors didn’t matter.
“We worked hard, and this one paid off. I wanted to find something away from the field. Five days of my prefish were spent on the east end of the lake. I wanted to stay away from people, and I’m working on getting out of my comfort zone. I’m a troller by nature; I’ve fished the Great Lakes for 15 years. These reservoirs are new to me, and this type of fishing is new to me, but it’s really intriguing, and the scenery out here is surreal.”
Stier fourth, Geitgey fifth
Rounding out the top five are Dan Stier and Scott Geitgey. Stier, the veteran tour pro and Lake Oahe guide, surged up the leaderboard on day two after catching a 25.22-pound limit. Combined with his day-one weight of 19.54, Stier finished the tournament fourth with 44.76 pounds. With eight in the box, Stier weighed in several hours early.
Despite improving his catch from 21.65 to 22.97, Geitgey slipped one spot to fifth and finished with a two-day total of 44.62. Geitgey made a 21-hour trip from Canton, Ohio, and performed admirably. While he used several techniques, most of his fish were caught on Rapala Jigging Raps.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros at the 2020 National Walleye Tour event on Lake Sakakawea.
6th: Gary Maher of Menoken, N.D., 43.02
7th: Mike Defibaugh of Bellefontaine, Ohio, 41.64
8th: Chad Rohr of Hays, Kansas, 41.39
9th: Bill Shimota of Northfield, Minn., 41.30
10th: Brett King of Hager City, Wis., 40.76
Heim claims Co-angler Division
In his first ever National Walleye Tour event, Brad Heim caught limits of 21.03 and 25.70 to claim top honors in the Co-Angler Division with a total weight of 46.73 pounds. On day one, the Bismarck, N.D., native fished with Jason Votava, and today he was paired with Dustin Kjelden.
“I can’t thank Jason and Dustin enough,” said Heim. “Today I was worried about gas; I was worried about the fish. Dustin told me to just relax. Right at the end, we had a triple. It was the perfect storm.”
Heim earned $7,284 for his victory.
“Fishing with these professionals, what a great bunch of teachers. I can’t thank them enough. I’m feeling great.”
The final event of 2020 season is the National Walleye Tour Championship, which is scheduled for Oct. 14-16 on Lake Erie in Huron, Ohio.