The National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, is set to visit legendary Lake Erie Oct. 14-16 for its 2020 championship. The season-ending tournament, the most lucrative in the sport, awards three boat packages and determines who claims the coveted Angler of the Year award. Lake Erie is known as the Walleye Capital of the World, and the best sticks in the sport promise to put on an impressive show. The question becomes, how does an angler achieve separation when everyone is catching fish?
The walleye population in the western basin of Erie has exploded over the past few years thanks to wildly successful spring hatches. That’s good news for almost everyone involved, but it presents a unique challenge to Korey Sprengel, the current Angler of the Year leader.
“I’m looking forward to catching a lot of fish on Erie, but it’s a nightmare trying to figure out how I’m going to do well in the tournament,” said Sprengel, the Berkley pro. “In this one, it’s truly going to come down to ounces; every single ounce is going to count. It’s going to be a super tough tournament to separate yourself.”
With 552 points, Sprengel currently has a three-point lead over David Kolb and a five-point lead over John Hoyer. While Sprengel is widely regarded as the hottest pro on tour, he’s never officially won AOY. In 2013, he tied with Robert Blosser, but lost the tiebreaker in painstaking fashion. In every subsequent year, he has finished inside the top 10 in the year-end standings.
“I want the title, but I’m not focused on it,” said Beaver Dam, Wis., native. “I think if I keep fishing consistently it will happen someday. It’s a big deal because it’s the hardest one to earn. You have to be the best dude throughout all the events, on all types of lakes, and in all types of conditions. You have to navigate all the variables and be the best throughout the entire year.
“Yes, it’s in the back of my mind, but I haven’t really been thinking about it too much. I do know that I have absolutely no plans to hold back or fish conservative. I’ve done that before, and it never works. I don’t have a very good lead, so I need to be near the top, and I might have to win the darn tournament.”
Kolb has the most Erie experience of the three, and he’s approaching this like any other event.
“Angler of the Year is a great title, but I’d rather look at this as just one tournament,” said the Grand Blanc, Mich., pro. “Second place wins a boat, so I’m preparing to have a big tournament. If I do well, everything else falls into place.”
In 2019, Hoyer had perhaps the best season in walleye fishing history. In the last three tournaments of 2019, he placed first, second, and first. Ironically, that season did not include an AOY title. Like Sprengel, it’s the one remaining accolade he truly desires.
“It’s definitely my No. 1 goal right now, the next thing on my checklist,” said the Simms pro. “It’s a bar that is set high in our sport. It’s a title that is almost universally revered. I’ve been consistent this year, and that’s what AOY is, the most consistent angler. My season just started that way. I was never on a bite on Green Bay that allowed me to make that gamble and go for a 40-pound bag. That has continued throughout the year. It’s been a get-what-you-can-get type of year. I’m excited; this is the best AOY position I’ve ever been in.”
Sprengel, Kolb, and Hoyer all agree that trolling crankbaits will be Erie’s predominant pattern. However, that was the dock talk before Sakakawea, a tournament that was subsequently dominated by casting and vertically jigging.
“Erie has never really shown that casting will work,” explained Sprengel. “Those fish love to follow something; they love those bright and gaudy colors with reduced visibility.”
“There’s less structure than the other Great Lakes, but the main thing is that they just have more food,” Hoyer said. “I will still have spinning rods with. I fish better, and I’m way more relaxed with a spinning rod in my hand. To think that the Bass Islands don’t have a population of walleyes plucking gobies, I just can’t accept that; it’s something that has to be explored.”
For Hoyer, this is an event where his electronics will prove pivotal.
“This is only my sixth or seventh fishing trip out to Erie,” said the Orono, Minn., pro. “I don’t know the lake that well, but I’m confident that I know my electronics just as well as anybody. I will literally be relying 100 percent on my Lowrance electronics. It’s a game of reading the graph and determining if I need to move areas based on how that correlates with catch rates in practice and the current conditions.”
“It’s possible that some casting could work in the spring, but not in the fall,” added Kolb. “The bigger crankbaits are more popular in the fall – Tail Dancers, Husky Jerks, Bandits, Reef Runners, and Smithwick P10s.”
At each of the last two NWT events, long runs proved fruitful. On Sakakawea, pro winner Cody Northrop executed 60-mile one-way runs. On Sault Ste. Marie, champion Peter Schaeffer ventured 86 miles each way. Long runs may prove popular again, although Erie in October can be a volatile creature.
“There will be guys going to Avon. Kelleys Island could come into play,” explained Kolb. “There are fish everywhere – whether you run 10 miles, 20 miles, or 50 miles. I know some guys are debating a 100- or 120-mile run east, but not me. If you make the long run, you will have less than four hours of fishing time. And by the time you get out there, the morning bite is done. Plus, it’s rare to have three stable days of weather in October.”
Sprengel, Kolb, and Hoyer also agree that there won’t be any 40-pound stringers caught. Instead, anglers will be culling through several 3- and 4-pound fish throughout the day.
“It’s going to come down to who gets the 7- and 8-pound bites,” said Sprengel. “If you get two or three of those, you’re in great shape. Everyone is going to have 20 pounds. If you can get 30 to 32, that’s a really good bag. My guess is that it will take 80 pounds to win over three days.”
Kolb agreed with Sprengel’s assessment and said charter boats are coming in with their limits in an hour or hour and a half.
“Generally, the big ones are mixed in with the smaller fish,” Kolb said. “The problem is that the smaller fish are usually quicker and get the bait first. Most of the time you keep culling through hoping to get a bigger bite. Personally, I try to be as efficient as possible. Part of that is I run a skimmer transducer. That allows me to mark fish and run through waypoints doing 40 mph. I also have all my backup equipment ready. All of this makes a difference, especially with a tight leaderboard. In the end, I think 75 pounds over three days is going to win it.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Eastern time from the Huron Boat Ramp, located at 41 Cleveland Rd. East in Huron. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the Huron Boat Ramp, 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.