SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – The National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, continues its ascension north to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., for the third stop of the 2019 season. The event, held July 25-26, features the world’s best walleye fishermen as they compete for the biggest purse in the sport. While the season’s first two tournaments were held at traditional walleye factories in Winnebago and Green Bay, the “Soo” represents unknown territory for most of the field. In fact, the NWT has never visited Sault Ste. Marie, and the last national pro-am tournament was held in 2005.
In this event, tournament waters include the St. Marys River and its connecting lakes, both on the U.S. and Canadian side. This scenic waterway flows from Lake Superior to Lake Huron and serves as a major shipping channel.
“It’s a great spot to have a tournament,” said Evinrude pro Chris Gilman. “It’s just beautiful up there. But there will probably be 100 guys who have never been there. I’ve only been there once, and that was back in 2000, but I really enjoyed it.”
Gilman took third in that event and caught his fish by trolling spinners. He predicts that spinners will once again prove popular, but acknowledges tournament walleye fishing is evolving, and new secrets are likely to be revealed.
“I remember back then we didn’t have any cartography, and we had very little mapping. This time it’s going to be much different. Plus, we can basically go anywhere we want. With that much water and only a small amount of time to cover it all, it’s overwhelming. On the positive side, you’re going to be able to find spots by yourself. I’m really excited, but it feels like my first time going there.”
Mercury pro Mike Gofron won the aforementioned pro-am event on the “Soo.” Like Gilman, he was trolling bottom bouncers and spinners.
“I remember it well because it was my first major win,” recalled Gofron. “It’s a body of water that changes every time you go there. When we used to fish the Soo, we thought you had to avoid clear water. What we’re learning now is that these fish have adapted and now live in the clear water. They’re up in the rocks with the gobies, because they have to be.
“When we go to the same places, it tends to be the same routine, and it can bog you down. This place is different. It’s a new adventure, and that gets me excited.You better bring everything you own.”
Gofron explained that current seams, rock piles, points and weeds all hold fish. Likewise, the Antioch, Ill., fisherman believes that both Great Lakes, the river and the numerous river bays are viable.
“There’s going to be a lot of water to cover. If guys haven’t been there, it’s a great experience. It goes above and beyond just fishing. It’s a major shipping channel, and it’s really an amazing part of the world. Guys will encounter 1,000-foot freighter ships.”
Triton pro Tommy Kemos has more Soo experience than most, but the uniqueness of the fishery still has him on edge.
“It’s going to be a wild week,” said the Oconomowoc, Wis., native. “With unlimited boundaries, there are some opportunities for long, long runs, and there are some opportunities for fish nearby. There’s a ton of water and the gas docks should be open and running. Guys will go wherever they need to go to win the tournament. That could include a giant run down towards Saginaw Bay. It’s going to be pretty cool that way.”
Kemos personally doesn’t plan to make the 100-mile-plus runs.
“I think you can win it close, I really do. I think I’m going to leave the crazy running to the other guys.”
Kemos explained that the two key variables are water level and water temperature.
“The water is higher than we’ve ever seen it. In the past, there’s a lot of good stuff that’s too shallow; there just wasn’t enough water. This year, the shallower bays and the feeder creeks will have fish to be caught.
“Another wild card is Lake Superior. The water coming out of Superior is ice cold. When it’s calm, it will stay put. When there’s wind and a looming front, that ice water moves into the bay and takes the best bite and turns it into a ghost town instantly.”
Kemos further added that the freighters can impact the bite themselves.
“Those giant iron-ore vessels displace so much water they can actually act as a trigger, and a frenzy will start. At first, it will suck water out. Then, the water comes surging back in. It’s almost like a tidal surge. Depending where you’re at, it can be as much as a foot of water. The Soo is such a unique body of water.”
Gilman remembers that getting a five-fish limit was no easy task.
“It isn’t like Saginaw Bay where there’s fish everywhere,” he recalled. “I think it’s going to be a grind. There are fish to be caught, but it’s not like you’re fishing a school that has thousands of walleyes.”
Gilman and Kemos both plan to tinker with casting presentations during practice.
“I’m definitely bringing my Rippin’ Raps, but the fish seem to like spinners there,” said Gilman.
“Shiver Minnows are definitely going to be a player as are Red Eye Shads and Rippin’ Raps,” Kemos said. “There are certainly some places I can’t wait to go cast on. I don’t know that there’s ever been a tournament won there casting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be. Typically, the fish are so spread out. I will try casting for sure, but because the water changes so much, you have to have a lot of casting spots.
“The interesting thing is that there’s going to be a main channel bite in the St. Marys River in about 25 feet, yet other guys will be trolling spinners in just 2 or 3 feet of water.”
To take home the hardware and the lucrative first-place prize package, which includes a boat, motor and $15,000, both Gilman and Kemos believe the winning pro will need a two-day total of around 50 pounds. Gofron thinks it could possibly take up to 30 pounds per day.
“If we have good weather, it will take 25 or 26 pounds per day,” concluded Kemos. “That’s taking into consideration that someone could have 35 pounds one day and then things change. Sometimes those changes are easy to predict, and sometimes those changes come out of nowhere. This is one place where you better have several game plans. It’s going to be really interesting to see what this group of anglers comes up with. I think we’re going to see some pretty cool stuff. I can’t wait to get there.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time from the Aune Osborn Boat Launch, located at 1225 Riverside Dr. in Sault Ste. Marie. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the Aune Osborn Boat Launch, beginning at 3 p.m. The full field fishes each day with the winner in each division being determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.
The National Walleye Tour consists of three regular-season events and a year-end championship. Each regular season event is a two-day, pro-am tournament and delivers over a 100 percent payback. Pros compete against other pros, and co-anglers compete against other co-anglers.
Registration is ongoing for the Sault Ste. Marie event. The deadline for guaranteed entry (by signing up with a pro or co-angler) is July 8. Registration can be taken over the phone at 501-794-2064 or online by visiting www.nationalwalleyetour.com/tournaments/register/. For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit www.nationalwalleyetour.com.