After a spring fraught with changes and uncertainty, the National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, is eager to announce a full slate of three regular-season tournaments and a year-end championship. The 2020 season now begins July 23-24 in Oconto, Wis., and concludes Oct. 14-16 at the NWT Championship, held in Huron, Ohio, on legendary Lake Erie. In between are stops at Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Aug. 13-14, and Garrison, N.D., Sept. 10-11.
The season was originally slated to commence in April on Lake Francis Case in Chamberlain, S.D., but was canceled in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The subsequent event in Sandusky, Ohio, was also canceled, but the world’s best walleye anglers will now fish Lake Erie in the fall. The action gets under way July 23-24, which is considered primetime for Green Bay.
“I live for this, for fishing from sunup to sundown trying to put the different pieces together,” said Simms pro John Hoyer, the reigning NWT Championship winner. “The anticipation is building; it’s exciting that it’s finally time to fish.”
“I’m so happy that they scheduled four tournaments together,” added Berkley pro Korey Sprengel. “It’s great to have a full season. It’s definitely going to be different, especially with tournaments later in the summer and fall, but I really like that challenge.”
In addition to last year’s championship, Hoyer also won last year’s regular-season event on Green Bay.
“I feel like I never do well at the first tournament of the year,” Hoyer said. “Last year, the opener was by far my worst event. Now that it’s on Green Bay, I feel really good about it. It’s such an exciting, gratifying place to fish. Putting a pattern together on Green Bay, it’s almost like musky fishing. You’re fishing for a small number of key bites.”
Wisconsin pro Joe Okada finished second to Hoyer last year and possesses one of the more impressive Green Bay resumés.
“This is my favorite time to go to Green Bay,” Okada said. “I used to dedicate some time every year to just go up there and fun fish, and this is when I’d go. It’s early enough in the summer where everything is still in play; nothing is tapering down. The alewives are pretty much done by then too. The entire field can have their pick of where they want to fish.”
“The end of July is the start of the major summer bite,” Sprengel explained. “I think it will spread the field out more than ever. There will even be huge congregations of fish right out in front of takeoff at the Oconto Shoal. The tournament can absolutely be won within 5 miles of Oconto.”
When Hoyer took the Green Bay title last year, the event was held in late May, which means the patterns will largely be disparate.
“By the third week of July, it’s summer peak,” Hoyer continued. “They’ve returned to their summer homes. Last year, I won in 8 to 12 feet. This year. a lot of the fish will be deeper – anywhere from 20 to 40 feet. I’m expecting a lot of trolling spinners and a lot of Shiver Minnows.”
Hoyer and Okada (among others) have helped transform Green Bay walleye fishing over the past several seasons. What was once predominantly a trolling fishery is now considered wide open. Instead of covering large swaths of open water with spinners or crankbaits, Hoyer and Okada have become masters at casting to specific pieces of rock structure.
“It would be fun to find a casting bite again,” offered Okada. “It’s a stressful, all-consuming way to fish, but it’s so much fun. With more and more people becoming casters, I think the balance might shift back to the trollers. At some point, this all has to come full circle. There are only so many of those certain small areas, and there’s more pressure on those now than ever before. The fish don’t just peg themselves to the rock all the time either. That’s why you can’t take the trolling rods out of the boat. There is still roaming bait that they like to eat.”
Last year, Hoyer employed both custom-painted lipless crankbaits (purple gold tiger) and a Berkley PowerBait Power Swimmer on a 1/2-ounce jig. This year, he’s willing to wager that the event will be won either trolling spinners or casting the Shiver Minnow.
“Idling around and seeing those suspending feeders on the graph, that’s what the July trolling bite is all about,” said Hoyer. “I have my money on one of those two.”
“You can never count out trolling on Green Bay,” agreed Okada. “It’s still one of the most efficient ways to hit certain areas. The casting bite won’t be the same either. Last year, lipless crankbaits worked because the fish were shallower. Now that they’re deeper, you need a bait that quickly gets in the zone. The glide baits are just more efficient.”
With the tournament launching out of Oconto, the expectation is that roughly half the field will run north, and half will run south. Generally speaking, it’s easier to catch more walleyes down south, but the average size structure is larger up north.
“If the weather is stable, you can run south to the mud and win,” Hoyer said. “This is the time of year when the mud can produce a 40-pound bag. The mud bite really heats up after the mayfly hatch is over. The easy food is gone, and now they’re motivated; they’re actually chasing prey down. Those mud days can be crazy.”
“I typically like to fish north, but I’ve been scared of those southern fish,” admitted Sprengel. “There’s a pile of 25-plus-inch fish down south. It’s one incredible year class, and they’re so heathy. The other wildcard is that the water is really high. With a west wind, the east shoreline can be dirty, and that’s now. I’m interested to see come the middle of summer how dark that water gets with algae blooms. That could change everything in terms of where the fish will be and what techniques excel. To be honest, the whole Cedar River stretch has been spotty to non-existent this spring.”
Hoyer won last year with precisely 80.33 pounds. While that was impressive, no one would be surprised if it took 80 to win again.
“If the weather is right, it’s going to take 78 to 82 pounds to win,” concluded Sprengel. “The difference is that this year the weights will be high across the board; it won’t just be high for a dozen guys.”
“I think that 35 a day for sure will be needed,” predicted Okada. “If I had 35 pounds each day, I would feel like I fished a good tournament.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time from Breakwater Park and Harbor, located at 1301 Harbor Rd. in Oconto. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at Breakwater Park and Harbor, 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 Green Bay event. The deadline for guaranteed entry (by signing up with a pro or co-angler) is July 6. 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.