2017 Walleye Tournament Trail Trends
June 15, 2017
Shenanigans aside, interesting outcomes occur when you assemble large groups of fishermen into the same competitive confines. So it was about 1989 that legendary walleye pros Bob Propst Sr. and Mike McClelland found themselves pre-fishing what would be the Masters Walleye Circuit's (MWC) first-ever visit to the marvelous Bays de Noc, Michigan. Bob's son, Bob Propst Jr., was also practicing for the event, and had landed on a beehive of big fish.
Then-tournament director Jim Kalkofen recalls the mischief that followed: "Bob Jr. was excited about the school of fish he was on, but he was so paranoid other anglers might find it after that last practice day that he secretly placed a mallard duck decoy right near his spot — a rock point — to disguise it but still allow him to locate it [this before the era of Loran C and GPS].
"Having watched the sneaky act, McClelland and Propst Sr. waited until Jr. left the spot before moving in and executed 'the plan,'" Kalkofen says. "The next day, when the tournament started, unbeknown to Propst Jr., the duck decoy now floated over a different, yet similar looking point a short way down the lake.
"But remarkably when Bob Jr. idled up to the decoy and started fishing, he immediately began catching walleyes on the 'new' spot — good ones. The point was so similar in appearance and apparently as productive as his original spot that he never missed a beat. No one knew anything questionable had occurred until McClelland and Propst Sr. finally came clean, having themselves won the tournament," Kalkofen recalls.
Stories like this one and dozens of others from the pro walleye trail tend to stay, for the most part, "between friends." What happens on the lake stays on the lake. But while some stories are better left untold, others deserve to see the light of day, including all the behind-the-scenes experimentation and sweat equity that often generates groundbreaking tackle and trends, which eventually trickles down to the angling public. Apart from early intelligence from the minds of Buck Perry and Bill Binkelman, many of the sport's major breakthroughs have origins in competitive angling.
Thank pros Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz, for instance, for breakthroughs in precision trolling, planer boards, and adapting Great Lakes tactics to all waters. Mike Gofron shared a lot of knowledge on shallow water walleyes. The Jigging Rapala and other lures in this category were popularized for use on open-water walleyes through the tournament successes of the late Kim "Chief" Papineau and Perry Good, who early on each won big with the now popular lure. Advancements in using electronics come from legends like Bruce "Doc" Samson, who helped develop some of the early digital high-detail contour maps, and who taught us how to interpret sonar. And the legendary Gary Roach wrote the book — or at least several chapters — on rigging and jigging.
I've long resisted the notion that tournament anglers represented the best, most potent fish-catching force in all the sport. Indeed, there's a legion of unsung anglers who don't fish competitively, yet quietly go about catching loads of big walleyes on amazing and often overlooked methods. But for the most part, these folks don't have a voice. Or don't particularly care to share their discoveries. At the same time, tournament anglers can't cherry pick nice days to fish; they fish on tournament days, which can coincide with horrible weather, high fishing pressure, and bad bites.
Kalkofen, 35-year veteran of the competitive walleye game and current manager of Target Walleye, an online community of fish heads, unwittingly dove into walleye tournaments while PR director for Mercury Marine in the early 1980s. He says, "Tournaments force anglers to resolve fishing problems, often in very bad conditions. The job of these anglers is to tell others how they caught their fish — it's part of their obligation to sponsors. And they use a variety of media to convey their message. The result is that weekend anglers learn how to approach various situations by listening to the pros."
So whether you appreciate or oppose competitive angling, there's no denying its value. Under duress and the drive to win, tournament anglers are innovators by necessity. Great new tackle and technology results. The industry moves forward. The rest of us catch more fish in a wider range of waterbodies, conditions, and situations.
The Bombing Trend
For roughly 5 to 10 years, innovations in the walleye game seemed to be at a standstill. Media covering walleye tournaments had mostly transitioned to niche online outlets. A disconnect developed between tournament proceedings and the everyday angler. Then, a few years ago, the Jigging Rap phenomenon appeared to put tournaments and walleye angling back on the collective angling radar.
"Even in the bass world, I don't think we've seen a lure-based trend in recent years as big or as important as the Jigging Rap and the impact these jigging minnows have had on the walleye game," says Gary Parsons, all-time tourney great and host of TV's The Next Bite. The Jigging Rap is now Rapala's best selling lure, and sales of lures in the same category like the Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow, Custom Jigs & Spins Rotating Power Minnow, Lunkerhunt's Straight Up Jig, and Johnson's new Johnny Darter, are exceeding expectations.
"When Chief (Papineau) nearly won a PWT event many years ago, In-Fisherman covered the story," he recalls. "But the tournament occurred early in the spring, a time not associated with a strong jigging-minnow bite. It just didn't translate to the way folks fished, so the story sort of fizzled.
"Meanwhile, Perry Good eventually admitted he'd been using Jigging Raps to produce his 'overs' (one big fish over a given slot limit, allowed per tournament day) for years," Parsons says. "He always seemed to have a big fish in his limit, which we attributed to livebait rigging. Turns out, when Chief spilled the beans, Perry paid attention and kept the secret to himself for years, until he eventually showed Al Lindner. Once Al started talking Raps on TV, guys on the MWC notched a big win by fishing the baits on bridge pilings. From there, another win happened on Cass Lake in Minnesota, with guys just crushing fish.
"That got my attention, and prompted us to start fishing Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnows," he says. "Keith Kavacejz won at Escanaba (Little Bay de Noc, Michigan) that year and I took second during the August event — both on Shiver Minnows."
As I write this article, Dan Quinn of Rapala emailed to tell me Randy Gaines and Mike Rhoades had just won the October 2017 MWC Championship on Green Bay using #6 Flat Jigs — Rapala's newest, heavyweight bombing lure designed for fishing deep and in heavy current.
Parsons adds a critical observation regarding the big picture of this lure phenomenon. "All this came along at the perfect time, when trolling motors and sonar had evolved to allow anglers to locate, target, and hover over individual fish," he says. "Jigging minnows are often the perfect lures for this."
Yet while bombing and bombing-style lures continue to trend upward, numerous top walleye baits are on the rise. "The Rippin' Rap — in the rattlebait category that was just 'okay' for walleyes — hit a home run with its action and profile. Guys just won a big NWT event on it at Sturgeon Bay," Parsons says.
More Tackle Trends
From a broader perspective, Tommy Skarlis, the illustrious Waukon, Iowa- based pro, notes a trend toward high-end tackle. "Guys these days aren't afraid to pay premium prices for topnotch gear. St. Croix sells a ton of high-end rods — $250 to $300 Legend Tournament Walleye rods are hot, as are $400 Legend Elites and Legend Xtremes."
Skarlis says the trend translates to lures, too, where anglers are parting with almost $4 per jig. "The Awesome Walleye Runner is a premium spinner jig with a Daiichi forged needlepoint hook," he says. "Paired with a paddletail, ringworm, or other softbait, it's been a killer jig in rivers and reservoirs, and in darker-water environments."
Another trend, says Kalkofen, is the rise of swivel jigs, such as Northland Tackle's Swivel-Head. Likely adapted from the bass arena, both the Northland jig and the VMC Swingin' Rugby Jig employ an articulated head-to-hook connection, producing pronounced movement of live- or softbaits.
In crankbaits, Skarlis calls out the Rumble B, Bagley's new play on the classic minnowbait shape, diving from 8 to 25 feet and swimming with a steady rolling action. "Berkley continues to rock their Flicker series, too, designed by Parsons and Kavajecz," he says. "And for me, the Salmo Hornet is still a hot number."
"The Flicker Minnow and Flicker Shad were both tournament-driven lures," Parsons says. "They've probably won more money than any other crankbait series, including both the MWC and NWT championships."
Kalkofen points out the recent success of the Rapala Shadow Rap and Scatter Rap, each offering radical, slashing or wandering actions. "We've also done well this past year with the Shad Dancer," he says. "It's a 2-inch high-action deep-diver similar to the Tail Dancer, only made with a shorter shad profile.
"There's a ton of great new plastics out there, too," he adds. "Bento Baits by Lunkerhunt have become fantastic go-to fluke-style baits twitched on a jighead or ripped through vegetation." Parsons and Kavajecz, who helped John Prochnow design Berkley's original 3-inch PowerBait Minnow for walleyes, say the new 3-inch PowerBait Twitchtail Minnow may be the best walleye shape yet. Parsons: "The 3-inch Gulp! Minnow is another staple. And for slow-death rigging behind a bottom bouncer, the Gulp! Killer Crawler and Gulp! Fry often outfish live crawlers."
The apparent transition from livebait to artificials isn't a mirage, but neither is it a new phenomenon. Both Kalkofen and Parsons report that as many as 80 percent of all major tournaments over the years have been won with artificial lures, with a decided nod to crankbaits.
The panel of pros also calls out spinnerbait trolling, a relatively recent development popularized by Nebraska guide and tournament angler Rob Rowland. "Tournaments on Oahe, South Dakota, McConaughy, Nebraska, Devils Lake, Bull Shoals, and Table Rock — places where walleyes suspend in deep wood — call for trolling snag-resistant lures at precise depths," Kalkofen says. "A spinnerbait behind leadcore is a game-winning summer approach, especially in reservoirs." Rowland has boated countless 27- to 30-inch fish, most all of them on 3/4- and 1-ounce Booyah Double Willow Blade spinners.
Off Shore Tackle's Tadpole Weight, a diving sinker capable of presenting trolled baits as deep as 70 feet, is another trend. "For folks who scorn leadcore, the Tadpole is an easy alternative," Skarlis says. "The weights drive baits deep, but disengage when fish bite, allowing you to land walleyes without resistance."
Boats and Technology
Regarding boat control, electronics, and easing the process of finding and identifying fish, walleye pros have led the technology charge from day one. Like many up-and-coming anglers, Ryan Buddie, a northeastern Ohio-based walleye pro, has learned from Doc Samson. Among the first to run Lowrance's new StructureScan 3D, Buddie says the progressive sonar perspective holds great promise for identifying suspended fish.
Samson concurs, adding that Lowrance's latest StructureScan module is amazing in its ability to discern walleyes on sharp drop-offs. Fishing with Doc tempts you to purchase even more electronics, as his Crestliner Raptor contains three units — twin Lowrance Gen3 HDS9s and a Humminbird Onix — on the console alone. You immediately see the advantages and shortcomings of certain technologies. The Onix's narrow beam down-imaging and LakeMaster mapping is superior, while Lowrance wins in side-scan and 2D sonar.
Last year, while attending one of Samson's electronics seminars, Buddie was introduced to another tech-tool, an Aqua-Vu camera that connects directly to a Lowrance, Garmin, or Raymarine unit via the underwater viewing company's Multi-Vu adapter. "Side-scan, down-scan, and 2D sonar are all fish-finding tools that excel in different scenarios," Buddie says. "The Aqua-Vu is the fourth and perhaps ultimate fish-finding tool. I can't believe more anglers aren't making the sonar-camera connection. Something as simple as species ID — confirming sonar marks as walleyes as opposed to wasting time fishing for sheepshead or carp; or simply finding rocks without hook-fouling moss growing on them. On Green Bay, this can be a key while casting Rippin' Raps and other bottom-bumping baits. Sonar can't tell you this, but a camera can."
Skarlis, too, has become a fan of the camera-sonar connection. "I can look at an Aqua-Vu video image on my Raymarine and identify key types of vegetation, and sweet walleye spots like the zone where cabbage meets sandgrass."
Samson, who owns his own digital map company (doctorsonar.com), is a fan of Humminbird's AutoChart Live. "Using the Onix unit, I can precision-map specific structures in real time, and see the exact orientation of a structure while I fish it. You'd be surprised by how many little sweet spots or other details don't show up on standard digital lake maps," he says.
A designer of walleye boats and electronics, Parsons points out the precision of his Motor Guide Xi5 trolling motor. "It used to be that trolling won most tournaments," he says. "With highly accurate GPS-enabled trolling motors with virtual anchoring, casting now takes most wins. It's opened up a new world of open-water casting to individual fish — a whole other trend worthy of discussion."
Something much less discussed, yet potentially invaluable while running in rough seas, are trim tabs, says Parsons. "We run a pair of Lenco Trim Tabs on our Nitro boats and the ability to even out the starboard-to-port weight distribution and lift the chine out of waves is huge. Manufacturers need to build their boats to accommodate trim tabs. Nitro and Warrior both do, and their boats run much smoother, drier, and more fuel efficient, especially on big water."
Tournament Scene Today
Our pro panel believes that today may be the golden age of competitive walleye fishing. "Right now, there are more walleye tournaments than ever," says Kalkofen, who's run two top circuits, including the Professional Walleye Trail, in his career. "The scene has shifted to regional circuits and big local events like the Leech Lake Classic that's already filled for 2017.
"Same deal with most large events in the Dakotas," he says. "The best ones coincide with a community event. Back when gas was $1 a gallon and companies offered lots of sponsor money, guys could afford to travel the country on the big circuits. That's changed now, but in no way has it disrupted our love of the game."
"The AIM live-release circuit has more events and more anglers," Parsons adds, "including state divisions in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota. The MWC has always been strong. We see more women getting involved now, too. The one thing we're missing is a giant championship — our version of the Bassmaster Classic. Put the first one in Bismarck. It would be huge, and help solidify the sport's national prominence."
Skarlis, who may be the only walleye pro to also fish the pro crappie circuit, says he's learning tactics like spider-rigging that he's begun to adapt to walleyes. "Imagine spider-rigging and staggering depths with six different rods in the water," he says. "Give me a year to work out the kinks, and we'll talk again.
"The one thing about the bigger picture is that we're seeing a shift of fish into deeper and deeper water," he says. "We used to consider 10 to 20 feet deep. Now, we're seeing more anglers bombing and rigging fish in 40 to 70 feet. Greater clarity in waters like Green Bay, Lake Erie, and others mean deeper light penetration, which shifts forage and walleyes out to new regions of the lake. We've got to be aware of potential issues with deep fishing. But as a whole, the future for the walleye game is as rosy as the view through Bono's sunglasses."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt contributes to all In-Fisherman publications, and often contributes on trends in tackle and presentations.