PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. - After visiting two sprawling, expansive fisheries in Lake Erie and Lake Sakakawea, the world's best walleye anglers are set to sample the more confined waters of pools 9, 10 and 11 of the Mississippi River. The two-day tournament, held June 15-16, marks the third event of the 2017 Cabela's National Walleye Tour season. While the Mighty Miss is known for having a stable population of walleyes, the river's fluctuating water level may confuse both the fish and the anglers. Instead of daily adjustments, anglers may need to change hourly to keep in contact with the fish.
Ranger-Evinrude pro Bill Shimota has multiple wins on the Mississippi River. While he considers pools 3 and 4 to be his home water, he's also notched a victory downstream on pools 14-17.
"This is going to be a classic summertime river tournament," said Shimota. "This time of year the field really spreads out, which helps because we're restricted to fishing half the river."
On the Old Muddy, wing dams, rock piles, sand dunes and backwater sloughs all hold fish. Typically, the key to a strong river bite is finding an area with the right amount of flow.
"River walleyes look for what I call their comfy spot," explained Shimota. "They like to hang out where there's enough current for food to be swept by them. But there can't be too much current. Every time the water level changes, the fish move to find the comfy spot. With the water being high, the backwater areas will be inviting. Of course, wing dams will be a factor."
Evinrude pro Tommy Skarlis grew up fishing Pool 9. He reported that the river is high to the point where boat ramps are closed, but is dropping rapidly.
"It's almost a waste of time to go fishing right now," Skarlis said. "Things are changing so fast and they will continue to change. Guys will find something two days before the tournament starts, but then have to throw the whole pattern out the window. Spots that were hot on Tuesday will be dead on Thursday."
With the spring migration over, Shimota and Skarlis both believe a wide variety of presentations will be employed.
"When you're packing for this tournament, you throw in everything and the kitchen sink," added Skarlis. "Trolling leadcore, three-way rigging, casting cranks, jigging, soaking live bait. Everything is going to be in play."
Skarlis is recovering from a Nov. 6 accident where he fell out of his deer stand headfirst and damaged his spinal cord when
the stand's ratchet strap broke. Typically, Skarlis would love to be casting crankbaits all day as he runs and guns from spot to spot. Physically, that's no longer possible.
"I'm just so blessed to be out there fishing," he said. "This year I'm fishing to be an inspiration to other people. It's also a form of physical therapy. Instead of lying in bed and feeling sorry for myself, I've decided to get out there and get after it. I'm fishing and fighting for survival. I'm out there with shoulder, neck and back pain. I'm still mentally sharp; I just don't have the balance. I still know what decisions to make; I'm just not agile and coordinated. I've got to be more of a troller and a rigger. I've also got to rest every once in a while."
Despite possessing intimate knowledge of the river, Skarlis' confidence is not high.
"At the first tournament, I just wanted to finish; I just wanted to physically make it through. At the second tournament, I wanted to get competitive. In this tournament, I want to cash a check. Honestly, I'm way better on a consistent river bite. I seem to struggle with changing conditions."
Skarlis explained that if conditions are stable or if the water is rising slightly, patterning fish will be much easier.
"With falling water, it changes so fast it's almost hard for me to speak intelligently. You find them one day in a back slough. The next day they're at the mouth. We will be amazed with some of the spots these guys uncover; I'm excited to see where they're caught. I think it could be won in any pool."
If the water remains high, Shimota believes the backwaters will loom large. If it continues to recede, the walleyes will migrate back to the main river channel.
"High water is a good thing," said Shimota. "It concentrates the fish. It makes more acreage of water, but it decreases the amount of productive water. When the water is falling, you have to be careful that you're not on something that is fading."
To win the two-day tournament, both Skarlis and Shimota think it will take over 40 pounds. Saugers are present in all three pools and can help fill a limit, but are not considered winning fish.
"It could still take 50 pounds to win," said Skarlis. "You will see some bags in the 20s and maybe a couple in the 30s. The question is, do you sit on one spot all day and wait for them to show up? That can work for a day, but it's difficult to repeat."
"If you can get up near 20 pounds, that's a real nice bag," concluded Shimota. "You may see a 30-pound bag but I doubt you will see consecutive 30-pound bags. Personally, I think you really have to keep an open mind and look for those not-so-obvious spots."
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time from the PDC Marina Boat Landing, located at 374 Saint Feriole Dr. in Prairie du Chien. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the marina, 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.