By Brett Carlson
MARINETTE, Wis. - Green Bay is known as perhaps the premier big-walleye fishery in the country, but catching a five-fish limit can be difficult. This week at the fourth and final qualifying event of the 2022 National Walleye Tour season, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, bait was abundant, which meant coaxing walleyes to bite was downright baffling at times. In these challenging conditions, the cream of the crop always rises to the top. For the second time in his young career, the best of the best was 35-year-old Duane “Dewey” Hjelm. By doubling down, Hjelm proved he’s not just a Missouri River stick; he’s one of the best in the business.
Lately, Green Bay tournaments have been dominated by fishermen who run north and structure fish. Casting and reading forward-facing electronics is a thrilling way to target huge walleyes, but it’s also nerve wracking as the anglers know they’ll be lucky to receive a handful of bites. For that reason, Green Bay leaderboards are notorious for flip-flopping. Proving their mettle, Hjelm and others at the top stayed remarkably consistent this week.
Hjelm said he drove his Ranger 30 to 40 miles north from Marinette - staying on the west shore and heading up towards Big Bay de Noc. There, he sampled offshore structure or what he called resting spots.
“They are starting to set up on their summer homes,” said the Pierre, S.D., native, who first won on Lake Sakakawea in 2017. “We were keying in on areas that didn’t have as much baitfish. There was tons and tons of baitfish around, but up there, there wasn’t hardly any. It wasn’t like it was everywhere else; they seemed more friendly.”
While there was some rock in his area, rock wasn’t exactly the deal.
“It was basically little shoals or little knobs that had current deflections. Walleyes could get in front of it or behind it, depending if they were resting or feeding. Rocks were a good thing, but if it didn’t have rock, we didn’t rule it out.”
In gin clear water, Hjelm’s fish were suspended 2 to 10 feet off the bottom in water 18 to 24 feet deep. At times, he would slide up as shallow as 14 feet.
“I wasn’t making a cast unless I saw a fish. I had my head down on my Lowrance ActiveTarget the whole time. You knew you were casting on or around fish. I never really understood it until I fished Green Bay, but these walleyes never stop moving. They are constantly on the swim, and you can just watch them come and go on the graph. You’ll get super excited, and then they’ll completely vanish.”
Hjelm threw a variety of glide baits in natural colors to catch his fish. He had trolling gear with him, but never caught one trolling in the tournament.
“We had our trolling rods ready in case the wind and weather wouldn’t let us execute. But the conditions were almost perfect for glide baits. We would let it hit bottom, then rip it up. You get most of your bites right before it hits bottom or near the top of the stroke. Sometimes when you go to lift up again they already have it. The action at the top of the stroke, it just makes them super mad.”
When Hjelm, the Dakota Lithium pro, sat on his primary area this morning, he instantly started seeing fish. However, the first five or six schools weren’t interested at all. Then, they’d experience a 45-minute bite window where they’d catch three or four. Then a lull. Then another bite window. Hjelm’s co-angler, Michael Yarema, caught a 30-incher as their sixth and final fish. At that point, Hjelm still had four hours to ease back to Marinette. The end result for his best five was 41.72 pounds. Combined with his 31.68 from day one, Hjelm finished the tournament with a cumulative total of 73.40 pounds.
“The key to this one was putting in a lot of hard work and long hours. At first, it was figuring out water temperatures, current, baitfish and all that stuff. I was just trying to figure out what the heck was happening with the lake. Then, it was trying to figure the fish out and duplicate it in spots A, B and C. Lastly, it was about relying on and trusting my equipment, especially my graph.”
For his second NWT win, Hjelm earned a Ranger 620FS Pro with a 250-horsepower Mercury Pro XS, plus $15,000 cash and another $2,327 of Anglers Advantage cash for a total purse of $101,322. Hjelm also tightened the Lucas Oil Angler of the Year race. Kevin McQuoid leads with 717 points. Eleven points behind McQuoid is Max Wilson, and Hjelm sits one point behind Wilson.
“Winning any of these tournaments is a huge accomplishment. I don’t take any of this for granted. I’m super blessed and super grateful. I know what it takes to win one of these, and to walk away with another one is crazy. Two weeks ago I married my longtime girlfriend Valerie, and my parents have been traveling with us for the last few events. It’s overwhelming the amount of support I’ve received lately. They all plan on coming to Dunkirk too.”
Sprengel satisfied with second
Korey Sprengel, known by many as the Green Bay GOAT, finished second with a two-day total of 61.27 pounds. On day one, the Berkley pro caught 30.14 pounds, and today he improved slightly to 31.13. Sprengel dominated the 2020 and 2013 NWT events on Green Bay, his home pond. In 2020, he won the event by over 17 pounds. This week, however, he was content with second.
“For the first time and maybe the only time, I’m happy with second,” said the Beaver Dam, Wis., native. “Dewey just put it out of reach. I’m glad he crushed them or there would’ve been a lot of things I wished I did differently.”
This morning, Sprengel debated a mega run north. It was a gamble, and he ultimately opted against it. While he still ventured north, he only went roughly 20 miles from Marinette.
“Part of me really wanted to swing for it this morning, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t do it. I knew it was a tougher bite, and I knew in these other areas I could catch fish.”
Sprengel’s pattern was essentially the opposite of Hjelm’s. Instead of casting glide baits, he trolled standard crawler harnesses.
“I trolled the whole time. The thing with glide baits is that you lose about half the fish that bite. In a tough-bite tournament, that’s everything. I know with a crawler harness, my odds of losing them are a lot slimmer.”
Sprengel said his harness setup was an octopus hook up front and a treble below. Golds, purples and chartreuses in both Colorado and willow blades produced.
“To be honest, there was nothing that stuck out this week. It’s just what I have confidence in. It’s the presentation that kind of made my career. I can manipulate depths, up and down, deep and shallow, to trigger a bite.”
Sprengel’s speeds were 1 to 1.5 mph. He wanted the crawlers near the bottom in 15 to 20 feet.
“It’s a fine line. You want to be close to the bottom, but you can’t touch it or it’s over with the moss, zebras and gobies down there. Some were rock breaklines. Some were just big-boulder spots. On these tough bites, I key on short passes and fish the high-percentage spots. Some of these passes were as short as 200 yards. Right now, they’re so full of alewives, so it’s tough. With a tough bite, sometimes curiosity wins. You pull a crawler harness slow enough, it’s going to follow it, smell it and then eventually eat it.”
Side Imaging helped Sprengel identify the structure. His vessel itself also assisted with fine-tuning his trolling program.
“I had to go sideways through the wind, but my Ranger tracked straight, and it didn’t swing around with that deep keel. It’s one thing a lot of people overlook, but it made a big difference.”
Sprengel will head to the year-end championship fourth in the points, seven behind Hjelm.
Wiesner up to third
The biggest move of the day belonged to local Fond du Lac, Wis., fisherman Josh Wiesner. After catching four quality walleyes on day one that weighed 24.46 pounds, Wiesner caught four giants Friday that weighed 36.52 pounds. Despite not weighing a limit either day, Wiesner took third with 60.98 pounds.
“Yesterday I caught all the big ones trolling crawler harnesses, which I never do,” said Wiesner. “Today we made the same run north. We got around the bend and the fish were there, but it just wasn’t working. We pulled in two boards, and there were two marks on the LiveScope. I dropped down and caught one of my two big ones.”
Wiesner said that first fish quite possibly could’ve been the biggest walleye of his life.
“I didn’t measure it, and I didn’t weigh it, but it could’ve been 12 pounds.”
Like Hjelm, Wiesner did his damage today with glide baits in 16 to 20 feet. His best was a No. 9 Jigging Rap that was painted by Hot Shot Customs.
“We had four fish in the boat by 11, but we never could get the fifth. There were other areas south of Marinette where I could’ve caught a smaller fish, but I tried for the win and came up short. Yesterday, I lost a 5-pounder next to the boat on the second net attempt. That would’ve had me in second. Considering I didn’t find these fish until the last day of practice, I’m absolutely thrilled with third.”
Herd retains fourth, McQuoid up to fifth
Rounding out the top five are Minnesota pros Drake Herd and Eric McQuoid. Walleye fans may remember that Herd and McQuoid stole the show at last year’s championship on Otter Tail Lake. Herd clinched Angler of the Year in front of family and friends while McQuoid became the youngest pro to ever win a tour championship.
This week on Green Bay, Herd was remarkably consistent. On day one, the Alexandria, Minn., pro caught a limit weighing 28.18 pounds. Today, he improved to 31.63 pounds, finishing with a total weight of 59.81 pounds.
McQuoid, fresh off a team victory on Green Bay, also improved as the tournament continued. On the first day, McQuoid caught a limit weighing 25.60 pounds, and today he managed 32.91. Combined, the 22-year-old had 58.51 pounds for the week.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros on Green Bay:
6th: Ryan Dempsey of Green Bay, Wis., seven walleyes, 51.01
7th: Max Wilson of Campbellsport, Wis., eight walleyes, 50.32
8th: Tom Huynh of Moorhead, Minn., nine walleyes, 45.11
9th: Kevin McQuoid of Isle, Minn., 10 walleyes, 44.43
10th: Matt Schiefelbein of Marseilles, Ill., nine walleyes, 42.94
The final event of the 2022 season is the NWT Championship, the most lucrative event in professional walleye fishing. Only the top 40 pros and top 40 co-anglers qualified to fish the no-entry-fee tournament, which takes place Aug. 24-26 on Lake Erie out of Dunkirk, N.Y.