GARRISON, N.D. - After opening the 2017 season with a traditional stop at Lake Erie, the Cabela's National Walleye Tour is set to embark on new territory at an intriguing time. Lake Sakakawea, the third largest man-made reservoir in the United States, is set to host the world's best walleye anglers May 11-12, right after the fish complete their annual spawn. While Sakakawea boasts a healthy population of walleyes, few anglers target them this early in the season, which means there are few, if any, preconceived notions about how the tournament will be won.
While last year's championship was held downstream on Lake Oahe, this is the NWT's first official visit to the 368,000-acre Missouri River impoundment.
"I think we're all excited for a new body of water," said Ranger pro Korey Sprengel, who finished third at the season opener. "When you don't know what to expect, there's this thrill of trying to put it together. Personally, that's why I love doing this. It's always fun uncovering new things and learning a new body of water."
Sprengel said he has never fished Sakakawea, but he understands the ice went out only two weeks ago, which means the spawn is imminent.
"It's going to be interesting because it's a big body of water at a time of year we're not used to fishing. It's exciting, but at the same time it's a little intimidating."
As a resident of Mayville, N.D., fellow Ranger pro Scott Larson samples Sakakawea as often as he can. Larson believes the walleye spawn will be complete come tournament time, but the smelt spawn could be under way.
"The smelt population is almost at a record high," he said. "There's a lot of bait available. The timing of the smelt spawn will be the big variable. It can draw the walleyes up, but it can also make them tough to catch."
Larson sees this as primarily a shallow-water jigging tournament.
"The fish are going to be looking for warmer water, so the back bays are going to be key. Both plastics and traditional jig-and-fathead presentations are going to work over shallow, rocky points and sandbars. If the water is high enough, pitching to flooded vegetation could work. But it's too early for any weedlines."
Larson thinks several anglers will take a two-pronged approach - actively pitching the shallows while keeping a deadstick out in slightly deeper water. In addition to jigs, smaller crankbaits and Lindy rigs could come into play as could Slow Death and pulling spinners.
"It will be fun. There's a million different shallow points on the lake. There's also some decent saugers. If the bite is real tough, you could slide out to 30 feet and target saugers."
North Dakota is notorious for blustery weather and when the wind blows on the 178-mile Sakakawea, travel can be treacherous.
"The consensus is that the further west you go, the bigger the fish are," added Larson. "I'm sure there will be guys making 50, 60-mile runs. Some will probably even stop at Indian Hills (Resort) to get gas, but that's risky. If you have the right weather, guys will go to the Van Hook Arm up to
Parshall Bay. That's a long haul and it can get nasty."
Larson figures the two-day tournament will be won with approximately 40 to 45 pounds. North Dakota fishing regulations prohibit culling, which means anglers must immediately decide if they are keeping a fish. Competing as pro-am teams, anglers are permitted to keep eight fish each day and weigh their best five.
"This time of year, if you come in with 17 to 20 pounds, I think you'll be sitting really good. I'd be super happy with high teens. Even with 15 or 16 pounds, you're still in the game. But at the same time, it wouldn't be surprising to see a 25-pound bag. It's a fun deal. Not a lot of us have fished it this early, so there will be a lot of surprises."
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time from Garrison Bay Marina at Fort Stevenson State Park, located at
1252A 41st Ave. NW in Garrison
. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at Garrison Bay 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.
Registration is ongoing for the Lake Sakakawea event.
The deadline for guaranteed entry (by signing up with a pro or co-angler) is
TODAY. Registration can be taken over the phone at 501-794-2064 or online by visiting
For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit
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