Stage set for epic 2017 National Walleye Tour Championship
by Brett Carlson
MARINETTE, Wis. - Lake Michigan's Bay of Green Bay is slated to host the 2017 Cabela's National Walleye Tour Championship, the most lucrative event in competitive walleye fishing, Aug. 16-18. Green Bay is celebrated for its excellent walleye angling, but excellent may be understating what is predicted to happen when the water temperature warms to the mid-70s and the alewives disperse. "This is going to be a championship for the ages," said Ranger pro Tom Keenan, who last year crossed $1 million in career tournament winnings and is not accustomed to hyperbole.
Keenan explained that on Green Bay, warming water triggers the biggest fish in the system to feed. Furthermore, those giant walleyes prove to be more accessible without a bevy of baitfish to contend with. Keenan reported that the water temperature recently hit 72 degrees, which is slightly ahead of schedule for this time of year. The closer that number gets to 75, the better the bite will be.
"I haven't been this excited for a tournament in a long, long time," Keenan continued. "If I had to plan a week-long fishing vacation on Green Bay, that's the exact time I would go. They nailed this tournament absolutely perfectly. It's by far the best time of the year to fish the Bay of Green Bay."
Keenan isn't alone with his optimistic assessment. Poynette, Wis., pro Robert Blosser, the Lucas Oil Angler of the Year leader, believes the year-end championship will be, "an absolute slugfest."
"This is the premier time to watch those big fish roll to the scales," said Blosser. "I wouldn't be shocked to see 45-pound bags. Somebody may even break 50 pounds. In early- to mid-August, the fish absolutely fire. By then, the water has warmed and the bait has moved off of typical walleye structure out to deeper, colder water. You're just not competing with as much bait."
Further adding to the intrigue is the diversity of the bite. Keenan and Blosser believe that both open-water trolling and structure fishing will prove effective. Which method takes home the championship hardware remains to be seen. Trollers typically do better in windy, choppy weather, while casters and vertical fishermen tend to thrive in calm conditions.
"I think this tournament can be won either way, flip a coin," Blosser opined. "I don't think you'll see the entire top 10 trolling or top 10 casting. A couple years ago, I was definitely a troller. Now casting has become one of my go-to techniques. There's just so much that goes into casting. You're analyzing things like fall rate, line diameter and visibility. The analysis of all those small nuances makes the difference."
"I think you'll see about five of the top 10 trolling open water and five fishing structure, either trolling or casting to it," added Keenan. "The best part about this tournament is that you're not going to have to fish by other people to do well. Our launch site in Marinette puts us dead smack in the middle. Realistically, you can run 50 miles north or 50 miles south and still catch fish. The bite is on all over. There's a good chance guys could run up towards the Bays de Noc. All those places are going to be in play."
Those that prefer structure fishing on rock piles tend to venture north while the open-water trollers find more suitable water on the south end. Popular casting lures include the Rippin' Rap, Shiver Minnow, Jigging Rap and a variety of blade baits. Trollers will employ both crankbaits and spinners with night crawlers. At last year's Green Bay event, which launched out of Sturgeon Bay, Keenan took second casting Rippin' Raps.
"I would personally rather find a casting bite," he said. "Any time I have a rod in my hand my chances of winning the tournament are enhanced."
Blosser already possesses two Angler of the Year titles in his 10-year career, including the 2013 Lucas Oil Angler of the Year. With 569 points, he has a 13-point lead over Cabela's pro Kevin McQuoid. While Blosser admits another AOY title is on his mind, he has no plans to fish conservatively.
"I'm hungry for a championship win," he said. "It's the one thing I haven't accomplished in my career. If I'm fortunate enough to win the championship, Angler of the Year comes right along with it. This will not be a play-it-safe, do-the-math event. I can't fish conservatively because I've got some absolute sticks behind me. The good news is that Green Bay and I have always gotten along in tournaments; it's my favorite destination to fish. I just feel comfortable and I kind of know where to look and how to progress during my prefishing."
Both Keenan and Blosser agree that a three-day total of 100 pounds or more will be needed to win the biggest event in walleye fishing.
"To make the top-10 cut, I think you'll need between 65 and 70 pounds," Blosser said. "To win, I think you'll need 105 to 110 pounds. The fishing should be really, really good."
"If you get over 100 pounds, you have a chance to win," Keenan predicted. "Someone will catch over 40 pounds in a day, but the problem is that you've got to catch them three days in a row. If you get a big north or northwest wind, that will lower the weights fast. This tournament will require plenty of strategy, especially in terms of wind and water temperature. The cream will rise to the top. Even if we get some wind, it will be the best tournament of the year, by far."
Anglers will take off from Menekaunee Harbor in Marinette at 7 a.m. Central time each day. Weigh-ins will also take place each day at Menekaunee Harbor, beginning at 3 p.m. The full field fishes each of the first two days and is cut to the top 10 for the third and final day with the winner being determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.
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