By Brett Carlson
DEVILS LAKE, N.D. (August 31, 2023) – At more than 160,000 acres, Devils Lake, the largest natural body of water in North Dakota, has hosted several major walleye tournaments. In 2019, Devils served as the playground for the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s National Walleye Tour presented by Progressive Championship. That notable event culminated with Ranger/ Mercury Pro-Angler John Hoyer claiming his first championship win as he put the finishing touches on a dominant season. The NWT returns to Devils Lake Sept. 6-8 for the 2023 championship, the Super Bowl of walleye fishing, which features the top 41 pros and top 41 co-anglers from the regular season. While the stakes have never been higher, the fishing itself has changed considerably in the last four years.
In late 2018, Garmin introduced forward-facing sonar to the fishing world, but it wasn’t until 2020 when LiveScope transducers and screens were first seen on the bows of deep-V walleye boats. What has transpired since represents a major shift in how walleyes are caught and how tournaments are won.
What hasn’t changed is that Hoyer’s name is still on top. In this case, he’s leading the Progressive Angler of the Year award. While the championship itself awards $30,000 plus a fully-rigged Nitro ZV20 to the winner, AOY also pays out a fully-rigged Ranger 620FS. Fresh off a 5th-place finish at the St. Marys River, Hoyer has accumulated 753 points over four events. Trailing him by 6 points is Ranger/ Mercury Pro-Angler Duane Hjelm, the reigning AOY, who is looking to become the first pro to win back-to-back AOY awards.
“He’s a good friend, but he’s also my No. 1 competition; it’s a really weird situation,” admitted Hoyer. “My plan for Devils is to go for the win again. At the same time, it’s a no-cull tournament, so there are very important decisions to be made. We get to keep seven, which means we have two to play around with. I’m already going through some of the hard situations in my head. In 2019, my decisions were so simple. I was lucky where I’d go from a 17-incher to a 4-pounder.”
Not only did Hoyer win the 2019 championship, he’s also the reigning championship winner, having taken the title last year on the eastern basin of Lake Erie.
“If I don’t win the championship this year, I’m rooting for Dewey,” Hoyer continued. “An NWT Championship is basically the only thing he hasn’t won. In that scenario, I would be very happy with the consolation of AOY. In reality, I’m fishing for the win, and I’ll just let it play out itself.”
While Hoyer has been fishing Devils since 2000, Hjelm has only sampled it once. The Rapala pro, who appeared invincible for most of the season, is coming off his worst event, a 32nd-place finish.
“I’m not mad about it,” explained Hjelm. “It was a decent finish. I didn’t lose fish; I just didn’t get enough bites. There’s going to be times like that. If there’s something to be disappointed about, it was that I had a 20-something point AOY lead. Maintaining a 20-point lead going into Devils would have been great, but it’s never that easy. I still have a legit chance, but I feel like I almost have to win this tournament, especially with it being one of John’s favorite places to fish. That’s where my mind is at right now. I let it slip away last tournament; that’s the reality. It has fueled the fire for Devils Lake.”
Six points behind Hjelm and 12 points behind Hoyer is Nitro Boats pro Dylan Nussbaum, who won the 2018 NWT qualifier on Devils Lake and became the youngest NWT champion in history.
“There’s always a chance; Dewey was trailing last year by a large margin,” recalled Nussbaum. “I like the fact that I’m sitting third where there’s not much pressure. To win AOY, I truly believe I have to win the event. Even with that, it’s going to be tough, because I’m expecting Hoyer and Dewey to bring it.”
When Nussbaum was just 20 years old, he traveled over 21 hours from his home state of Pennsylvania to fish Devils Lake for the first time.
“I can’t wait to get back. It’s one of the coolest fisheries on the planet. It reminds me so much of the Kinzua Reservoir back home. Now with forward-facing sonar, it’s going to be unreal. There are endless amounts of structure – from old road beds, foundations, trees, and weeds.”
When Nussbaum won in 2018, he was trolling leadcore. When Hoyer won in 2019, he was employing a combination of glide baits and slip bobbers with jigs and leeches. Nussbaum said he will again sample the leadcore bite, but he’s hoping to cast.
“I know Jigging Raps will be a major part of my casting program. I’ve also had a lot of success casting plastics like a Scented Jerk ShadZ on a Moon Eye jig. People are just starting to catch on to the effectiveness of that bait.”
All three pros believe it will take more than the 67 pounds Hoyer won with in 2019.
“I’m expecting 25 pounds a day will win this event,” added Nussbaum. “From what I hear, they’re catching a lot of those 3- and 4-pound fish. The 5- and 6-pounders are tournament-winning fish.”
“There was high water in the spring, and it has leveled out, but I know the water level will be higher than it was in 2019,” Hoyer said. “That should open up new areas. Overall, I’m expecting impressive catches. This is a serious playground with plenty of big fish, but also plenty of challenges.”
While late summer and early fall typically translates into deep-water fishing, both Hoyer and Hjelm believe the shallows could be part of the winning strategy.
“There’s going to be big, quality fish shallow,’ concluded Hoyer. “You may not get as many bites, but there will be fish shallow. But the deep rock is also an amazing pattern. I’m sort of split between exploring the shallows and finding a home run deep bite. It’s going to be wide open, especially with forward-facing sonar.”
“You can literally do whatever you want and catch fish,” Hjelm offered. “It might take being versatile to win. A guy might have to fish both shallow and deep. I personally think it’s going to be won not just on a single piece of structure, but on multiple spots and multiple ways. It’s going to be a fun tournament.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time (or first safe light) from Grahams Island State Park, located at 152 S. Duncan Rd. in Devils Lake. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the state park, specifically the Sivert Thompson Activities Center, beginning at 3 p.m. Central time. The full field fishes each of the first two days with the top 10 advancing to the third and final day. The winner in each division is determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.
Live weigh-in each day can be viewed here.
The National Walleye Tour consists of four regular-season events and a no-entry-fee championship. Pros compete against other pros, and co-anglers compete against other co-anglers. For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit www.nationalwalleyetour.com.
About National Walleye Tour
National Walleye Tour (NWT) is part of the Outdoor Team Works family of fishing tournaments. The OTW brand offers a wide range of fishing events from professional tournaments to grassroots fishing derbies. All events are supported by some of the top companies in the nation and include on-site activation and activities, as well as extensive media support. For live updates and information, follow NWT on Facebook and Instagram or visit https://outdoorteamworks.com/ to catch up on all the action.
2023 Proud Sponsors