SPRING VALLEY, Ill. – The Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s National Walleye Tour presented by Progressive, is set to commence its 11th season of competition. After a thrilling conclusion to the 2022 season, which saw John Hoyer claim his second NWT Championship victory, the first tournament of 2023 will be on the Illinois River. The two-day qualifier, held March 21-22, features the top pro and co-anglers, and the biggest payouts in walleye fishing. But walleyes aren’t expected to be the dominant species at the opener. Most anglers will be filling their limits with saugers and scheming a way to coax a kicker walleye or two.
“As excited as I am about rigging up my rods and reels again, there’s also a sadness that I’m not bringing my medium-heavy spinning rods and soft plastic swimbaits,” said Hoyer, who last August joined Jason Przekurat as the only two-time NWT Championship winner. “What I mean by that is that this tournament is basically going to be the polar opposite of our last NWT tournament. It will be prespawn, and we’re dealing with delicate saugers. I’m excited, but I’m also nervous.”
Hoyer shocked the walleye world last year by shunning Lake Erie’s deeper basin – instead snapping swimbaits through shallow-water eelgrass. However, championships are optimal for taking gambles. Qualifying events, especially now with a revamped Progressive Angler of the Year, are more precarious.
“It was a big deal when we switched and had to truly qualify for the championship,” recalled Hoyer. “Now there’s a Ranger 620 package up for grabs for the Angler of the Year. That’s weighing on everyone. A good finish to start the season is super important, and I generally don’t do that. It was already a prestigious award, but now the ante has been upped.”
Duane Hjelm, the reigning AOY, agreed with Hoyer.
“I’ve never been to Spring Valley, and the stakes are higher now, but I generally like new places,” said the Ranger Boats pro. “It’s just exciting to get back to competition and see everyone again.”
Mercury pro Danny Plautz has been fishing Illinois River tournaments since 1997. In 2008, Plautz and his mother, Barb, won the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit team tournament out of Spring Valley. Last year, the mother-and-son duo took second place at the same event. Plautz said while the river is currently high and dirty, the long-term forecast shows stability.
“Right now, the river is just above flood stage,” said the Lake Mills, Wis., native. “According to the Corps of Engineers, we’ll get close to normal by midweek. Visibility is the huge thing on this river. If you have 10 to 16 inches of visibility, the bite should be pretty good. Last weekend, it was only about an inch, but it’s clearing up. Overall, it’s a pretty healthy system. We’re seeing more and more walleyes show up. It’s not uncommon now to have 50 percent of my fish be walleyes. Timing-wise, we’re going to hit it right on.”
If the water continues to clear, Plautz envisions vertical jigging playing a more prominent role. If it stays on the dirty side, expect more trolling with three ways and leadcore.
“The beauty of this system is that it’s kind of like Devils Lake in that you can catch them by fishing to your strengths. My strength is vertical jigging, and we’ll see plenty of that. We will also see three ways, trolling leadcore, Dubuque rigs and pitching jigs and cranks up at the dam. I anticipate the top 10 will include a variety of patterns. My Nitro boat is loaded with everything but handlines. Handlining is the one thing I just don’t have confidence doing.”
Hjelm likewise expects crankbaits to get significant use.
“I don’t know much about Spring Valley, but I know it’s not ripping Detroit River-type current. You could pull crankbaits with three ways, with leadcore – more of that lighter-weight stuff. I know I’ll be using baits with subtle action, and in that cold water, the more subtle, the better.”
Plautz predicts 13 or 14 pounds per day will put an angler in the top five.
“We’re catching our walleyes right in there mixed with the saugers. There’s not just one spot. The walleyes have been showing up, and if you can get a few of those, you can do some damage. I think you’ll need 26 or 27 pounds to be in contention.”
The tournament will launch out of the Spring Valley Boat Club. Most anglers will stay between the Peoria Lock and Dam and the Starved Rock Lock and Dam. A few brave souls may lock up and venture beyond the Starved Rock Lock and Dam.
“The wildcard is going to be who has the guts to lock up,” added Plautz. “There are some really good fish in the upper pools, but the barge traffic is pretty bad. I’ve seen guys check in late because of the barge traffic. Sometimes they’re lined up three deep. It’s different every day with those barges. There’s the option of running south, but most of the fish are migrating up towards the dam area.”
While forward-facing sonar has undoubtedly taken the fishing world by storm, Plautz doesn’t believe it will factor at the opener.
“I’m not even going to bring my Garmin LiveScope,” he concluded. “With all the Asian carp, whitefish and catfish, it’s nearly impossible to identify fish species. This will be kind of a throwback tournament where we’re just fishing. I can’t wait to get down there and start the season.”
The long-term forecast for northern Illinois calls for high temperatures in the 40s, which may be cool, but will also minimize spring runoff.
“Where I live in Pierre, S.D., we’ve been fishing below the dam pretty much all year long,” Hjelm said. “Lately, the highs are in the 40s, and the lows are in the 20s. That’s exactly what we’re going to be facing in Spring Valley, so I’m completely fine with it. It’s time to get the season started.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7:30 a.m. Central time from the Spring Valley Boat Club, located at 13862 Illinois 89 in Granville. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the boat club, beginning at 3:30 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 four regular-season events and a no-entry-fee 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. The 2023 season kicks off with a record number of Co-anglers signed up for all events!
Pro angler registration is ongoing for the remaining three NWT qualifiers on Lake Winnebago, WI., Lake Francis Case, SD and St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste Marie, MI. The deadline to sign up is on Friday 2-weeks prior to each event. Registration can be taken over the phone at (580)765-9031 or online by visiting https://www.nationalwalleyetour.com/national-walleye-tour-register/
For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit https://www.nationalwalleyetour.com/