By Brett Carlson
DUNKIRK, N.Y. – A host on the popular “The Next Bite” television show, John Hoyer is one of walleye fishing’s most noted and respected sticks. His 2019 season on the National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, will live in perpetuity as one of the greatest the sport has ever seen. After winning the second qualifier of the year on Green Bay, he subsequently took second at Sault Ste. Marie. He culminated the incredible season with another victory at the year-end championship on Devils Lake. Last year, however, Hoyer’s name was noticeably absent from the championship field of 40 pros. Hoyer finished 42nd in the points; his undoing was a double zero at the season opener on Sturgeon Bay. This year, he’s back with a vengeance and a whopping 9-pound lead on Lake Erie.
Like many of today’s top walleye fishermen, Hoyer is not a fan of trolling. He’d prefer to cast and feel his bites while utilizing forward-facing sonar. But Lake Erie is the one venue, perhaps the last traditional walleye factory, where trolling still dominates.
“I tried to troll with the salmon gear in practice, but I was a disaster; there were snags everywhere,” said the Berkley/Simms pro. “There were all these signs that I should not be trolling in the biggest tournament of the year. I finally realized that there was no way I could out-troll this caliber of fishermen.”
With his decision made, the Orono, Minn., pro eventually identified 10 different casting spots during practice.
“I knew I was around the right quality, but I very minimally sampled my areas. My first hook set today was about 10 minutes into it, and it was a 31-incher.”
While they were thin, Hoyer caught two other giants in the 30-inch range. The two smallest fish in his limit were 5 1/2 and 6 pounds. With 39.81 pounds in his Ranger livewell by noon, Hoyer opted to lay off rather than try to continue to improve.
“We were only fishing for about a 2 1/2-pound upgrade. Plus, there’s the possibility of those earlier fish dying (and having to take a penalty). I decided to Cadillac it home and save those fish for the next two days. Of my 10 spots that have potential, I only fished one today. It was a short day, but it was one of the top five fishing days of my life.”
With so much at stake, Hoyer was understandably tight-lipped about his unique Erie casting program.
“All I can say is that I was marking them with my Lowrance Active Target and then picking and choosing. There were no trolling passes. I’m proud to say I didn’t troll an inch today.”
Hoyer’s main concern at this point is the weather. Tomorrow looks nearly perfect for his program, but Friday’s forecast calls for morning thunderstorms and potentially strong winds.
“Honestly, I haven’t done this pattern in rain, overcast, and wind. Sunny and calm is key. My plan tomorrow is to not save anything. I’m going to try to destroy them.”
AOY takes unexpected turn
After Hoyer’s dominant day, the next major news item was the abrupt change in the Lucas Oil Angler of the Year race. Kevin McQuoid came into the tournament with an 11-point lead over Max Wilson and a 12-point lead over Duane Hjelm.
After uncharacteristically finishing the day in 39th place, McQuoid opened the door for some major drama. Unofficially, Wilson, who sits in 16th place, now has an 8-point lead over Hjelm, an 11-point lead over Korey Sprengel, and a 12-point lead over McQuoid, but a lot can change tomorrow.
Red-hot Maher second
In June, Gary Maher clinched his first NWT victory on the Mississippi River. Fishing with momentum on his side, the Menoken, N.D., cattle rancher sits second with 30.69 pounds.
“This is a totally different approach to fishing,” said Maher. “I’ve never trolled this deep in my life. I had a few really good days of prefishing, so I knew it was possible to weigh over 30 pounds. I was fortunate enough to get them to bite today. Overally, I’m feeling good. When you win a tournament at this level, it’s absolutely a plus. You feel more confident in what you’re doing and the decisions you make.”
Maher said his fish are moving, and depending on the day, it can be arduous to relocate them. On average, he’s catching about a dozen fish per day. Today was better than normal with 15 walleyes reaching his Ranger.
“We caught some fish right away, but my best spot is my late afternoon spot. That’s where we caught two of our biggest fish. We had one that was 29 inches and almost 9 pounds.”
Maher said he’s trolling with two different tactics.
“I’m using something that most people would probably never use. I’m using some stuff that I’ve had in my box from probably 8 or 9 years ago. We’ll see how it goes. I don’t need a big wind to get my bite going, but I do think the sun really helps.”
Elder Andersen third
Adam Andersen and his brother Kent are renowned trollers, but they’re typically backtrolling along contours and structure. This week on Lake Erie, they’ve found success trolling the deeper Eastern Basin.
“We’re trolling crankbaits with Dipsy Divers and leadcore,” said the Amery, Wis., angler. “I’ve been using leadcore since I could walk, but this is my first time with the Dipsy Divers. It’s always kind of fun trying something new. We’re using shallow runners with the Dipsys and deep runners on my leadcore.”
Andersen, who owns the construction company Lake Country Builders, said he caught roughly 20 walleyes on the championship’s first day. His five biggest weighed 30.03 pounds, good enough for third place.
“There were flurries today. You’d hit a little pocket of fish and get a few. Then you’d turn around and get one or two more. It started out pretty strong this morning. Within the first 15 minutes we had a 6 1/2-pounder, and that helps take the edge off. We had four of our weigh fish on our first long pass. The rest of the day was mediocre.”
Andersen said Hoyer’s megabag won’t change his game plan going forward.
“Hoyer is a hammer to start with, but even doing 30 pounds for three straight days is tough. I’m not trying to beat John Hoyer. I’m just trying to catch as much as possible with my program. He’s got his thing, and I’ve got mine.”
Ragotzkie fourth, Sieverding fifth
Rounding out the top five at the year-end championship are Wisconsin pros Austin Ragotzkie and Justin Sieverding. Ragotzkie, the Edgerton, Wis., native, caught a limit weighing 29.56 pounds for fourth place. Sieverding, the Malone, Wis., fisherman, managed 29.47 pounds for fifth.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros after day one on Lake Erie:
6th: Craig Sleeman of Victor, N.Y., five walleyes, 28.85
7th: Matthew Reber of Granger, Iowa, five walleyes, 28.63
8th: Bill Shimota of Northfield, Minn., five walleyes, 28.29
9th: Brett King of Hager City, Wis., five walleyes, 28.01
10th: Jason Przekurat of Stevens Point, Wis., five walleyes, 27.71
The second day of competition begins tomorrow at 7 a.m. Eastern time as the full field takes off from Holiday Harbor at Chadwick Bay Marina, located at 30 Central Avenue in Dunkirk. The day-two weigh-in will take place at the Dunkirk Pier, which is located at 2 Central Avenue, beginning at 3 p.m. Eastern 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.