By Brett Carlson
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (July 18th, 2023)- The Bass Pro Shops & Cabela’s National Walleye Tour, presented by Progressive, concludes its 2023 regular season July 27-28 on the St. Mary’s River and its connecting waters. The fourth event of the season represents the last chance to accumulate precious points for the no-entry-fee National Walleye Tour Championship. Only the top 40 pros and top 40 co-anglers qualify for the biggest event in walleye fishing, which means the pressure at the “Soo” event will be magnified. Official tournament waters will include both the U.S. and Canadian sides of the scenic waterway, which flows from Lake Superior to Lake Huron.
Leading the points race is Ranger Boats/Mercury Pro-Angler Duane “Dewey” Hjelm, the reigning Progressive Angler of the Year. Fresh off a victory in his home state of South Dakota, Hjelm has the opportunity to become the first back-to-back AOY in NWT history. Through three events, Hjelm has 578 points, while his good friend John Hoyer sits second with 557 points. In third place at 551 points is Nitro Boats/Mercury Pro-Angler Dylan Nussbaum, who in 2019 became the youngest pro to ever win an NWT event.
“I’ve never been to the Soo, so I don’t know what to expect, but I’ve heard great things,” said Hjelm. “I understand there’s not going to be a ton of fish every day, but there are some big fish. It sounds like it’s going to be a really fun tournament.”
While the championship field will be set following the conclusion of the regular season, the 2023 Progressive Angler of the Year or Co-Angler of the Year winner won’t be decided until the championship.
“I go into each tournament trying to win it,” Hjelm continued. “That’s my mindset, my focus. If I catch them at the Soo, I should still be in the hunt for AOY at Devils (Lake).”
Hjelm plans to begin practice by driving around and getting a feel for water clarity and water temperature. From there, it’s time to start sampling areas that have big-fish potential.
“The fishery is literally endless. I always try to find something a little out of the box or a little different. It doesn’t always happen, but I will try. I’m most confident when my pattern involves casting and reading my sonar. I’ll definitely be sampling the Jigging Rap bite again. Later in practice, I’ll sample some trolling, but if you see me trolling in the tournament, it’s because I have nothing going casting.”
In 2019, Hoyer unlocked a casting program on the Soo that delivered a two-day total of 10 walleyes weighing 50.82 pounds. Hoyer took second to David Kolb, but it was an eye-opening outcome in that the Soo was always considered a trolling venue.
“We were ripping PowerBait swimbaits through cabbage,” recalled Hoyer fondly. “It was very similar to what I did at last year’s championship. It’s laborious, and it’s a difficult skill to master, but that’s my absolute favorite way to catch a walleye.”
With a 21-point deficit in the AOY race, Hoyer knows he has his work cut out for him.
“The guy who wins Angler of the Year will literally have to top five finishes at the next two tournaments. If I want Angler of the Year, the path is really simple – two top fives. It’s the biggest title in the sport, especially with the caliber of anglers around me. Look at the names at the top this year; it’s an incredible race, and Dewey is my No. 1 competition.”
Hoyer has twice fished the Soo, and he’s teeming with anticipation to return.
“There’s just so much stuff I haven’t explored, especially with Canada in play this year. It’s such a challenge; it reminds me of musky fishing. I can’t wait to get there. I’m just so dang excited.”
In 2020, Ranger Boats pro Steve Vandemark took third on the Soo by staying in the St. Marys River. That season, several of the top finishers opted to run 90 to 110 miles south to fish Lake Huron near Alpena, Mich., including champion Peter Schaefer.
“If the weather is conducive, there will be guys that make that run again,” said Vandemark, who lives in Linwood, Mich. “They are fairly easy to catch, but there’s so much risk involved. You’re basically cutting your fishing time in half. I will be staying in the river again and maximizing my time.”
Vandemark said the river is almost 2 feet lower than in 2020, the last time the NWT visited. On his first day of practice, the water temperature was only 64 degrees.
“It’s cold and really low. The low water should congregate the fish in certain areas. A lot of the same techniques will still be used. The guys that will be making the long run will be open-water trolling over boulders and long shoals. The river has drop-offs, ledges and current breaks. There are times when you can troll right down the middle of the river. When I took third the last time, we didn’t cast. We jigged and we trolled, but there will be guys casting.”
Another option is to run west to Lake Superior. In years past, anglers have found success fishing the confluence of the St. Mary’s River and Superior’s Whitefish Bay.
“It’s possible, but Superior is so cold,” added Vandemark. “If you’re headed to Superior, you’re going to lose water temperature. Sixty-eight is kind of that dinner-bell temperature for walleyes. It’s not likely, but I wouldn’t rule it out either.”
Vandemark said it’s a coin flip if casting or trolling will be the winning pattern. In fact, it’s quite possible that some combination of casting, jigging and trolling will be needed.
“This is not a numbers fishery. A good day is seven or eight big fish. Four-pounders are what you’re targeting. If you can get 20 pounds a day, you’ll be in the hunt. I’m going to say between 45 and 50 pounds will win. There’s a bug hatch going on right now, and if the bug hatch isn’t over, it might be a little skinnier.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Eastern Time (or safe light) from the Aune Osborn Boat Launch, located at 1225 Riverside Dr. in Sault Ste. Marie. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the Aune Osborn Boat Launch, 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 four regular season events and a no-entry-fee championship. Each regular season event is a two-day, pro-am tournament and delivers more than a 100 percent payback. Pros compete against other pros, and co-anglers compete against other co-anglers.
For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit https://www.nationalwalleyetour.com/.
Additional information on the events, contingency prizes, and more exciting announcements will be shared soon. For more information on updated angler qualifications, please 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.
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