By Brett Carlson
PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. – Young Wisconsin pro Max Wilson considers Green Bay to be his home water, and Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota is quickly becoming his home away from home. On the contrary, the Mississippi River, and all its dynamic variables, is his nemesis. Thanks to some divine intervention in the form of a 9-pound over, he’s slowly learning to like the Big Muddy. And for the first time in his career, Wilson leads a National Walleye Tour event, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s.
Over the past two years, Wilson has lost two of his best friends – both river rats. Legendary tournament pro Tommy Skarlis tragically died of cancer in September of 2000, and Illinois River icon Mike Hanson lost a courageous battle with Covid-19 in February.
“I had two guardian angels looking over me today,” said an emotional Wilson. “Those two taught me everything I know about fishing on this river. I just said a little prayer to them this morning, and it was answered.”
Wilson, the 2018 NWT Championship winner, bounced around after takeoff before finally settling on a productive spot. His first fish was a 15-inch squeaker, which he kept, but his second was the game changer.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I caught that same mythical, unicorn over on Tuesday. I know it’s the same fish because it has only one good eye. I told her to stay put. Low and behold, she did.”
Wilson’s co-angler, Dan Volbert, was pulling his bait through some snaggy debris.
“I watched the rod nearly get ripped out of his hand,” recalled Wilson. “When I saw it come up, I was in complete disbelief.”
Wilson and Volbert’s success continued with a 19 3/4, an 18, a 17, and finally another 17. In this event, anglers can keep six and weigh their best five. Wilson’s five walleyes officially weighed 16.66 pounds.
“We were back to the launch at 10 a.m.; it was a special day.”
Wilson believes his best spot is only going to get better as the postspawn walleyes leave the sloughs and dump into the main river channel. His one-two punch is rigging willow cats and casting “something you wouldn’t normally cast.”
Wilson said that at times, there was traffic around him today. The good news is that he’ll depart tomorrow as boat No. 4.
“I have had this one circled all year, and I want it badly. I love and hate this river. This is a place that has frustrated me to no end. I hate not knowing something, and I hate not understanding something. It’s frustrating and exciting for me. I want to be a complete walleye angler, and that means understanding where these fish move with the current, the temperature, and the turbidity.”
While Wilson is leading, his margin is slim with two other pros also over 16 pounds.
“I have a feeling I’m in the right place doing the right thing,” he concluded. “I just have to go out and get it done. To be in this position is awesome. I’m not too high, and I’m not too low. It’s a two-day tournament.”
Van Dyke second
Retired math teacher and basketball coach Wayne Van Dyke may be more comfortable trolling the Great Lakes, but he’s presently in contention on the meandering Mississippi.
“I thought if I could get to the spot I wanted, I would have success,” said Van Dyke, who weighed 16.33 pounds.
His first fish of the day was a 22-incher, which fell between the 20- to 27-inch protected slot and had to go back. His second was a 19 1/4, and 30 minutes later he hooked his over.
“That was pretty exciting,” recalled Van Dyke. “That fish was so fat around I was worried it wasn’t actually an over. I think it was every bit of 8 pounds. After that, it was a slow grind.”
The Mercury pro from Spruce, Mich., described his pattern as fishing live-bait rigs in current seams.
“This spot can only be fished properly by one boat. What worries me is that there’s a lot of boats ahead of me tomorrow.”
The third pro to top 16 pounds was South Dakota stick Duane Hjelm, the winner of the 2017 NWT event on Lake Sakakawea. Hjelm’s limit weighed 16.03 pounds.
“I feel pretty good about it,” he said. “I’ve got a couple different areas, and I’m catching them a couple different ways. I’m not going through a bunch of fish though.”
Hjelm is casting live bait and crankbaits to small spots, and he’s trolling crankbaits and dragging jigs in his larger areas. Overall, he described the bite as typical river fishing.
“Honestly, I’m not concerned with boat pressure on any of my spots. My biggest concern is that I’m running quite a ways and fuel could be an issue.”
Hjelm’s kicker measured 29 inches. With a similar fish tomorrow, he would likely be standing in the winner’s circle again.
“It’s rare to have an opportunity to win, and you’re not going to win with 15- and 16-inchers. I may tumble tomorrow, but I’d rather go for the win.”
Miller fourth, Osthoff fifth
Rounding out the top five are pros Harry Miller and Chad Osthoff. Miller, the Bellevue, Iowa, angler, caught three walleyes weighing 12.29 for fourth place.
Osthoff, the De Soto, Wis., local, sits fifth with 11.58 pounds.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pros after day one on the Mississippi River:
6th: Paul DeVoss of Prairie du Chien, Wis., five walleyes, 11.34
7th: Curt Hanson of Mayville, N.D., three walleyes, 11.27
8th: Mike McCormick of La Crosse, Wis., five walleyes, 10.98
9th: Dylan Nussbaum of St. Mary’s, Penn., five walleyes, 10.95
10th: Kyle Brantner of Pepin, Wis., five walleyes, 10.76
The final day of competition begins today at 7 a.m. Central time as the full field takes off from Prairie du Chien Marina, located at 374 Saint Feriole Drive. The final weigh-in also takes place at Prairie du Chien Marina, beginning at 3 p.m.