It's a coolish April 20. Spring is just breaking in earnest over north central Wisconsin. You are about to throttle up on the first of the 2011 AIM Pro Walleye Series™ tournaments in this complex river/lake system centered at Winneconne.
You have spent several days pre-fishing the Wolf and the Fox rivers, plus Lake Winnebago, and the upriver lakes of Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts. You have locked your favorite locations into your GPS for what you hope will be the hot spots leading to a tournament check. But this system is so fickle. The walleyes may have been on the spots yesterday, but will they be on the same ones today?
Those will be the questions still plaguing the AIM Pro Anglers as they compete to lift a trophy over their head and put a check in the bank during this season's first AIM Pro Walleye Series tournament.
Four pros intimately familiar with Winneconne's changing conditions and choices all say it'll take thinking like a field general to earn the victory on the final day: stay flexible and be ready to make adjustments on the fly because today's conditions may not necessarily match tomorrow's.
Parsons is confident
AIM Pro Gary Parsons won the last PWT tournament held on the Winneconne System at about the same time of year in 2007. He is very confident and his vast experience with the system already makes him a top seed, The National Freshwater Fishing Hall-of-Famer says that the system is probably the most diverse and challenging body of water that AIM will visit in 2011. "I grew up there and lived at our lake house all my high school years and when I came back from college in summer so I've fished this system a lot. The one thing about it is that I normally finish very high - if not win - or I second-guess all the places I know to fish and then finish in the middle of the pack. I'm extremely confident in my abilities there. However, with all the tournaments that take place there, there are usually no two won the same way," he says. "That's why I love the challenge or the Winnebago chain."
Making an early prediction as to where the tournament will be won is tough, if not impossible on such a giant system. Lake Winnebago alone is 38 miles long and seven miles wide. Then add in over 60 miles of river and the three upriver lakes. "The winning presentation could be jigging in the rivers. It could be trolling in one of the upriver lakes or potentially trolling the reefs on Winnebago - or pitching jigs or a combination of all of these techniques and locations! That last PWT, no one ever expected it to be won on Winnie pitching jigs and cranks, and it was won handily that way," Parsons says. "You really need to be good at everything to figure out the hottest presentation. On day two and three of that PWT event I was the only boat that went to Winnebago," he said, "which proved the right choice!"
"But then the next year on the same dates I went back to fish the same water to do a TV show and couldn't catch a fish. It's such a vast system that there will probably be five different patterns and the challenge is to find where the fish are and which are the bigger ones you'll win with." He adds, relying too much on what you learn in prefishing this time of year could net you a goose egg. "Things can change rapidly and if you get too far out from the event in practice, you're going to hurt yourself. You can't rely on a bite you found a week earlier, only to find it's fallen apart during the tournament. On a spring tournament it's more what happens day-to-day. I'm going into this tournament knowing that it will be tough. That being said, I plan on winning."
Kemos says expect big baskets
Another long-time AIM Pro Angler who is familiar with Winneconne and another angler to watch is Tom Kemos of Oconomowoc. After fishing it the last 15 years, he considers it his home water as well, and expects some heavy baskets - if all goes well.
"I always feel I can win on that body of water, but I haven't won yet. The main thing is there are so many different patterns that can be a factor, but at the same time, weather also plays such a crucial role. You can be on a bite with a four- to-five-pound average and go from catching one every other cast, to fishing an entire day without a bite," Kemos says.
"It's a tricky place to figure out especially in spring because the fish make such a big migration and there's movement from day to day," he says. "The water clears up real fast because of the zebra mussels so that can work to your advantage. But this can also be a big disadvantage if you've been working a real shallow bite and the water calms and clears."
"Potentially right now the system is as good as it's ever been for numbers and quality of fish. It's coming off a banner shad year so the fish are very healthy. I think it'll be a really good tournament," he said. But like Parsons, the question is, where will it be won?
"The big lake (Winnebago) is always a factor and a lot depends on how far along the spring will be. A lot of fish spawn right there. But the upper lakes warm up fastest and, if the conditions are right, the bigger females will tend to rest there right after spawn. It all depends on the timing of the thaw and the flow of the Wolf River. The walleyes could still be in the upper river, on their way down stream or elsewhere."
"This is a system where there's a pattern to fit everyone's strong suits, especially in the spring. This tournament could be won with a bobber and a piece of crawler. But if it's trolling, it's a shad-based deal. There's also a lot of young-of-the-year perch in the lake, so smaller stick baits might work, or open water spinners might work. You will literally have to bring every piece of tackle. I'm hoping for stable weather conditions to really showcase this fishery."
Keller looks for weather to be a factor
AIM "Young Gun" Brian Keller, son of long-time AIM Pro Walleye Series partner James J. Keller, is part of the J.J. Keller Fishing Team. He also grew up on the Winneconne chain and expects the weather to be the "third man" on each team during the tournament. He also agrees with Kemos that huge baskets are possible here.
"Depending on how much water we get, the fish will be way up river and coming back from spawning, or they'll be filtering into the lake system. If the last few weeks of ice fishing is an indication, there are more 20- to 29-inch fish than I've seen in the last 10 years," says Keller, who over the winter has opened his own outdoor outfitting store, The Reel Shot, in Oshkosh.
Record walleye hatches in 2002 and 1996 have now matured. "Reports I'm getting are that they're seeing thousands of fish swimming upriver, so this should be a good year," says Keller. But like the others, Keller acknowledges that the system can sink you if you don't think strategically. "This time of year it's an ever-changing deal. And once you locate them, staying on them is a big issue since they can move a long ways overnight."
Keller says possible hot baits will include Berkley's Flicker Shad and Rapala Shad Raps, both of which imitate the system's prolific shad population. But being ready to switch presentations when conditions change will be the key to a victory.
Okada's advice: Stay versatile
Another AIM "Young Gun", Joe Okada of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, agrees that one of the biggest issues will be keeping up with the fish that will probably be moving constantly. "Being able to stay versatile and not committing to stay with one pattern or in one area is the key. Anything you've learned in practice might not even be in play come tournament time. This is a tournament where you'll see the top anglers have the guts to make quick adjustments on the fly," Okada says. "They are the ones who will be able to stay on top of good fish. You've got to be willing to throw the game plan out the window to get on top of the next pod of fish. Fishing memories is not a good idea for this tournament."
Unpredictability of the weather and the fishery is the common element. The leader may change every day of the tournament. The tournament starts on Wednesday, April 20th and concludes Friday, April 22nd. Fans of walleye tournaments are invited to view the daily weigh-in within the comfortable setting of Critters Sports each day starting at 5:00 pm. The indoor stage will overcome any inclement weather. Walleye fans unable to attend the weigh-in can still keep up with the drama since the daily events will be streamed live on www.aimfishing.com. The AIM website will also feature daily interviews and updates on the winning locations and presentations.
For more about the AIM Pro Walleye Series, visit their site.