October 3, 2004 by Dave Scroppo
MOLINE, Ill. - In an increasingly erratic bite spiced by a cold front after a dash of warm, stable weather, it didn't even take a five-fish limit to seal victory in the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Championship on the Mississippi River out of the Quad Cities. What it took was four walleyes weighing 6 pounds, 9 ounces to capture victory and $300,000 for Ranger pro Nick Johnson of Elmwood, Wis. It didn't take much time on any of the four days of competition, either. Johnson, who was fishing two pools up from the launch on Pool 16, had to get his fish - and fast - because of a 25-mile one-way run and a lock schedule that required him to head back downstream by 12:45 p.m. "I took the gamble on locking through two locks," Johnson said. "When they announced the lock times, it cut me down to 2 1/2 hours fishing." Upstream of an island a couple of miles upstream from the Interstate 80 bridge, Johnson depended on perhaps the simplest, most old-fashioned method to catch the fish: a three-way rig with a floater and a night crawler. More important, it seemed, was the spot itself. Underwater, upstream from the island, was a sandbar pocked by three clam beds, key holding and feeding areas for the walleye. There, Johnson eased up and across the current with a gas kicker motor to pull his three-way rigs - specifically, a 1 1/2-ounce weight on a 10-inch dropper and a 6-foot lead to a Northland Tackle Phelps floater. In something of a departure from the standard rigging of half a crawler, Johnson says he gobbed one on so the head and tail dangled in a V. Slight change of location The acumen Johnson employed comes from his fishing back home on Pool 4 of the Mississippi, near Red Wing, Minn. In a change from prior days, when Johnson caught the fish that bit, he says he missed a bite and lost a fish - a sign, it would seem, of the fishes' diminished mood. If the mood was changing, so was the location, however slightly. Over the last two days of the semifinals and finals, the water started falling and, according to Johnson, the fish started repositioning. "The drop in the water affected me," Johnson said. "They went into current areas. I didn't catch it until later (Friday). Today I dropped back down into the current and they were there, a little shallower in the faster water." The fish were, in fact, a little shallower than the 9- to 10-foot clam beds he had been working. While Johnson managed four fish, the next closest competitor was Lund pro Russell McDonald of Dryden, Ontario, who cast jigs to 3 to 5 feet of water near a bridge piling on Pool 15. McDonald weighed three fish for 5 pounds, 6 ounces and a check worth $65,000. Meanwhile, Ranger pro John Hertensteiner of Victoria, Minn., weighed three for 4 pounds, 12 ounces and a check worth $37,500. He did it on Pool 16 with a pattern of trolling leadcore line with crankbaits. "The cold front killed me," Hertensteiner said. "I was catching 10 to 15 fish a day, then I went to five to keep three, and today just three." Four through six Next up in the standings was Ranger pro Rick LaCourse with a lighter trifecta of 4 pounds, 1 ounces caught on Pool 17 by handlining with Rapala #9 stickbaits in clown, blue and fire-tiger colors. "Thinking back, there was nothing I would have done differently," LaCourse said. Not that LaCourse does much differently on most river systems, where he handlines with heavy lead weights at the end of wire line trailed by two leads - a shorter one on the bottom, a longer one on top. Handlining earned LaCourse a third place in the 2004 RCL Tour qualifying tournament on the Illinois River and a semifinals spot in the 2002 RCL Championship on the Mississippi River, Red Wing, Minn. In this instance, LaCourse says he ran a No. 9 Rapala Original Minnow on the top lead, a No. 7 on the bottom, but most fish, many of them saugers, ate the No. 9. "I have so much confidence in this program, especially on a river system," LaCourse said. Rounding out the six finalists were fifth-place Ranger pro Brad Knoll of Menasha, Wis., who fished in the adjoining Rock River all four days with a final-day catch of one fish weighing 1 pound, 9 ounces, and sixth-place Crestliner pro Dan Plautz of Muskego, Wis. Plautz also caught a single fish - his weighing 1 pound, 4 ounces. `Four little fish' The final day and, therefore, the championship win belonged to Johnson, both in spite and because of his, well, lesser catch. "I can't believe the four little fish I had would win $300,000," Johnson said. They were good enough for not only for Johnson but also the winning weight, earning him first place out of a field of 219 competitors who started fishing Wednesday. Nick Johnson: the 2004 Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour champion.