September 27, 2008 by Brett Carlson
BISMARCK, N.D. - With an Angler of the Year title and four PWT victories, Tommy Skarlis is one of the most accomplished anglers in professional walleye fishing. But up until today, his resume had one glaring omission: a Walmart FLW Walleye Tour Championship victory.
Skarlis may best be know for his colorful personality and his sponsor monologues - but make no mistake, he can catch walleyes with the best of them. He proved it this week by locating a huge pod of Missouri River walleyes and executing each of the four tournament days.
The Waukon, Iowa, angler found his honeyhole with teammate and friend Ross Grothe on the second day of practice. The area, located near the mouth of Beaver Creek, took 45 minutes to reach each morning from the launch site at MacLean Bottoms.
Once there, Skarlis went to work rigging and jigging a break from 5 to 11 feet of water. He initially explored the area with Lindy Techni-glo jigs, Lindy Fuzz-E-Grubs and Berkley Gulp Alive minnows. As practice unfolded, he discovered that the fish were reacting better to Lindy rigs and night crawlers. On his Lindy rigs he used an 1/8-ounce weight and a 7-foot leader - although in practice he used a 5-foot leader. His Abu Garcia Cardinal reels were spooled with 10-pound Trilene XL, and his leaders consisted of 8-pound Trilene XL. His two rods of choice were a Fenwick Techna Elite Tech and a Fenwick Techna AV.
"The leaders got longer as the tournament went on because the fish got fickle," said Skarlis. "Ninety percent of my fish came on the Lindy rigs. During the final two days, all my lines were Lindy rigs. The fish would just load up, and I would whack them. That new Elite Tech rod has great hyperbolic action and a great tip. And every time I thought about switching from a night crawler to a minnow or to plastic, I would get a fish.
"Most of the bites were coming in 7 to 10 feet of water. The fish were relating to the old river bank. Any stretch with gravel and wood was especially productive."
The title was up for grabs until Skarlis lugged out two 4-pounders that anchored his 13-pound, 10-ounce limit. In a tournament that many thought would be decided by ounces, Skarlis bested Robert Blosser by nearly 6 pounds - finishing with 29-7.
"We quit at a little after 12:15 today, and the smallest fish we had was an 18 1/2-incher."
When Skarlis was asked about the key to his victory, he recited two phrases his father often told him.
"Most men don't plan to fail; they fail to plan. I was told by George Skarlis to plan your work and work your plan."
In winning his first FLW Walleye Tour event, the man known in the industry as Hollywood claimed $150,000 - the largest payday in the sport of tournament walleye fishing. That payday more than doubled his FLW Outdoors career earnings to just over $260,000.
"I know that this is the biggest accomplishment of my career," he added. "I hope that I don't ever lose this feeling because it is absolutely amazing."
Blosser proud of second
Blosser, fishing his first Walleye Tour Championship, performed this week with the savvy of a veteran. He tapped into a strong leadcore trolling bite 62 miles south of the launch by pulling his baits at 4 mph. For some reference, anglers typically troll around 1 mph on Lake Erie in the spring.
"Early in the week we were just ripping the crankbaits, and once they saw them flash, they had to react," Blosser said. "Where I was fishing, it was a late-morning and early-afternoon bite. I never had a fish in the box before 10:30 all week."
Despite the late starts, Blosser finished with a two-day total of 23 pounds, 15 ounces. After catching 14-1 on day three, he sacked 9-14 with only four fish Saturday. The 30-year-old from Poynette, Wis., used mostly Berkley Frenzy Flicker Shads and No. 7 Rapala Jointed Shad Raps.
"Today I had to resort to something I don't do very often. We saved our day by running up the river and rigging up two in the last 25 seconds."
For his second-place finish, he will take home a $65,000 check to his wife, who is expecting their fist child in two weeks. In addition, Blosser's father, an FLW Tour bass pro, made an emotional surprise appearance to see his son's first top-10 finish. For more on that, see Quick Bites.
"I was just happy to make the cut - the rest is gravy."
Fishing a four-mile stretch near the Cannonball River, pro Todd Frank had a nice honeyhole all to himself that he parlayed into a two-day total of 23 pounds, 7 ounces. Frank would have finished second had he not pitched back a 2 1/2-pound, 18 1/2-inch walleye. That mistake cost him $13,000. Instead of earning $30,000, he will return to Pulaski, N.Y., with $17,000.
"I was trolling Bomber Fat Free Shads in 9 to 14 feet of water with Berkley Fireline Crystal. I would troll them at 2 to 2.2 mph, and with the current, those baits were running about 3 mph. I had one bait in particular that outfished the others 4-to-1. I had several others that were identical, but this crankbait was just perfectly tuned."
Frank preferred the Fat Free Shad crankbaits because of their strong rattle.
"A lot of baits have the rattle, but these have big beads, and they just knock. I know that played a big role in my success."
Other than releasing his fifth fish, Frank was content with his performance.
"I just got greedy and let it go, and it cost me big."
Grothe falls to fourth
Using the exact same techniques and fishing the same water as the pro winner, Grothe stumbled on day four, catching four walleyes that weighed 8 pounds, 10 ounces. Each day he and Skarlis would travel 37 miles south before jigging and rigging the mouth of Beaver Creek.
After starting the day in boat No. 2, Grothe finished fourth with 22 pounds, 13 ounces - earning $22,500. But as he said all week, "If I don't win it, I want Tommy to win it."
While Skarlis had never won a Walleye Tour event prior to today, Grothe won the 2006 season opener on the Detroit River. Today he was surprised by his wife and son who drove seven hours to Bismarck from Northfield, Minn.
"I threw back a few fish this morning that would've helped me," Grothe said. "But I set standards for myself every day, and those fish didn't meet my standards. I thought this was a great opportunity, especially after positioning myself yesterday, but I didn't get the bites to capitalize. I'm proud of myself - I did the best I could."
Completing an incredibly consistent 2008 season, Chris Gilman earned $18,500 and finished in fifth place with a final-round weight of 22 pounds, 12 ounces.
The Chisago City, Minn., pro fished a three-mile stretch of water 20 miles south of the launch. He had a unique program in that he would drag live bait downstream and then troll back up with original floating Rapalas and Shad Raps.
"The bigger fish came on cranks, but I was catching more legals with live bait," he said.
Gilman boxed a skinny 16 1/2-inch fish early in the day, which he sorely regrets.
"I was really trying to fish for third. I'm a fairly conservative guy, but I don't know what I was thinking there."
For the past two seasons, the three-time PWT winner has been the best angler on the Walleye Tour. Last season he finished second in the Angler of the Year race, and this season he notched three top-10 finishes.
"If you really think about it, if I hadn't make the mistake at Erie, I would have had four top-10s in five tournaments."
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finalists at the FLW Walleye Tour Championship on the Missouri River:
6th: Todd Riley of Amery, Wis., 16-11, $12,500
7th: Tom Keenan of Hatley, Wis., 16-9, $11,500
8th: Ted Takasaki of East Gull Lake, Minn., 16-2, $5,500
9th: Brett King of Claremont, Minn., 11-7, $7,000
10th: Joe Okada of Fitchburg, Wis., 11-7, $8,500