September 25, 2011 by Patrick Baker
BISMARCK, N.D. - EverStart pro Dan Stier seemed to be backsliding after the opening day of the 2011 National Guard FLW Walleye Tour Championship - he endured diminishing weights, fish counts and his place in the standings. But he never gave up on his spot or his game plan, and he was greatly rewarded for his tenacity Sunday with his first championship win.
The man from Mina, S.D., came from behind today to earn his place in the upper echelon of professional walleye anglers - and he did it with only four fish (the tournament limit was five walleyes). But these weren't any old Missouri River walleyes; they weighed 18 pounds, 14 ounces, giving him a four-day total of 69-4 and a $70,000 victory (including a $15,000 Evinrude bonus and a $5,000 Ranger bonus).
This pattern parallels his year. In addition to a couple big stumbles on the tournament trail that nearly cost him a berth into the championship, he also experienced some tragic losses before he could get a win.
"I lost my father this February, and then I lost my grandma a couple weeks later," he said. "My season wasn't going too good, and I thought, `Wow, I can't catch a break.'
"So this is truly a dream come true for me," he continued, with emotion welling up into his voice and eyes. "Things happen for a reason ... and this is one of the greatest moments of my life."
Stier has had his share of success in the 10 seasons that he has fished FLW Walleye events. By 2009 he had earned a half-dozen top-10 finishes, and he solidified his reputation as a top pro that year with his first Walleye Tour win on Leech Lake. 2010 was good to him, yielding another couple top-10s. And then came 2011.
He started the year with a disappointing 77th-place finish at Lake Erie, but rebounded at Leech Lake with a 12th-place showing. Then he had a disastrous tourney on Green Bay, finishing 123rd, before bouncing back with another 12th-place finish on his home water of Lake Oahe (he is originally from Pierre, S.D.). That tournament saved his season, giving him just enough points for a tour ranking of 34th and a slot in the season finale (the top 40 pros qualified for the championship this week in Bismarck, N.D.).
When asked what the key to his victory was this week, Stier said, "I think it was the location."
The hot spot in question - a bay near the Beaver Creek Bridge on Highway 1804 - was far from secret. Keith Kavajecz jigged a record-breaking weight of 26-12 from the depths of the underwater shelf, about 40 to 50 yards long, which offered a steep drop as its key feature. By day two, nearly half the field was crammed together in a line along its edge. But while pros started to leave the area behind in the wake of diminishing returns, Stier stuck with it, even though it left him fishless yesterday at 1:30 p.m., leaving him to cobble together four walleyes upriver late in the day.
"It was a prime ambush spot," he said of his decision to return there today despite his reversal of fortune. "The fish came out of the back of the bays (on their way to the river). The water kept dropping, so I knew the fish would have to come out."
Like some of the other top pros this week, Stier kept a keen eye on his electronics while vertically jigging over the edge of the drop as the walleyes seemed to elevate at a depth of about 25 feet when they passed through, but could move up in a hurry. In other words, his depth finder became his underwater eye to let him know how high to rip up his baits (primarily chartreuse soft plastics including Berkley Gulp and Bass Pro products; occasionally he would tip his 3/8-ounce jig with a minnow). Today Stier even had enough room to troll crankbaits when his bite died down at about noon, but he went back to jigging.
Stier started the tournament in third place with a hefty five-walleye limit weighing 21-4; on day two he stayed in third with a 15-7 limit; he dropped to fifth place after sacking only four walleyes on day three for 13-11 before his final-day rebound. He said he lost several fish today, but he never lost sight of his goal of turning his year around and earning his first championship victory.
Walmart pro Dean Arnoldussen was one of three pros competing in the finals who had a shot at being the first FLW Walleye Tour pro in history to win a second championship, but he was not disappointed with his runner-up finish (Tommy Skarlis, who led days two and three, and Chris Gilman were the others). The Appleton, Wis., pro brought four walleyes to the scale today weighing 11-13 for a four-day total of 64-15 and $29,000 in earnings (including $10,000 Evinrude and $4,000 Ranger bonuses).
Arnoldussen wanted to go for the win today, so he decided not to keep any walleye that didn't measure at least 18 inches. His first fish was a fat 17 ¾-incher that he agonized over before deciding to keep it. Later he caught a 21 and a 23 before catching a long series of smaller fish and the eventual decision to keep another 17-inch-plus walleye near the end of the day.
"I was just jigging away, catching tons of fish," he said, adding that the pressure built each time he threw one back, until he finally took a moment to gather perspective on his situation. "I told (my TV cameraman on the boat), `Al Lindner has been my idol since I was a kid, and here he is sitting on the bank watching me - and I'm getting married in February. Life couldn't get any better.'"
Add to that Arnoldussen's 2001 Walleye Tour Championship win and the fact that he is the all-time leading money winner on this tour (almost $670,000), and it's not hard to imagine that life is pretty sweet for the longtime tournament fisherman, even in second place, a finish that he characterized as "awesome."
Arnoldussen's primary presentation this week was fishing Northland jigheads tipped with minnows, night crawlers on day one, on Sufix 832 braided line. His "No. 1 hot spot" was a trough on the west side of the river about five miles north of the launch site at Hazelton Access Area, which is located 31 miles southeast of Bismarck.
Gilman grabs third
OFF! pro Chris Gilman, last year's National Guard FLW Walleye Tour Championship winner, was sitting in sixth place to start the final day of the tournament, so he decided to go for a solid bag and advance rather than try to hit the jackpot. His 13-2 limit today gave him a total weight of 63 1/2 pounds and a check for $18,000 (including $5,000 Evinrude and $3,000 Ranger bonuses).
"I did what I wanted to do today," he said. "I really didn't think I could win, so I wanted to advance, and I moved up three places."
On the way to his third-place finish, Gilman said he had a good time: "This is my fifth championship here. I love Bismarck-Mandan. I caught a lot of fish today - a northern, a trout of some kind ... a whole bunch of weird fish - and I had my limit by 12:30."
Gilman said he figured he put more miles on his engine this week than anyone else in the tournament, fishing several different locations, including at Beaver Creek on day one before deciding that hot spot wasn't so hot for him. Today he fished a few miles south of Bismarck, not far from the University of Mary.
Gilman mostly trolled this week, using Rapala No. 11 Original Floaters on Sufix line and St. Croix rods. When he jigged, sometimes he tipped the tackle with minnows, but mostly he relied on TriggerX soft plastics.
Andersen finishes in fourth
Pro David Andersen of Amery, Wis., sacked an 11-4 limit today for a total weight of 62-12 and fourth place worth $8,000.
Andersen had been fishing current breaks in four or five spots roughly 30 miles north of the takeoff site by pulling Berkley Flicker Shad baits on leadcore line. He enjoyed having his water to himself until today, when he found several local fishermen jigging in the area, which made it "tough to do my presentation." However, he said he understood completely because "it was a beautiful day for fishing."
"I just went hopping around and got what I got."
National Guard pro Bill Shimota of Lonsdale, Minn., was the most consistent pro in the field over the first three days of the tournament, turning in 17-pound-plus sacks each day by handlining in a couple areas about four miles upriver from the launch site. But the trend ended today, when he only managed to bring three walleyes to the scale for 8-9 and a total weight of 61-1, good enough for fifth place and $10,000 (including $2,000 Evinrude and $1,000 Ranger bonuses).
"I never used a rod and reel the whole tournament," he said. "Handlinging just works so effectively up here. It allows me to fish on the bottom all day long, and it's dynamite in an area like where I was with current and dirty water."
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finalists at the National Guard FLW Walleye Tour Championship:
6th: Tommy Skarlis, Waukon, Iowa, 16 walleyes, 58-15, $7,750
7th: National Guard pro Mark Courts, Harris, Minn., 20 walleyes, 56-10, $6,500
8th: Tom Kemos, Oconomowoc, Wis., 20 walleyes, 55-9, $4,000
9th: Keith Kavajecz, Kaukauna, Wis., 16 walleyes, 51-2, $3,000
10th: Kevin Carstensen, Merrill, Wis., 15 walleyes, 44-14, $3,250