April 21, 2012 by Brett Carlson
RED WING, Minn. - Tommy Skarlis was competitive like always during the 2011 tournament season. But in many respects, it was a disappointing year in that he failed to close after leading several major events. In fact, he was one day away from becoming the first pro to win two National Guard FLW Walleye Tour Championships until he stumbled and watched Dan Stier steal the show. The one that stung the most, however, was blowing a huge lead at the AIM event held on the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa.
With that experience still fresh is his mind, Skarlis returned to the Mississippi, albeit upstream in Pool 4, with a sense of purpose. All week long he spoke about returning to his roots and re-dedicating himself towards mastering the finer points of river fishing.
While many pros covered water in search of keeper bites, Skarlis focused on big fish - targeting rock piles, lateral rip rap and wing dams for the giant females. He used both three-way rigs with crankbaits (Rapala No. 11 and No. 9 Floating Minnows) and homemade Do-it jigs with custom paint jobs. He tied 20-pound Spiderwire Stealth line on the three-way rigs with 12-pound Trilene XT leaders. On his jigs, he used straight 8-pound Trilene XL. Overall, Skarlis credited his success to addressing an angling weakness and embracing a style learned from river anglers Jeff Lahr and Marty Berns.
On day one, he caught the heaviest limit of the entire tournament, an incredible 36-pound, 12-ounce sack. From there, the Waukon, Iowa, native never looked back - putting together consistent sacks of 20-13 and 14-15 to slam the door shut.
"A win on this river has always eluded me," said Skarlis. "I have wanted this for a long time and considering what happened last year, this one is pretty special. I believe everything happens for a reason."
Skarlis didn't camp on any one spot and instead sampled many, giving his key areas time to reload. A good portion of his time was spent at the lower end of the Vermillion River to the dam area.
The win was Skarlis' seventh major of his 16-year career and his fifth during the month of April, hence the nickname Mr. April.
For a three-day total weight of 72 pounds, 8 ounces, Skarlis earned $63,000. His margin of victory was nearly 9 pounds.
"This tournament means so much to me on so many different levels. Bringing home this trophy reminds me why I have committed my professional life to competitive angling."
Bjorkman rallies to second
With the low water level, everyone assumed the well-known spot in Pool 4 known as Katrina wouldn't be a player. But having fished Katrina before and knowing its potential, Brian Bjorkman wasn't willing to assume. On the final day of practice he snuck in there and discovered that there was just enough current flowing through for it to be effective. After he drew boat No. 7 the first day he knew that's where he would end up fishing.
After sacking 25 pounds, 8 ounces on day one, Bjorkman found a boat already in his spot on day two. On day three, he once again had Katrina to himself and the results were impressive. His five-walleye limit weighed 28 pounds, 11 ounces and launched him from fourth to second. He earned $17,000 for a three-day total weight of 63 pounds, 10 ounces.
"We started just lighting them up right away this morning," said the Fargo, N.D., pro who took fifth on the Mississippi River in 2009. "Then the bite slowed and I came close to leaving twice. Each time I told myself 10 more minutes and each time we got a big fish. The last one came at 12:30 p.m. and we were done. We got 12 bites total on the day."
Bjorkman said there's a ledge in Katrina that goes from 6 feet to 11 feet of water. He placed his rig on the current seam at the deepest point where the walleyes wait to ambush baitfish. He used a 1-ounce slip-sinker and a 16-inch leader. His bait of choice was willow cats, but he also used creek chubs and rainbow chubs.
"I held two rods in my hands and worked them up and down. When they hit, with that current, you almost can't move them because they're so big and strong. It's awesome; it's something every walleye fisherman should experience."
King up to third
Brett King was one of the pretournament favorites and after a slow start, he more than lived up to the hype. On the final day, the Claremont, Minn., pro caught a 20-pound, 7-ounce limit and rallied from eighth all the way to third.
King fishes the river often and came in with a plan to do some serious spot-hopping. He fished at the mouth of the lake, near Young's Cabin, at the Bay City flats, Pig Point and at the mouth of Goose Lake. As the river continued to rise and the fish repositioned accordingly, King never caught them in the same spot twice.
"I used a buffet of tactics, but my main presentation was pulling three-way rigs with half a night crawler," he said. "I also caught fish casting cranks and pitching hair jigs tipped with minnow. On my fourth cast of the day this morning I caught a 5-pounder pitching a jig with just a Luck-E-Strike ringworm."
King finished the tournament with a three-day weight of 52 pounds, 12 ounces, earning $11,000.
"I really had a tough practice so I'm happy with how it went. I spent so much time checking places to see if they'd finally show up. The whole tournament changed when the river came up like it did."
Mealey up to fourth
Starting the day in sixth place, Westerville, Ohio, pro Rich Mealey moved up to fourth after hauling in a 16-pound, 6-ounce limit. He finished the tournament with 49 pounds, 13 ounces and earned $10,000.
Mealey's final-day limit was anchored by a 28-incher that had quite the tale attached to it.
"My tournament got off to a great start when I caught that 10-pounder on the first day," Mealey said. "Today we were trolling and right as we came up to the same spot I told my partner the story and at the same time the rod doubled back and it was a 28-incher."
Mealey said he caught his fish this week by trolling Rapala crankbaits on leadcore line.
Bruegger falls to fifth
Falling to fifth place was local Wabasha, Minn., pro Robert Bruegger. Bruegger started the tournament with a bang - catching a mammoth 27-pound, 15-ounce limit. Each of the next two days was a struggle, as he managed only three keepers and two keepers respectively.
One of his two walleyes Saturday was a kicker and anchored his 9-pound, 10-ounce catch. His total weight for the tournament was 49 pounds, 12 ounces.
Bruegger strictly ran a live-bait program. He would rig with one rod in hand and dead stick the other, as did his co-angler partners. He presented this live bait in current breaks, eddies and seams. He steadfastly believed this was the key to catching the bigger females, as opposed to trolling.
Bruegger earned $8,000.
Rest of the best
Rounding out the top 10 pro finalists at the National Guard FLW Walleye Tour event on the Mississippi River:
6th: Tom Brunz of Madison Lake, Minn., 48-2 (three-day total) $7,000 + $2,500 in contingencies
7th: Joe Whitten of Toledo, Ohio, 46-15, $6,000 + $2,500 in contingencies
8th: Chad Schilling of Akaska, S.D., 42-8, $5,000
9th: Brent Henriksen of Tea, S.D., 38-5, $4,500 + $1,000 Ranger bonus
10th: Nick Schertz of Tomahawk, Wis., 34-15, $4,000 + $1,000 Ranger bonus
Keivens claims Co-angler Division
Keith Keivens of Toledo, Ohio, claimed victory and $8,500 in the Co-angler Division with a three-day weight of 68 pounds, 3 ounces. Keivens fished with pro Jacob Lapine on day one and the two brought in 11 pounds, 1 ounce. On day two he caught 28 pounds, 7 ounces fishing with Dean Kaminski and today he sacked 28-11 with Bjorkman.
"I'm so happy about this I don't even have the words to describe it," said Keivens, who's fishing his eighth season on the Walleye Tour. "I've never been to Red Wing until now and I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Tim Lessila of Milwaukee, Wis., placed second for the co-anglers, followed by Jesse Proffitt, Keith Hahn, and John Mickish. Jim Milewsky took sixth, Jimmy Cox seventh, David Klamfoth eighth, Brett Lilienthal ninth and C.J. Johnson 10th.
The next National Guard FLW Walleye Tour event is scheduled to take place May 10-12 on Lake Erie in Port Clinton, Ohio.