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Skarlis scores big on Mississippi River

Pro Tommy Skarlis of Waukon, Iowa, and co-angler Jimmy Cox of Bono, Ark., show off their first-place catch of 36 pounds, 12 ounces during the opening day of FLW Walleye Tour competition on the Mississippi River.

RED WING, Minn. - Bolstered by a mammoth catch of 36 pounds, 12 ounces, veteran pro Tommy Skarlis of Waukon, Iowa, blistered the rest of the field along with co-angler partner Jimmy Cox of Bono, Ark., to grab the overall lead at the National Guard FLW Walleye Tour event on the Mississippi River.

Heading into Friday's competition, Skarlis and Cox now boast a formidable lead of nearly 9 pounds over their next closest rivals - a lead that would have seemed far-fetched at opening takeoff this morning.

"I'm so blessed. We just went out and caught them. I'm pretty much speechless right now," said Skarlis. "I've been fishing (the Red Wing area) since I was 14 years old and I love fishing the Mississippi River. I just feel fortunate to have gotten the weight I did today."

Cox agreed that the day couldn't have gone much better - especially given the fact that conditions were less than ideal.

"When you go out there with someone and you get to weigh-in 36 pounds, it's an awesome day," said Cox. "We only lost one big fish all day. So overall, it couldn't have gone much better."

Although water levels were down and the current wasn't as brisk as some had hoped, Skarlis argued that he was able to have success largely due to the fact that he had little to no boat traffic around his prime fishing holes.

"I had pretty much most of the (areas) to myself today," said Skarlis. "On this river, you need big fish to win. And this river is the epicenter of big fish. And if I can get left alone on the stuff I'm fishing over the next two days, I think we can catch some more limits like the one we caught today."

"I know (Skarlis) was surprised that we had those spots all to ourselves," said Cox. "We caught our first fish around 7:30 a.m. and we just had a lot of success the rest of the day. Basically we had four or five good spots and hopped around from spot to spot all day."

Although he didn't want to divulge too many specifics, Skarlis said that he targeted his catch using a combination of homemade Do-It tackle, 12-pound Trilene line and a 7-foot St. Croix LX-70 MHM rod.

"The rod was important because it really allowed me to feel the bottom," he said. "There are a lot of Zebra mussels and it's pretty easy to get snagged," said Skarlis. "As far as our technique was concerned, I had four different programs that I started the day with. But one was working out so well we just stuck with that. Every time I'd think about switching, we'd get another bite with that (technique). So we pretty much stayed with it all day."

Moving forward, however, Skarlis said that he's going to have to keep adapting if he's to maintain his overall lead.

"The biggest thing is that these fish are changing every day," he said. "So it's scary. These areas are changing and I'm going to need to change as well to keep having success. On this river, you're going to need big bites. Numbers alone aren't going to win this event."

Bruegger, Lessila snare runner-up spot

Although they didn't have quite the day that the Skarlis-Cox team had, pro Robert Bruegger of Wabasha, Minn., and co-angler Tim Lessila of Milwaukee, Wisc., managed to turn in quite a performance as well - recording a stellar catch of 27 pounds, 15 ounces to grab second place overall heading into tomorrow's action.

"I'm very proud of what we caught," said Bruegger. "It was a good day. I knew that those fish were there, I just hoped they would bite. It would have been a little better day if I didn't snap a big fish off, but overall we had eight bites and got five in the boat. So I'm happy."

Bruegger's co-angler partner agreed.

"We definitely had a good day," said Lessila. "Hopefully I can do just as well tomorrow."

Bruegger said that caught most of their quarry live-bait rigging.

"And we're going to go with the same game plan tomorrow," said Bruegger. "Hopefully we'll get them again tomorrow like we did today."

Bjorkman, Klamfoth net third

Despite only landing four keepers, pro Brian Bjorkman of Fargo, N.D., and co-angler David Klamfoth of Waverly, Ill., still managed to grab third place overall with an impressive catch of 25 pounds, 8 ounces.

"It was a good day overall. So even thought we didn't get five fish, I really can't complain," said Bjorkman. "The day started out real well but we did leave one on the table."

Klamfoth said that all things considered, he had a great time out on the water today as well.

"It was great," said Klamfoth. "We caught some quality fish today. We had five good bites but unfortunately we couldn't get that last one we needed to fill out our limit. But this is a great fishery. And today ranks right up there with one of the best tournament days I've ever had."

Bjorkman said that he put a lot of effort into strategizing for today's events. However, like most of the successful teams, he said he had to adapt on the fly.

"It took me four hours last night tying rods because I didn't know exactly how today would play out," said Bjorkman. "I knew coming in that with the low water and slow current that I'd be targeting five big bites because it was probably going to be tough fishing today. But when I got out there today, I only wound up using one technique all day."

Bjorkman said that he found a highly productive area and decided early on that he was going to live or die with that spot - at least in today's competition.

"Once I found those fish, I wasn't leaving," he said. "The key was finding current seams with bait. Once you found that, the fish seemed to be there."

After registering one of only three sacks above 25 pounds, Bjorkman said he was quite pleased with tournament to date. However, he acknowledged that, with two days left in the tournament, it's far too early to get comfortable.

"I'm really happy with how this played out today," said Bjorkman. "And going forward, I think it's only going to get better and better. This was a good start. But we have two more days left. So we have to keep fishing hard."

Brunz, Hahn finish in fourth

Although they had to battle a steady, chilly downpour for the majority of the afternoon, pro Tom Brunz of Madison Lake, Minn., and co-angler Keith Hahn of McHenry, Ill., still managed to head back to weigh-in with a nice catch weighing in at 24 pounds, 10 ounces.

"It was a little soggy out there, but we had a pretty good day," said Brunz. "We had all of our fish by 9:30 a.m. and wound up with a pretty good limit, so we'll take that on the first day. And hopefully, tomorrow, those areas will replenish themselves."

Despite the elements, Brunz's partner was more than happy with today's outcome.

"It was excellent," said Hahn. "Tom really knows these waters for sure. Usually, I wait until we have our limit to start talking. But today, I didn't have to wait very long before I got to open my mouth."

Meleen, Oleson secure top-five finish

Pro Paul Meleen of Isle, Minn., and co-angler Larry Oleson of Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc., finished the day in fifth place overall with a total catch of 24 pounds.

Best of the rest

Rounding out the top-10 teams:

6th: Pro Matthew Ernst of North Oaks, Minn., and co-angler John Mickish of White Bear Lake - 22-6.
7th: Pro Steve Lotz of Lena, Ill., and co-angler Brett Lilienthal of Brooklyn Park, Minn. - 22-2.
8th: Pro Rich Mealey of Westerville, Ohio, and co-angler Jeffrey Kittelson of Arden Hills, Minn. - 21-13.
9th: Pro Randy Stevens of Rochester, Minn., and co-angler Nicholas Werner of Demorestville, Ontario - 20-12.
10th: Pro Brent Afseth of Preston, Minn., and co-angler Harold Johnson of Fridley, Minn. - 19-9.

Pro Rich Mealey of Westerville, Ohio, shows off a 10-pound, 2-ounce walleye en route to an eighth-place finish on the Mississippi River.Walleye fishing fans take note

Walleye Tour action continues during Friday's takeoff, scheduled to take place at 6:30 a.m. at Ole' Miss Marina/Bay Point Park located at 1429 Levee Road in Red Wing, Minn.

Tags: gary-mortenson  headline-story  2012-04-19-mississippi-river-red-wing 

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