Walleye Wisdom: A Tournament Co-Angler’s Tale

Chances are good you’ve never entered a walleye tournament as a co-angler—but you should. For about the same money as 2 full days of guiding, you’ll learn the latest in fishing techniques, get to rub shoulders with many of the country’s top pro anglers, and maybe get lucky enough to cash a big check.

Jay Carroll is Joe Lunch Bucket. The 43-year-old doesn’t wear fine clothes or drive a fancy automobile. He lives a simple life in the sticks of north-central Minnesota with his wife and a Lab. For many years, Jay earned a hard living laying cement blocks on construction sites across the upper Midwest, but he’s recently given that up for more steady work close to home at Bemidji State University.

“I could tell you my BSU job title is maintenance engineer,” Jay said, “but I’d be lying. I’m a general maintenance worker. I’m the guy who sweeps floors, cleans bathrooms and generally keeps a school looking good. I don’t make as much money as I did laying block, but this job is easier on my body, still pays the bills, and I get more time at home to fish and hunt.”

Jay is a multi-species angler, and 25 years ago he spent six consecutive summers guiding and teaching for Camp Fish, which was owned by Al and Ron Lindner. In fact, prior to working at Camp Fish in Walker, Minnesota, Jay annually attended summer sessions there as a camper, beginning at age 7. It’s no exaggeration to say Jay literally grew up on the hundreds of lakes surrounding the town of Walker.

“Back in my younger days, I didn’t target walleyes much,” Jay confessed. “Like most kids, I wanted to catch sunfish, crappies, bass or northern pike. Then as I got older, I got bit by the muskie bug. But over the past 10 years or so, I’ve enjoyed fishing nearby Leech Lake for walleyes. I guess it’s the challenge of trying to catch them under various weather conditions.”

Cabela’s National Walleye Tour

Leech Lake is one of the country’s top walleye fisheries, and its enormous size (103,000 acres) and great local amenities make it the perfect destination for large-scale fishing tournaments. Such was the case on June 12 and 13, 2015, when 125 boats hit the water for a 2015 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event.

“I’ve always been a competitive guy,” Jay said, “but entering a fishing tournament was never high on my to-do list. And then a few years ago when I heard the FLW was holding an event on Leech, I thought I’d give it a shot. Besides, the registration cost for a co-angler wasn’t too bad, and I figured I could learn a lot from a pro. I had fished Leech many times for walleyes on my own, but I’m smart enough to know you can always learn something new.”

Jay remembers having a great experience during two previous FLW tournaments on Leech, even though he didn’t cash a check. “These pros really put in the time pre-fishing. They’re pretty dialed in when it’s your boat’s turn to blast off. I caught decent numbers of walleyes during each event on Leech, and the pros were super willing to teach you how to be a better angler. They supply all the rods, tackle and bait, too. As a co-angler, all you have to do is show up on time and help catch fish. It’s a sweet deal.”

Because of Jay’s recent job change, he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to fish the Cabela’s NWT when it passed through his backyard in June 2015, and he signed up only a week before the event, putting his name on a waiting list in case someone who had registered earlier cancelled at the last minute. Luckily, Jay got word he was in the field on June 10, just a day before the pre-tournament meeting where co-anglers are matched with professionals.

“I was pumped when I found out I’d be fishing with pro Tom Keenan. I was paired with him a couple years ago on Leech, and we hit it off well. He’s a nice guy and a great fisherman.”

Day No. 1

Because Leech Lake has a walleye slot limit, anglers have to be smart about the fish they keep. For this tournament, the two-person teams could keep two walleyes measuring 26 inches or more (called “overs”), and the rest had to measure at least 15 inches but less than 20 inches (called “unders”). And culling isn’t allowed, which means if you put a fish in the live well, it has to stay there. A pair could keep seven walleyes total before having to stop fishing; the five biggest counted at weigh in.

“Tom had been pre-fishing for a week and had a solid game plan right from the start,” Jay said. “We headed for the ‘Big Lake’ (eastern two-thirds of Leech), hoping to fill the unders. It was hot with almost no wind, which really changes things. I know from my own experience that Leech is a wind-driven lake, so you have to adapt. We started with spinners and crawlers in 10-15 feet, but the bite was slow so we moved to 20-25 feet.

“I don’t know if this is the correct term, but I’d call what we did ‘stick-and-move.’ Tom had waypoints on his electronics, and he’d cruise up to a spot and hit the button on his Minn Kota Ulterra remote to begin deploying the trolling motor before he even killed the outboard. We trolled forward, with both of us sitting in the back of the boat. Tom steered with a remote and followed bottom contours and quickly picked apart each structure. It didn’t take long to determine if walleyes were there or not. And if they weren’t there, or not biting, Tom had the outboard fired up and was stowing the Ulterra with a push of the button almost before my butt hit the seat of his Ranger. Talk about high-tech and efficient fishing – it was cool. And to make it even better, we had a tournament camera boat follow us for a while, and they had a drone that shot video. I can’t wait to see that footage when the event is on TV.”

After a half-day of stick-and-move on the big lake, and five unders in the live well, the pair boated west into Walker Bay, a much deeper part of Leech known for bigger fish.

“We stopped the boat on an east shoreline of Walker Bay about 1:30 p.m.” Jay recalled. “There weren’t too many boats near the steep break Tom wanted to fish, and about 30 minutes after we started Tom set the hook into a 27-incher. Because we were after big fish, we used big creek chubs on Lindy-rig-style live bait rig in 25 feet or more. That was our only over for the day, and we finally weighed in 12.18 pounds (one over, four unders), which put me in 10th place. I was stoked!”

Day No. 2

Jay’s second day pro, Dave Andersen, had outboard trouble on day No. 1, causing him to lose much of his fishing time, and weighed in only one fish for 1.76 pounds. With no realistic chance to win the pro title, Dave greeted his new co-angler with tongue-in-check enthusiasm: “I suppose you want to catch 20 pounds today?!”

Dave decided they’d swing for the fences and target big fish first, which meant back to the depths of Walker Bay.

“On the first day, Tom Keenan and I were the sixth boat out of 125 to blast off,” Jay said, “so we really had our pick of spots. But Dave and I were something like 119 out of 125 boats to leave, so chances were good we’d have to join a crowd.”

Dave Andersen has fished many walleye tournaments on Leech Lake through the years, and he knew just where he wanted to go to help himself climb in the pro standings, as well as try to get Jay a victory on the co-angler side.

“We went back to that same east shoreline,” Jay said, “but instead of fishing shoreline breaks, we set up on some deep-water humps a bit farther out in the lake. There were about 15 boats with lines in the water when we arrived, guys like Tommy Skarlis, Ted Takasaki, Perry Good and Mark Christianson. Dave has a lot of confidence in these humps from previous events, so we politely joined the party.

“Dave was Lindy-rigging a big creek chub, and I had a leech. Unlike Tom Keenan, who trolled forward using a bow mount, Dave backtrolled in his Warrior with a Minn Kota Vantage transom mount. But he was just as precise as Tom with his presentation.

“I think we’d been fishing 20 minutes when I had a good strike in 45 feet. As I stood there fighting the fish, and feeling that it’s a big one, I remember thinking: There’s a who’s who in the walleye world within spitting distance of me right now. Don’t screw this up! Somehow I kept it all together and Dave slipped the net under a 29-incher, the biggest walleye of my life.”

Jay’s hands and arms were shaking so much from the excitement of landing the 29-incher that he was unable to rig another leech until he settled down. “I’ve had the shakes like that deer hunting, but never fishing. And then, as if it couldn’t get any better, I netted a 27 incher for Dave just 15 minutes later. We had our two overs by 8 a.m., with the whole day ahead of us to try and catch three unders.”

The wind had picked up as Dave and Jay headed northeast for the Big Lake. Here, they joined dozens and dozens of other walleye boats scattered across a massive flat.

“There were some tournament boats in the area, but most of them were local anglers,” Jay said. “And it seemed like everyone was catching walleyes! We trolled in 10-15 feet with bottom bouncers and spinner/crawler rigs. Depending on the wind, Dave switched between using his outboard and transom mount troller. Right away we kept a 17-incher, then a 19.5-incher, then another 19.5. So right there we had the five walleyes needed for a weigh in limit, but we kept fishing in order to get another one closer to that magic 19.5 or 19.75 inches. We kept catching small walleyes and throwing them back. Then Dave landed a 26.5-incher, and of course we had to let it go because we already had our two overs for the day. I can only imagine what some of the other tournament guys thought when they saw us release that fish!”

Dave and Jay continued pulling spinners/crawlers and catching small walleyes until they finally landed a 19.75-incher at 3:30 p.m. In total, Jay figures they caught 30-40 walleyes off the massive flat. With a live well loaded with a dream limit, the pair headed for the Walker City Beach, arriving at the docks an hour earlier than their mandatory quitting time.

Final Weigh In

“My wife and several buddies were hanging out at the weigh in,” Jay said, “so as Dave drove for shore I was getting text messages with updates on how some of the other co-anglers had been doing. Knowing the fish we had in the tank, I couldn’t help but shake my head and think: Good God; I might win this thing!”

When Dave and Jay finally stepped up on stage with their heavy bag of fish, NWT host/emcee Chip Leer called out the numbers. “I’ll never forget the moment I heard Chip shout our official weight of 19.94 pounds,” Jay said. “It still doesn’t seem real. To be part of catching the biggest bag of fish among 125 boats is something you only dream about.

“Of course, I owe everything to my pro partners. Tom Keenan put me in a position to win with a great game plan on day one, and then Dave Andersen blew the roof off with our final day catch. I ended up cashing my first check in a fishing tournament, and I’m not going to lie to you; it’s pretty cool. I won $6,000 for being the first place co-angler, and because I also entered the Angler Advantage co-angler payout, I won a bonus $926.

“Think about it: It cost me $350 to enter the Cabela’s NWT as a co-angler, and another $100 for Angler Advantage. I spent about the same money you’d shell out for 2 full days of guiding, but this way I was able to learn from the best of the best. And while I’m super happy to win this tournament, I’m just as excited to take what I’ve learned from Tom and Dave and use it on future trips to Leech, and all the other great walleye lakes in the area. ”

Author’s note: Pro Dave Andersen (Amery, WI) finished the Cabela’s NWT on Leech Lake in 14th place with a total weight of 21.70 pounds. Pro Tom Keenan (Hatley, WI) took 15th place, only .01 pounds behind Dave, with a total of 21.69 pounds. Topping the pro division was Brad Dirkman (Underwood, MN) with a 2-day total of 26.83 pounds; he won $63,127 in cash and prizes. If fishing as a co-angler in a future Cabela’s National Walleye Tour event interests you, click here for more information.

Photos by Matt Law

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