Welcome to the WAT season for 2018!
MERKEL, SMITH CAPTURE TEAM OF YEAR HONORS
DUBUQUE — Gary Merkel and John Smith of Illinois started their first season on the Walleye Anglers Trail with a bang, and they finished it with another.
Merkel and Smith won the season-opening event on their home waters of the Illinois River and Sunday at the W.A.T. Championship on the Mississippi River at Dubuque, they locked up the Team of the Year title with a strong, third-place finish.
Thanks to a new format this season that allows teams to discard their poorest finish and count only their top four events, Merkel and Smith were able to throw out a 35th-place finish at Clinton. That left them with a first, two thirds and a 10th for 416 points on the season.
The father-son team of Jerry Eiben and B.J. Eiben of Dubuque finished second in the final Team of the Year standings with 360 points on finishes of first (Clinton), sixth, 15th and 18th while Waterloo’s Neil Hammargren and Cedar Falls’ Doug Newhoff were third at 358.75 points with finishes of second, seventh, 11th and 11th.
Approximately 90 teams fished Walleye Anglers Trail events during the 2017 season.
Congratulations to Harry Miller and Mason Jackson on their 2017 WAT Championship Victory!
Congratulations to Gary Merkel and John Smith our 2017 WAT Team of the Year!
W.A.T. SEASON SET FOR FANTASTIC FINISH
DUBUQUE — It’s all on the line Oct. 8.
The Walleye Anglers Trail wraps up the 2017 season with its championship tournament on pools 11, 12 and 13 of the mighty Mississippi River. A total of 26 teams qualified for the catch-record-release championship event, which launches at 7 a.m. from Schmitt Harbor in Dubuque and concludes with a 4:30 p.m. video “weigh-in” at Catfish Charlie’s. The final event of the W.A.T. season will also determine the 2017 Team of the Year.
Fans are also invited to a 6:30 p.m. seminar Friday at Catfish Charlie’s where Clinton tournament winners Jerry and B.J. Eiben, along with host Tommy Skarlis, will talk about their favorite techniques and presentations for river walleyes.
To win the championship, anglers will likely need a big weight. Last October, Bellevue’s Harry Miller and grandson Mason Jackson won the title with a weight of 34.93 pounds. Two years ago in the season finale in October, Neil Hammargren of Waterloo and Doug Newhoff of Cedar Falls posted a winning weight of 38.76 pounds.
Heading into the 2017 showdown for the title, it appears anglers will meet with favorable river conditions for another big catch.
“It depends on the river,” noted Skarlis, who is coming off a Masters Walleye Circuit World Walleye Championship with tournament partner Jeff Lahr. “You’ve got the strongest river walleye anglers in the nation fishing that championship. It’ll probably take a record weight … something in the neighborhood of 40 pounds to win.”
The Team of the Year competition adds to the drama and intrigue of the finale. With teams allowed to discard their poorest finish of the season, the coveted title is up for grabs with approximately a dozen teams in contention.
Hammargren and Newhoff hold a slim lead over Skarlis and Lahr after the four regular-season qualifiers, but Gary Merkel and John Smith of Illinois and Bryce Nannenga and Jon Habel of Dubuque are also in excellent position to claim the Team of the Year honor.
“To be the Team of the Year on this circuit with all these legendary river fishermen would be an incredible honor,” said Hammargren, whose boat will launch No. 1 for the championship. “We’ve put ourselves in a good spot, but so have quite a few other teams. We’re going to have to put together a great tournament, but so are they.
“We’re really looking forward to it. It’s going to be a blast.”
DEVOSS-DEVOSS TEAM MAKES HISTORY
BELLEVUE, Iowa — Paul DeVoss and Katie DeVoss made far more than a good check Sunday on the Mississippi River at Bellevue. They also made history and a day of memories that will last a lifetime.
Fishing the final regular-season Walleye Anglers Trail event of 2017, the DeVoss duo became the first father-daughter team in the circuit’s 20-plus year history to score a victory. The Prairie du Chien, Wis., anglers finished with a five-fish limit of 31.03 pounds to edge the Dubuque team of Clayton Freiburger and Bob Freiburger (30.77 pounds). Gary Merkel and John Smith of Spring Valley, Ill., were third at 28.03 pounds.
“It was just a phenomenal fishing day,” said Paul DeVoss, a former pro angler on the FLW Tour. “Just about everything went right.”
With the river in freefall and water clarity poor, prefishing was hit and miss for most of the 27-boat field.
“Prefishing actually wasn’t that good,” noted Paul DeVoss. “It was spotty … a fish here, a fish there. Friday afternoon and Saturday we got on some pretty good fish on a couple of dams, but I wasn’t really sure what would happen Sunday.”
It took a few minutes to get it started, but then it was game on for Paul and Katie, whose previous best finishes in three seasons as a team were a third and a fourth last season.
“When we pulled two 26-inchers on two casts, we didn’t have to think about it any more,” said Paul. “We had a limit shortly after 7 a.m. (the tournament blasted off at 6 a.m.). I’d catch a 26-incher and Kate would catch a 26. She got a 24 and I got a 24. She had a 21 3/4 and I’d get a 21. It was just fun.”
The DeVosses caught fish on crankbaits, jigs, blade baits and willow cats. They had 21 walleyes over 15 inches for the day.
“It was really cool,” said Kate, who will be a high school junior in the fall. “I wasn’t sure we were actually going to get first. It was amazing.
“We got our first five fish in like an hour and a half. That’s never happened before in any of my tournaments. They kept coming in.”
And while Katie has the utmost respect and appreciation for the elite field of champion anglers in the W.A.T., she had to admit it felt good to beat them.
“I’ve learned a lot from all the guys on the W.A.T.,” she said. “They’ve been super nice to me. They’re like my best friends not at school. Finally beating them did feel really good because it shows I have learned something.”
The W.A.T. will wrap up its season Oct. 8 with its championship event on the Mississippi River at Dubuque. That event will also determine the 2017 Team of the Year.
The boat inspection starts at 5 AM, Fish from 6am to 2pm. Weigh in at Off shore event center.
W.A.T. SETTING UP FOR WILD FINISH
BELLEVUE, Iowa — The Walleye Anglers Trail is headed for a fantastic finish to its 2017 tournament season.
Just two events remain — the July 9 regular-season finale at Bellevue and the Oct. 8 championship out of Dubuque — and thanks to the W.A.T.’s new format this season that allows teams to throw out their worst tournament of the year, the battle for Team of the Year won’t be decided until that final event.
Gary Merkel and John Smith of Spring Valley, Ill., won the season-opener. Tommy Skarlis of Denver and Jeff Lahr of Dubuque won at Genoa. The father-son team of Jerry Eiben and B.J. Eiben took the most recent tournament June 25 at Clinton. Neil Hammargren of Waterloo and Doug Newhoff of Cedar Falls hold a slim lead in the season points standings.
None of that will matter July 9 when some of the best walleye anglers in the Midwest convene at Bellevue on Pool 13, which has surrendered some of the biggest catches in W.A.T. history.
In 2014, Bellevue’s own Harry Miller teamed with Rob Lampman for consecutive wins. First, they won a regular-season qualifier with a five-fish catch of 36.61 pounds. Later that season, they added the River Kings Championship with six walleyes for 41.67 pounds. In 2015, Hammargren and Newhoff set a five-fish W.A.T. record with 38.76 pounds. And last season, Miller and grandson Mason Jackson teamed up to win the W.A.T. championship tournament with 34.93 pounds.
The public is invited to join the W.A.T. staff and anglers Friday, July 7 at Kalmes Restaurant for a 6:30 p.m. seminar featuring seasoned pro Skarlis and the Eibens and again Sunday at the Shore Event Center in Bellevue for the video weigh-in.
PICTURE-PERFECT: EIBENS WIN AT CLINTON
CLINTON, Iowa — Jerry Eiben and his son B.J. were enjoying a picture-perfect day June 25 on the Mississippi River at Clinton.
Until they weren’t.
Fishing the third Walleye Anglers Trail qualifier of the season and second combined event with the Illinois Walleye Trail, the Eibens got off to a tremendous start. In fact, they had 15 pounds of walleye in the boat in the first 15 minutes of the day and a dozen fish boated and logged in the catch-record-release format by noon.
That’s when they realized they had nothing to show for what was shaping up as the best tournament day they’d ever experienced.
“Our camera quit and we thought we’d lost all our pictures,” said Jerry Eiben, a W.A.T. veteran and the 2008 winner at Dubuque. “I kind of panicked about noon and I called Jason (tournament director Hughes) and told him we had seven big fish but we only had pictures of three. He said, ‘No pictures, no fish.’ I almost got sick in the boat.”
The Eibens knew if they left the wingdam they were fishing to go get a different SD card from Hughes, they’d lose their spot. Fortunately, they had a backup camera in the boat.
“We put the chip in that camera about 1 o’clock, and the pictures were there,” said Eiben.
It was quite a collection of photos, too. The Eibens had more than 20 walleyes over 20 inches and their five best measured between 24 3/4 and 26 3/4 inches. That added up to 34.06 pounds and their first W.A.T. win as partners. Neil Hammargren of Waterloo and Doug Newhoff of Cedar Falls were second with 32.89 pounds and Clayton Freiburger and Bob Freiburger were third at 30.76. A total of 37 teams competed in the event.
Jerry Eiben said three-way rigs with big jigs and slow death hooks tipped with nightcrawlers triggered most of their bites. It’s a technique he’s been using for several years, but one he credits pro angler Eric Olson with helping him refine.
“He came down and put on a seminar last winter for the Mississippi Walleye Club and I picked up a couple of good tips from his talk,” said Jerry. “I switched around a little with leeches, hair jigs, caught one fish on a crankbait, four came on willow cats, but we didn’t weigh any of those fish. I don’t think B.J. ever got rid of the slow death.”
Despite a high, dirty river and current that took some areas out of play, the tournament field weighed in 113 total walleyes for 436.60 pounds.
“It was a fun day,” said Jerry Eiben.
The final regular-season W.A.T. qualifier is July 9 at Bellevue as anglers jockey for position for the championship tournament in October. For more information, visit the W.A.T. website at www.walleyeanglerstrail.com.
W.A.T. Season Resumes at Clinton
CLINTON, Iowa — The Walleye Anglers Trail returns to the challenging waters of the Mississippi River at Clinton June 25 for the second combined W.A.T./Illinois Walleye Trail event of the 2017 season.
A field of more than 60 boats is expected for the catch-record-release event on Pools 13, 14 and 15 of the big river. It’s also the third of four qualifying events for the W.A.T. leading up to the Oct. 8 W.A.T. Championship in Dubuque.
Illinois Walleye Trail anglers Gary Merkel and John Smith top the points standings after the first two events of the season. They won the combined I.W.T./W.A.T. season-opening tournament on the Illinois River at Spring Valley, Ill., and were 10th at the April 2 tournament on the Mississippi River at Genoa, Wis.
Dubuque’s Marty Berns and Jason Hancock are second in the season standings with Genoa winners Tommy Skarlis and Jeff Lahr third.
When the W.A.T. visited Clinton last season, Clayton Freiburger and Bob Freiburger grabbed the win with a four-fish catch of 29.37 pounds. Maury Schmerbach and Mike Glynn took second with a five-walleye limit of 26.26, and Don Pape and Tony Pape were third at 23.16 pounds.
A video weigh-in for the June 25 tournament will take place at 5 p.m. at Wild Rose Casino, which will also be the location for a seminar featuring walleye pro Tommy Skarlis Friday, June 23 at approximately 6:30 p.m. The public is invited to both events.
GENOA, Wis. — Tommy Skarlis has won at the highest levels of competitive walleye fishing.
From the Professional Walleye Trail, Anglers Insight Marketing circuit and Masters Walleye Circuit to the FLW Tour, Full Throttle series and Walleye Anglers Trail, Skarlis has won everything from individual events to season championships.
Many of those titles came with shiny trophies and cardboard paychecks, but Skarlis will always value the April 2 W.A.T. victory he and partner Jeff Lahr pulled off on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River above them all.
On Nov. 6, Skarlis fell from a tree stand while deer hunting in Northeast Iowa and suffered a broken neck. He was air-lifted to La Crosse, Wis., where doctors told him he was lucky to be alive and even luckier not to be paralyzed. Skarlis, a Waterloo native who now lives in Denver, underwent extensive surgery and a grueling rehabilitation that continues today, but a little more than four months after the accident, he was back in the boat for the W.A.T. season-opener at Spring Valley, Illinois.
Now he’s back in the winner’s circle after he and Lahr solved a tough bite with a five-walleye limit of 27.39 pounds. Dave Lester and Scott Napiecek finished second with four fish for 14.47 pounds, and Jon Habel and Bryce Nannenga took third with five fish for 13.9 pounds.
“The first tournament I ever won when Chad Kincaid and I won the MWC at Big Stone in 1996, that was a huge one, and the FLW in 2012 on the Mississippi River stands out,” says Skarlis. “But we got 10th in a crappie tournament last week in Grenada, Miss., and that little plaque and this one rank right up there because they are part of my recovery.
“There are still days when I wonder how much further I will be able to progress. Right now I need a lot of help. If I run the trolling motor for 15 minutes, I start to hurt and I have to sit down and take a break.”
Skarlis and Lahr know what to expect on Pool 9 in April. They won the W.A.T. event there in 2015, were second in 2013 and took third last year. For this year’s tournament, they targeted prespawn female walleyes and coaxed them into biting using double Rapalas on three-way rigs with Do-It Corporation sinkers they make themselves.
“My philosophy is you’re not going to win this tournament fishing for male fish,” said Lahr, who lives in Dubuque. “What you have to do is try to figure out where those females are that are waiting to go spawn or moving through areas to get to the spawning areas. Once you figure out those spots, you just have to sit on them long enough for the fish to show up.
“If you can hang a Rapala in their face and wiggle it just right and pull it forward and then drop it back in their face, they’re going to eat it. It’s like playing ball with a kitten. You pull it away from them and then tease them with it and they pounce on it. Rapalas are pretty deadly this time of year.”
Skarlis and Lahr adjusted from bright colors that produced for them the day before under sunny skies to darker colors under the overcast skies on tournament day. They had three big fish in the boat by 8:30 a.m. and were well on their way to the victory.
“Most of it was due to the fact that Jeff really knows how to control that boat,” said Skarlis. “Boat control played a huge part of it.”
Lahr was as happy for Skarlis as he was for himself.
“I really felt good about my partner catching some fish because he’s on the mend and it’s not easy for him,” said Lahr. “That was a life-threatening experience he went through breaking his neck. In less than five months, he was back fishing. It’s pretty amazing how far he has come back in that short of time.”
GENOA, Wis. — The Walleye Anglers Trail returns to the Mississippi River and Genoa, Wis., Sunday, April 2 for the second qualifying tournament of the season.
A field of 30 teams or more is expected to compete for a first-place payout that could top $3,000 with the addition of the W.A.T.’s new optional side pot.
The W.A.T. kicked off the 2017 season March 12 on the Illinois River at Spring Valley, Ill., in a combined venture with the Illinois Walleye Trail that drew a field of 61 two-person teams. The circuit returns to its traditional format when it visits Genoa for the sixth straight spring.
Five different teams have captured victories at Genoa the past five seasons using a wide range of techiques ranging from trolling stickbaits and crankbaits to rigging, vertical jigging, pitching jigs and dragging jigs.
Last April, Harry Miller and grandson Mason Jackson carded a five-fish limit of 26.97 pounds in the catch-record-release format, including an 11.03-pound trophy, to win. In 2015, Tommy Skarlis and Jeff Lahr put together a 20.23-pound catch for the victory. Gerry Oberbroeckling and Tim Ware were the winners in 2014 with 24.04 pounds, Maury Schmerback and Mike Glynn finished at the top in 2013 with 21.15 pounds, and Kevin Oyen and Steve Kopp were the 2012 champions with 15.90 pounds.
The video weigh-in for the tournament will take place at Tuna’s Bar in Genoa at 4:30 p.m. April 2. The public is also invited to Tuna’s Friday, March 31 for a 6:30 p.m. social and seminar with many of the W.A.T. anglers.
Combined IWT/WAT opener a hit
SPRING VALLEY, Ill. — Mother Nature didn’t bring her ‘A’ game, but a field of 61 teams did for the March 12 Walleye Anglers Trail season opener on the Illinois River at Spring Valley, Ill.
The tournament was a combined venture between the Illinois Walleye Trail and the Iowa-based W.A.T., the first of two this season as both circuits seek to grow participation and increase payouts.
Anglers dealt with unseasonably cold temperatures that started in the teens and topped out in the 30s, but stable conditions on the country’s premier sauger fishery produced both quality and quantity at the scales. All of the 61 two-person teams weighed in at least three sauger (minimum size was 14 inches) while 54 teams put together six-fish limits.
Nobody did it better than Gary Merkel and John Smith of Spring Valley, who weighed in six sauger for 17.58 pounds. Tom Giachetto Sr. and Tom Giachetto Jr. from nearby Ladd, Ill., were second at 14.71 pounds with Jim McDonald and Jeff Wennerstrom of Fox Lake, Ill., third at 14.06 pounds.
Merkel and Smith, tournament fishing partners for the past six years, put together a trolling pattern using leadcore line for their victory and a payday that totaled almost $6,500.
“It went amazing,” said Smith. “We had a limit of fish in 15 minutes, and we didn’t stop catching them all day. We probably went through 75 fish.”
Merkel and Smith got their program dialed in during the days leading up to the tournament.
“Friday was really good prefishing,” said Merkel.
“We were expecting 18 pounds to win,” added Smith. “We didn’t know if we’d get it, but that’s what we thought it’d take to win.”
Among the W.A.T. anglers, Neil Hammargren of Waterloo and Doug Newhoff of Cedar Falls were seventh overall with 12.99 pounds, a catch anchored by a 3.66-pound walleye. Art Lehrmann and Bob Thill were 10th (12.71), Marty Berns and Jason Hancock 11th (12.70) and Doug Schumacher and Dusty Herbst finished 13th (12.53).
By most accounts, the combined venture was an overwhelming success.
“I think it went really well,” said tournament director Adam Sandor. “We had a great turnout and great fishing.”
The W.A.T. heads next to Genoa, Wis., for the second qualifier of the season April 2. For more information, visit the W.A.T. website at www.walleyeanglerstrail.com.