This past weekend, my tournament partner Doug Robinson and I fished the AIM Professional Walleye Series State Championship on beautiful Lake Vermillion. The event was based out of Fortune Bay Casino. Let me tell you, the folks at Fortune Bay were more than accommodating to all of us. They have a large protected bay with plenty of dock slips and very helpful marina staff. Before pre-fishing and entering the waters of Lake Vermillion, all teams had to go through a brief AIS Inspection at one of several sites around the lake. We were then given a sheet of paper, which was signed by the boat captain and the inspector as proof of inspection. Being I had the Alumacraft TPro all washed and shined up, it was painless.
Now to back up just a little bit and recap our season to date.
We qualified for the Minnesota State Championship by fishing 3 of 4 previous AIM Series events earlier this year. If you are not familiar with the AIM Professional Walleye Series, it is a Catch-Photo-Release style tournament. There are three divisions—the Dakota’s, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Each has a series of events and a state championship. It is by far, the best way in my opinion to run a tournament. The fish are released right away after being recorded.
Our first event was on Pool 3 & 4 of the Mississippi River. Then we traveled to Leech Lake for what ended up being a double header, do to the Mille Lacs Lake closure. If memory serves me correctly, our best finish in those previous events was somewhere mid-pack out of a 100-boat field. Going into the year, both Doug and I figured we would take our lumps so to speak jumping to a professional series. But not this bad. There is some incredibly tough competition within the AIM Series.
It’s no secret that Doug & I love to pull crankbaits for walleye. You can cover more water eliminating areas that are not holding fish. With trolling, you can get “reaction strikes” as well as a “feeding strike” from the walleye’s you are targeting. As we are trolling, if I mark larger pods of walleye I will drop a waypoint on my Hummingbird Helix 10. Then after our trolling run, we can go back over those fish with another presentation if needed. This could be a Northland Tackle spinner rig, a Jiggin’ Rap, or a Lindy rig with live bait.
My 2017 Alumacraft TPro is powered by a 150 Yamaha SHO. It is a fantastic fishing machine! The biggest key to this entire package is the Power Pole with the paddle attachment. The paddle really allows me to fine tune my trolling speeds precisely as needed. I can use it as a shallow water anchor, I can clock the paddle in several directions and use it for drift control, or I can use it for precise speed control. It is an amazing tool to have without the added cost, weight, and maintenance of a kicker-motor.
Lake Vermillion holds a special place in my heart. It is here, some years ago guide/friend Greg Clusiau taught me how to fish leadcore. This past weekend on Lake Vermillion the trolling bite was where it was at for us. We pulled various crankbaits while pre-fishing on Sufix leadcore in basin areas. We switched up our crankbaits often if we were not getting bit. The crankbaits we used were #5 & #7 Berkley Flicker Minnows, #4, #5, & #7 Rapala Shad Raps, and #5 Salmo Hornets. We figured out rather quickly during pre-fishing that purple was going to be a key color for us throughout the tournament. Occasionally, we would mix in a “loud” color in chartreuse of some sort.
Speed was a big factor from getting bit, to not getting bit for us. We found three basin area’s pre-fishing that had walleye’s willing to cooperate for us. Two of those spots had larger fish (over 20”) so that was our “game plan” for Day #1.
We started the tournament as boat #27. This was a small moral victory in its self! As all the previous AIM events we fished this season, we were somewhere between #83 to #53 in starting position.
Day #1 kicks off with calm winds and a sun filled sky. We are antsy with anticipation and run to Spot #1. We had faith in the spot from pre-fishing that we could get some fish upwards of 18” here to get us started. By 8:45am we had a card full (5 fish) and were looking for upgrades. We no more than start another trolling run in the area we were working and Doug’s rod bends over in the rod holder. It’s the big fish we were hoping for. After a good fight, a solid 25” walleye hits the net. A very respectable upgrade! By 9:30am we make the decision to hit Spot #2. Our second spot seemed to hold larger average fish, and I caught a 24 3/4” walleye there on the last day of pre-fishing. We worked this area for a little while, upgrading one of our smaller fish and then another. I steer us down a little further than I had in the past and Doug’s rod doubles over in the rod holder again! “BIG FISH!” he exclaims. After a good fight, a huge 27” walleye hits the net! We work the area hard for the next hour, but the bite for us died off…just like it did pre-fishing in this spot around 1pm every day. We make the decision to run back to Spot #1 with about 90min. remaining before we need to head in. Finally, I contribute (besides being a net man) and put an upgrade 18 ¼” walleye on the card. At the end of Day #1, Doug & I are sitting in 10th place with 21.13lbs. The top few teams had 30lb +, but if we managed a couple bigger bites we felt we have a shot at a solid finish.
Day #2 greets all of us with a major weather change. A bit breezy and a steady rain. Questions arise like—Will our fish bite? Will the Teams ahead of us be on fish again, or did they burn them up on Day #1? Will others get on big fish and come from behind? Time will tell. Doug and I felt confident in our game plan. We just need a couple more “big bites” on Day #2. We left this to the Man Upstairs in a brief prayer at breakfast.
Take off starts as normal, a little chop from the boats ahead of us and manageable 2’ white caps on the lake greet us today. I remember thinking to myself, “boy…am I glad I have a full windshield on my Alumacraft for conditions just like this.” Then, out of nowhere the engine goes dead! What the heck! Here I look down and my kill switch tether hooked the throttle from around my wrist do to bouncing in the waves. Let me tell you, from going 45mph in two-footers to no power in an instant gets your attention! Quickly realizing what had happened, I put the kill switch back in place and fire the Yamaha back up. We continue pounding the waves then my Humminbird goes blank! What the heck! Still at full speed, I know where I’m heading thankfully and don’t really need the gps tracking. I hit the Power button, and the unit fires back up. Once we get to Spot #1, I disconnect the unit and plug it back in (that’s the extent of my electronic ability). Thankfully it works without issue. It must have just lost connection do to the pounding of our run.
We get our lines in the water and quickly start filling the card. With 4 fish on the card in our first
trolling pass we are off to a good start. At the start of our second trolling run, Doug’s rod cranks over in the rod holder— “Good fish!” he exclaims. Carefully reeling it in, a solid 23” walleye hits the net for our 5th fish. I look at my watch and it’s only a little after 8am. We upgrade a smaller fish before hitting Spot #2 at 9:30am. The fish had moved a little bit in Spot #2, so it took a pass or two to get them dialed-in. Once we did though it was Game On! I get a solid hit, and my clicker reel starts to sing. “Good Fish Doug” I exclaim! After a good fight, another 23” walleye hits the net. Now we are talking! Solid upgrade. Making another pass, my rod doubles over again, the clicker screams as line is pulled out. “BIG FISH!” I shout to Doug. I carefully begin to reel this beast in. Big headshakes, digging runs. I’m nervous as all get out, figuring this is a 10lb walleye that we need. As it gets tired out, and comes to the surface, we finally see it’s a big pike. UGH! It sure didn’t fight like a pike. After a little calming down, we got back to fishing. We both felt we still needed two more upgrades over 20” to have a shot. Within minutes, I get another hit! Another solid fish. Another careful battle, only to reveal another pike. We didn’t catch a single pike in two days of pre-fishing. Now we have caught two in less than 15 minutes. We troll awhile longer only catching a few smaller fish. We decide to run back to Spot #1 and grind it out the rest of the event. Immediately we start catch fish, but no upgrades. With about 45min of fishing time left, I pick up my rod out of the rod holder to change crankbait colors. I give the reel a few quick turns, then feel a “thud!” “Good fish! “I say to Doug. Almost in disbelief still, I carefully reel in a solid 20 ½” upgrade. Try as we might, we couldn’t connect on that 4th upgrade we both felt we needed. As our fishing time is up, we run back in with 17.57lbs. on the card. A solid day, but after seeing the catches on Day #1 we both knew we needed some luck for a Top 10 finish.
After all the weights are calculated, Doug & I found ourselves in the proverbial “sucker hole” in 11th Place. One spot out of cashing a check in the AIM Professional Walleye Series State Championship. We needed one more big bite. That’s tournament fishing though. All things considered, we have nothing to hang our heads over. We had a solid game plan that held up both days. We fished hard and gave ourselves a shot at the end of a 2-day tournament. In short, we SENT IT! A Top 15 spot in our first AIM Professional Walleye Series State Championship is something I’m proud of. Even though we didn’t cash a check. I’m already looking forward to competing in next year’s AIM Series with the knowledge gained from this season. It’s an incredible series, where I have gained many new friends that share in the passion.
What can I say about Lake Vermillion? It’s nothing short of an amazing fishery! From pre-fishing through the tournament, Doug and I caught around 30 walleyes per/day. The lake is full of large pike, muskie, smallmouth bass, and fat walleye’s! The scenery the lake provides is worth the drive itself. During this event, walleyes were caught on a variety of technique’s—Jiggin’ Raps, Rippin’ Raps, Lindy rigging, spinners, and leadcore. I am already trying to figure out a way to get back up there yet this Fall.
Our pre-fishing work paid off this time and we had a solid plan going into the event.
Early in the morning on Spot #1 we would troll between 1.7mph to 1.9mph. We filled the card both days by 8:45am, with one larger fish each day in this area. We would then run to Spot #2 at 9:30am. Here the fish wanted the baits a little faster. We would troll between 2.1mph to 2.5mph in this basin area. Again, both days we would upgrade a couple of fish here and put a larger fish on the card. Around 1pm we would then run back to Spot #1. Both days when we returned, the walleye’s wanted our offerings faster and we would upgrade one fish. While it wasn’t the winning plan, it was a solid plan that came up one big bite short of our first Top 10.