Wisconsin pro claims walleye title at Escanaba

ESCANABA – When the bite is strong, anyone can catch walleyes on a system teeming with fish like Bays de Noc. But when the wind dies and the bite gets stingy, it becomes a true test of the world’s best.

Throughout the past two decades, Keith Kavajecz of Kaukauna, Wis., has proven time and again he belongs in that elite group of walleye fishermen. In claiming his latest major victory at the third Cabela’s National Walleye Tour qualifier, he demonstrated that innovation is alive and well in the walleye world as he introduced a brand new jigging technique.

Despite a 30-minute fog delay Saturday morning, Kavajecz arrived at his primary area, located just beyond the Cedar River, faster than he did Friday. His first stop, approximately 35 miles south of Escanaba, was a hump where his co-angler partner whacked a 30-inch walleye on day one.

“There were no fish at first; we weren’t really marking anything and the ones we did see were so inactive, just hugging tight to the bottom,” recalled Kavajecz. “I moved further south and it was more of the same. After two hours of fishing, I had nothing in the livewell.”

Kavajecz decided to return to the first spot and the sonar on his Lowrance HDS-12 Gen2 Touch absolutely lit up.

“I made four casts and I had a 24, a 28, a 26, and a big sheepshead. Since it was so difficult to get my slots yesterday, I decided to leave and target those fish immediately. We hit probably 20 spots and we caught a lot of fish but they were all overs. My partner did catch a 28 1/2 that upgraded the 26.”

Tournament anglers were restricted to Michigan waters and per state regulations, only two walleyes over 23 inches in length could be kept per day as pros and co-anglers fished together in a boat as a team.

Kavajecz then ran up to the Ford River area, a place where he and teammates Gary and Chase Parsons had been catching numerous slots in practice.

“I caught a 22, so that was good. We went a half hour and then I caught another 22. With 10 minutes left I told my partner I need a miracle fish to clinch the win. Out in 30 feet of water I caught a 20-incher to fill my limit. At that point I figured I had around 25 pounds and I knew it would be a lot of tougher on the trollers with the calm weather. That’s just standard Bays de Noc.”

Kavajecz was right as his 53.50 pounds was more than 5 pounds better than the other 99 competitors. Exactly zero of his 10 walleyes came via trolling this week, the standard Bays de Noc presentation. Instead, they came from casting and ripping a No. 3 Moonshine Lures Shiver Minnow.

“We would cast out into the boat wake and then snap and drop the bait. It’s kind of like a jigging Rapala. But when you pull it, it shoots to the side and then drops straight down like it’s wounded. It attracted the fish, but then gave them an opportunity to eat it.”

For his latest triumph, Kavajecz earned a Ranger 1880 powered with a 175-horsepower Mercury engine and $15,000, a total prize package worth $78,815.

Veteran troller Don Loch of Iron Mountain placed fifth with a total weight of 46.22 pounds. On day one, Loch caught a 25.13-pound stringer and Saturday he brought in 21.09 pounds.

Each day Loch brought in four walleyes, one short of the five-fish limit. He too fished the Cedar River area and employed spinners and night crawlers.

Marty Barski has fished his share of professional tournaments, spanning both the walleye and bass worlds. While he’s achieved considerable success, he’s never won an event. That changed this week after two successful days on Bays de Noc earned him the co-angler title.

“I fished with Jim Carroll from North Dakota the first day and we were pulling crankbaits down around the Cedar River,” said Barski, a Crystal Lake, Ill., native. “It was a really good day for numbers of fish, but the conditions were rough in terms of wind and waves.

“(Saturday) I fished with Don Loch and he also ran down to the Cedar River area but we were pulling spinners with night crawlers. We caught two nice fish right away on a double and then kind of struggled. That 30-minute fog delay really hurt us. If we would have been there earlier I think we would have caught a few more.”

Barski’s official two-day weight for nine walleyes was 46.16 pounds. He earned $6,000 for his victory.

The fourth and final event of the 2014 Cabela’s National Walleye Tour season is the year-end championship, which takes place Sept. 18-20 on Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh.