Much like a chess match where one move often predicates two or three more down the line, these guys need a tactical game plan to stay ahead of the opposition.
Play conservative and refuse to adapt to changing conditions — weather or water — and it could be game over.
Remember, these are not your typical, easy-to-catch, opponents.
These are crafty walleye who sometimes strike hard, sometimes bump, sometimes nibble.
That is what 400 anglers — 200, two-person teams — are up against when they hit the water bright and early (7 a.m.) Thursday for the three-day Cabela’s National Team Championship (NTS) in pools 7, 8 and 9 of the Mississippi River.
While the this area of the river has hosted numerous big-time bass fishing tournaments, this is the first walleye tournament of this magnitude to be held here, according to Jack Baker, tournament director of the NTC.
The launch area, as well as daily weigh-ins, will be at Veterans Freedom Park near the Clinton Street bridge.
“The fishermen that are here are all good anglers; they know where to find the fish,” Baker said. “I would say the only thing that would stop the success rate would be those not adapting to the changing river conditions.
“These guys will be paying attention, reading the river, reading the clues, listening to what the fish are telling them.”
The tournament, which carries a $270,000 purse, including nearly $170,000 to the winning team, will be filled with challenges, especially with the river recently above flood stage but now receding.
That will keep the teams, which come from 21 states, on their toes.
“It is going to be the teams that are adapting (to the conditions) that are going to do very well. You have to understand that these guys are used to fishing these types of conditions,” said Dale Radcliffe, director of the Mighty Miss Walleye Series (MMWS), a local club that qualified eight teams for the tournament.
“This is a really great opportunity, almost like winning the lottery to get them (NTC) here. La Crosse has pulled together and made this happen.”
While the water level in pools 7, 8 and 9 — a segment of the Mississippi River that stretches from Trempealeau to Prairie du Chien — continues to drop, finding walleye won’t be easy. Both Baker and Radcliffe estimate it will take 20 pounds of walleye each day to make the cut.
The field of 200 teams is cut to 25 after Friday’s competition.
“All the females (walleye) spawned in the last two weeks, and all of those fish are feeding quite heavily,” Radcliffe said. “It is a five-fish limit (for the tournament), so 20-25 pounds is pretty normal. I think we are going to see a lot of 5- and 6-pound walleye.”
While the standard walleye spots — behind the dams, just off wing dams — are likely on the list of places that teams will hit, there are plenty of other areas that produce walleye, Radcliffe said. Those spots are different — and fewer in number — than those populated by bass, however.
“Walleyes, they are a challenge for a reason. They are a very difficult fish to catch. There are a lot more bass-related spots to fish on the river than walleye,” Radcliffe said. “Walleye, they are directed by current. Where they feed is related to, but out of the current.”
Radcliffe said the walleye will be handled carefully after caught and placed in a boat’s live well, which contains water treated with chemicals. Once at the weigh-in area, the fish are placed in oxygenated and treated water, weighed, then returned to different parts of the river.
Each weigh-in, and the handling of the fish, is done under the supervision of Department of Natural Resources personnel, Radcliffe said.
“They put them in a release boat (after weigh-in) and spread them out (on the river). Walleye tend to be different than bass, as bass tend to be stationary in an area,” Radcliffe said.
“Walleye are a very transient fish and tend to disperse quickly.”