Our bid for the 2018 Cabela’s NTC started off with excitement followed by slight disappointment. Wade had already committed to a family trip at Devils Lake roughly the same dates as the NTC. He was out. I had to go into scramble mode to get a sub. There are only a couple of people I would share a boat within a tourney of this size. I called Chad Steele, my wife’s cousin, who I had fished with in the past. Great guy, and an even better live bait fisherman. This guy can bring it. More importantly, I was back in business. I accepted the bid and immediately began to research. It would all be for not.
Flooding and high water on the Mighty Mississippi had the dates and location of the tournament in doubt the week before the tournament was held. Rumors began to fly. Would it be canceled? Moved to a different venue, a different date? We were supposed to leave in a few days to fish the biggest tourney of our lives and we weren’t quite sure where we would be headed. It was finally announced that the event would be moved from Moline, Il to LaCrosse, WI on pools 7, 8, and 9. I had never fished this river before, but the good news was….neither had the majority of the field.
We arrived on Saturday, May 12 and began our pre-fish. I’m fairly certain that I may not have even graphed a fish on day 1….let alone caught one. Water was high, muddy, and flowing hard. Mighty Mo was angry. Chad and I had decided that we should focus on areas off the main channel so that the current wouldn’t be near as strong. By day 2 we were back inside channels of pool 8. There were some fish to be caught here and I even dried off a 29” beauty that I would have killed to catch on game day. But water levels were dropping and this spot would not be viable for the tourney. By day 4 of pre-fishing, we found ourselves deep in the back-waters of pool 9. 35 miles south of LaCrosse. We fished miles of side chutes and runs and we finally stumbled on a spot that looked very fishy. This spot was different. It had a hard bottom and was loaded with Walleye. Thanks, Lowrance. This would be our game day location. The fish were quality but not Big. The only issue would be dodging the barge traffic and locking down from pool 8 into pool 9. It’s risky. It takes a lot of time and limits the amount of time with lines in the water.
Day 1 off the NTC found us screaming south in the Nitro ZV21 after they had called our boat. #27 and fishing from 7-3:30. We drove right into the lock without issue. After another 10 mile run, we were on our spot. Then, chaos ensued. We caught a triple of keepers on our first drift. I had to net my fish, drop my rod and net one of Chad’s in the same net. We netted number 3 in our spare net. We were smiling from ear to ear! Heck of a start! We quickly caught a couple more and had a decent limit of fish 30 minutes into fishing our first NTC! We didn’t have anything huge but we had fish. We fished a little longer and added one more 16” fish to the box for insurance. It was time to run back up to pool 8 and try for a kicker. After 10,000 casts this fish never came. We were sitting in 36th place after day 1 (7-06). Looking back, the only mistake we made was not being a little more selective on the fish we kept. But we were satisfied with a 5-fish limit.
Day 2. We knew the fish were there and it would probably take 10 pounds to get us into the finals and a chance to fish day 3. Going in, this was our goal. Make the top 25 and be NTC All-American. Due back at 5, we again ran down the river and right into the lock. Again the fish cooperated. We quickly began working up a limit. This time we were much more selective on what we kept. The first in the box was 18+ inches. We benched the crawlers and were fishing just willow cats. Better fish seemed to come on this bait. The current was slightly different on this day. There was a distinct seam along the left bank. We started drifting it and putting quality fish in the boat! The ticket was a simple lindy rig and a willow catfished on a 7’ 4” Apex Pro made by Tuned Up Custom Rods. This rod is the perfect blend of finesse and power. Our first drift along this seam we caught a fish that was just under 17”. We pitched it back as this wasn’t a fish that would get us where we wanted to go. The second and third were magic. We boxed an 18, 18.5, 19.5, and 20.5” fish to round out our limit! The 20-incher was the fish we needed and we knew it! Man the excitement! We weighed in over 11 pounds and went shooting up into the top 15! By the time the day was over, we settled in 21st place, making the cut to fish the third day, and being crowned Cabela’s NTC All-American 25. No matter what happened on day 3, we had already won. It was a dream come true.
I think we must have received close to 100 messages and calls. We were so excited! One of the coolest moments was a pic I got of my daughter and wife watching us weigh in on the live feed. It was amazing! Thanks to all who reached out.
Day 3. Water levels were dropping fast overnight and it was evident when we got to our spot. The spot looked weird and different. The current seam that concentrated fish for us the first couple of days was gone….and so were the fish. We tried above and below the run. Drifting bait and trolling cranks. Nothing. We were stuck on zero. The fish vanished with the falling water levels. A north-bound barge made us cut the day short and lock back up to 8. We immediately hit the upper part of the pool near the dam and went into scramble mode. We did manage a 21” fish but it was too little too late. We finished in 21st place with a total of 21 pounds 9 ounces. We got All-American rings, an awesome NTC Plaque, and a cool grand in cash. Not bad for our first NTC! Who can be upset at that?
We learned a TON fishing this event. The majority of our fish came on willow cats. Most of what we learned was about preparation. Many teams were quitting early during pre-fish. It wasn’t much fun but we stuck it out and found a spot that produced. Thanks to our families for letting us do what we love and to Travis Sanger and Terry Zimmerman who told us to work our tails off and put in a ton of effort and it would pay off. It did. Thanks to Tuned Up Custom Rods, Westre’s Marine, Amphibia Eyegear, Ice Hole Power, and Eyes On Lincoln for supporting me! The 2018 NTC was one of the best experiences of my life. On to the MWC at Big Mac!