March 19-20 - One of my favorite things about fishing tournaments is I get to spend a few days pre-fishing with friends that I normally I do not get to spend a lot of time with. On the 19th I shared the boat with one of my high school buddies, Scott Gordon who lives in Bloomington, IL and one of my fishing mentors (Sat and Sun), Mark Michael who lives in Princeton, IL. We spent the morning trolling number 9 rapalas and some custom stick baits down at the clam beds. The bite was pretty good when we concentrated on a tight break in 14 to 17 feet of water. Most fish were in the 15 to 17 inch range with a few a little bigger like the one Scott is holding above.
We jigged through the same area with similar results. I tried to jig, against doctors orders, with my broken left arm. I thought I could get away with it, that was until I tried to set the hook on a fish that absolutely crushed my jig and plastic. I screamed with pain and dropped my rod immediately. Needless to say the boys gave me a hard time and questioned if I had a fish at all. I learned my lesson, at least for the next couple of days, and only jigged with my right arm.
We moved up to the Peru flats for the afternoon and caught a few. When I tried to start up the brand new Verado nothing happened. Uh Oh! We used my kicker motor to get back to launch. At the time we thought the batteries were wired wrong, which they were. After the tournament we found the new battery was also bad and wasn't holding a charge which led to an interesting situation the last day of the tournament which I will discuss in Part II. Mark and I were going to fish the IWT the next morning but with the uncertainty of the battery situation we decided to make sure everything was working Ok for the next weekend as being dead on the water during the tournament is not a good thing!
Day 2 Mark and I spent the day checking spots from Spring Valley up to the Starved Rock dam. We jigged all day and caught fish everywhere we went. The bite was awesome with most fish again in the 15-17 inch range. However, we were able to get a couple that were close to 2-1/2 pounds. There was an eddy near the dam that was absolutely loaded with fish. We could have sat there all day and pounded 15-17 inch saugers but we knew we had to find bigger fish so we moved on.
Mark Mearvy and his partner won the IWT with 6 fish that weighed over 19 lbs. They caught them where we were fishing on Saturday in the clam beds. The rest of the field was stacked between 9 and 13 lbs. This verified our thoughts that the MWC was going to be a shootout. Finding the bigger fish was going to be the key.
March 21-23 - To save vacation days for later tournaments I went back to work. The nice thing is I had a sales meeting in Chicago those three days so I was able to drive straight from Chicago Wednesday night which saved me some time. I hate not spending a whole week on a body of water prior to a tournament as it puts us at a disadvantage to our competitors as most spend the entire week pre-fishing. If there is one tournament to skip a few days it is the MWC IL River as spring conditions usually change everything. It looked like this was going to be the case as rains drenched the upper midwest Monday and Tuesday. Somehow the majority of the rains did not fall in the IL River watershed. The river did rise about two feet but I returned to find the river in excellent shape.
March 24 - Two days prior to the tournament, now it is time to get to work! Dale Bowman, the outdoors writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, was supposed to be fishing with me but had to cancel. In his place I recruited my long time fishing buddy Brad Munda to help me find the right fish. My partner for the tournament, Ol' Shooter brought his boat. Our plan is to cover as much water as possible looking for big female sauger. Brad and i will jig through the same area that Shooter trolls through.
We start right near the launch and I caught a couple decent saugers. We then headed down to the clam beds. The bite was on but nothing huge. Shooter caught a good one on the green can side of the river. Brad and I jigged up one about 2-1/2 pounds and then we pulled it upriver with a three way rig. Almost immediately I caught one about 2-1/2 pounds on the dropper jig. Not a bad start, time to head to the next spot.
Shooter got a head start up river and called us over when we reached the peru flats. He had already caught 2 good fish with one a pre-spawn female sauger that was almost 20 inches. Brad and I jigged through the same area and we each caught two 19" pre-spawners and a 17" male who was milking like a cow. These are tournament winning fish, if they are still there on Saturday we have a great shot of winning this thing. To make things even better, nobody was fishing this area. Mark and I had fished it last Sunday and we only caught a couple of small ones. This is the same area that we finished 3rd a couple of years ago so we were feeling pretty good.
We got out of there and headed up and across the river to a place the locals call Auggies. There were a bunch of boats fishing the outside bend. If you stayed tight to the break the bite was really good, if you slipped off of it, not so much. In the middle of the pack of boats I caught one that looked like it was 18-1/2" or so. It was one of the rare ones that I hooked with my bad arm. I tried to hide it from everyone so I just held onto my rod and acted like I was dragging my jig and would try to shake it off when no one was looking. I only had one more tournament boat to hide it from. He was trolling 3 ways up-river and asked how we were doing. I said "oh, one here and there, nothing of any size". The entire time my rod tip is pounding. Just when I think we are clear the fish comes up to the surface and the guy said "he's got a good one" and pointed at me. I felt pretty bad and said I just didn't want everyone to see it. The games played are kind of funny and is worth a blog at a different time.
Brad and I ended the day with 26 keepers that we put in the boat with several more that we could have gotten in had we used the net and were not hiding fish. Shooter had 14 by himself, we were feeling pretty good.
March 25 - We have the same game plan as the day before. Today Brad fished with Shooter and Mark Michael fished with me. We decided to head to Utica and fish our way down river. Mark and I absolutely killed them with fish after fish. We had 10 keepers on our first pass. We went through a bit of a dry spell when I noticed a change in the bottom on my humminbird. I was just about to say something when Mark said "there's one". It turned out to be a fat, pre-spawn, walleye. Kicker fish like this is what we need tomorrow!
Everywhere we went we caught fish and so did Brad and Shooter. Even though we caught decent fish including one that I would die for the next day we were convinced the spot we caught fish yesterday was going to give us the best opportunity to win. We headed in feeling pretty good.
Coming soon - See what and how we did, warts and all, during the tournament with part II .
Special thanks to Mark and Brad for helping us out!