Having competed as a professional in fishing tournaments since 2002, Powell's Pat Slater is all-too-familiar with the challenges posed by attempting to hook a walleye at Big Horn Lake. Having competed in the Yellowtail Fall Finale in previous years, he knew it was downright difficult.
“There was one year I came here and there were only three caught by the entire field,” Slater said of the two-day tournament.
“There's so much natural forage (at Big Horn Lake) that the fish don't need what we have. Getting them to bite in August is just difficult.”
Maybe. But Slater might have a hard time convincing folks of that after he and amateur partner Mark Nuss, also of Powell, more than doubled up the field to win the final stop on the five-event Montana Walleye Circuit this year. The pair were the only duo out of 21 teams to catch their five-fish limit both days.
By the time it was done, the pair had turned in more than 30-1/2 pounds worth of fish and pocketed $1,800 in prize money. The runner-up team reeled in just shy of 15 pounds.
“They said they were pretty sure it was a record for this event,” Nuss said of the team's walleye haul.
“We had a great weekend,” Slater said of the event, noting the team had a pretty good pre-tournament omen. “I'd gone up the two previous Sundays to practice, the last time with Mark. We got two or three walleye each day, including a really nice one the Sunday before the tournament.”
Strategy also went into the team's success, according to Slater.
“The Thursday and Friday before the tournament, we practiced fishing the lake again and identified four or five spots we felt had potential,” Slater explained. “On the morning of the tournament, we refined that to three locations.”
As it turned out, Slater and Nuss really only needed one location. After drawing a 7 a.m., Saturday launch time, the pair motored to its first selected location. Finding none of the earlier launched teams there, they dropped in on the site and began to fish.
“We watched a lot of teams go by us,” said Slater. “And for the first hour, we were kind of wondering if we shouldn't have gone past too. All we did was fight with snags, but we knew the fish were there, so we just kept casting.”
At 8:30 a.m., Slater got a bite and reeled in the day's first fish. Perhaps more notable, it was the first legal fish Slater had landed in the tournament's previous three years. Twenty minutes later, the team popped a 19-incher into the boat.
The pair continued to work roughly a 200-yard stretch of the lake and at 9:30 a.m., Slater saw his pole snap back.
“It snapped back like it had hit a snag, but I tried to set the hook, just to make sure,” said Slater.
It's a good thing he did. The object on the far end of Slater's line wasn't a snag. It was a 27-inch walleye.
“We were pretty pumped up at that point,” said Slater.
Since the tournament was a live-release event, the pair immediately departed from their fishing hole in search of one of the three weigh boats to log their catch. Successful in that endeavor, they returned to find that nobody had moved in on their location, hooking two more fish to fill out their first day's limit and enter the tournament's midway point with nearly an eight-pound lead.
“At that point, we knew we had a good weight,” Slater said. “But I knew we needed to catch something the second day to protect our lead.”
So the next day, they returned to the scene of the crime and again found their primary site empty of other competitive anglers. Within the first half hour, they pulled in a 24-inch walleye that weighed in at roughly five pounds.
“At that point, I knew our lead was safe and we just started having fun,” Slater said. “They just kept biting. We each stuck two more and were done within three hours. The last fish we brought in was 21 inches.”
In an amazing feat that only hardcore anglers might appreciate, Slater notes the pair were able to land every fish for the event.
“There were a couple that tried to get away,” Slater admits. “But we were able to get them all to the boat, and that doesn't happen all the time.”
The team also had success in selecting the right lure. All 10 tournament fish were caught using a lure known as the Cha Cha Squidder. Nine of the 10 attracted to one specific shade of the lure.
Slater and Nuss dominated both days of the event, recording the highest catch weights on both Saturday and Sunday. The day also shattered Slater's previous best professional finish.
“I'd never placed above fifth previously,” said Slater. “It was a phenomenal feeling to win it going away like that. It was just humbling and gratifying.”