BISMARCK, N.D. — The team that keeps its cool, is consistent, and sticks to its plan, even if it’s unfamiliar with the Missouri River, might just take the AIM Weekend Walleye Series/Warrior Boats National Championship Shootout held May 31 and June 1.
The Minnesota team of Chuck Hasse and Randy Topper, who had only been on a scouting trip once on the Missouri at Bismarck-Mandan, did just that and won the AIM shootout, driving away with a new Warrior 1989DC powered by a 150 Yamaha four-stroke, with two Garmin electronics units. That little package is worth $58,000-plus.
“What an event, and what a finish,” said AIM National Tournament Director Denny Fox. “They won it by 1.1 pounds, and two other Minnesota teams finished second and fourth.”
Fellow Minnesotans Joe Bricko of Farmington, and Dylan Maki, of Cohasset, fishing near the winners, placed second, earning two 10-foot Power Poles.
Winning two eight-foot Power Poles for placing third with 27.83 pounds were North Dakotans Tommy Miller and Shawn Mertz, both of Bismarck. In fourth place were Tyler Wolden, of Carlos, Minn., and Nate Leininger, of Miltona, earning two Air Waves seat pedestals.
In fifth place, and each earning a Garmin electronics package for 27.68 pounds, were the Wisconsin father/son team of Kevin and Tim Wetmore, of Wisconsin Rapids. Teams placing sixth and seventh also received two Garmin electronics packages each, and teams placing eighth through 30th won $300 each.
The key to Hasse and Topper’s winning is simple: planning, more planning, confidence in their planning, and sticking with their plan, when psyching out themselves over their plan and potentially abandoning it was oh so tempting.
Topper, from Cohasset, and Hasse, from Walker, had visited the Missouri only once, on a scouting mission.
When they arrived the Saturday before they could start pre-fishing, having already poured over river maps through the winter to find the potential winning spots to fish in more than 200 miles of water, their first job was finding bait but didn’t know where.
“Our biggest struggle was looking at past tournaments. We saw some pretty decent weights and we were dissecting the water like crazy, but couldn’t put up the same weights. But we began getting consistent at putting up about a 20-inch average,” Topper said. “We found one potential spot way up river and ended up getting stuck on sandbars, and time just caught up with us. So we made the decision that we were going to go with where we found that average.”
Day One saw Hasse and Topper shoot 23 miles south, concentrating on a creek bay and a mud flat they’d found.
They started pulling crank baits on planer boards and found that there were so many other fish there, including giant buffalo fish, that they slowed presentation by changing to crawlers.
“We had to slow everything down. We were getting a few bites and catching everything under the sun, but not walleyes. We’d seen it before,” Topper noted.
When they switched to crawler harnesses their luck changed. “As soon as we started running crawlers around 11 a.m., we got our lucky fish, a 24-1/2-incher. We continued to upgrade and ended up with our Day One weight. We did get a couple on cranks but nothing nice. All of our weight came on crawler harnesses,” he said.
Coming back proved pretty interesting. The wind picked up, making it more difficult to see crud in the water, including a log about 4 inches in diameter and 8 feet long that they luckily chopped in half, without damaging anything on their motor.
Back on shore, he said, they looked at the other teams, and began to get an inkling they were at least in the running.
“There were not a lot of happy faces and puffy chests, so we thought we might have a chance. Our goal was 15 pounds a day unless we got a lucky fish. Whether it was going to be enough to be on top, we had no clue. We felt good about the way we fished, but we just didn’t know how it would add up,” Topper said. “Well, lo and behold, we were in the top 10.”
In fact, they were in second place.
“That’s when we started to realize we had a program that could possibly win this. We needed to be consistent and get that 20-inch average. All we could do was go out and fish the best we could and that’s what we went into Day Two with,” he said.
That meant going right back to the same spot, that creek mouth, where warmer water meant new spring vegetation, minnows and the toothy ‘eye predators that were also tracking them.
“We had a long discussion about that spot, whether we should go upriver where we got stuck on the sandbar. We weren’t the only ones on the spot and we felt we had the colors dialed in, starting with one in the morning and changing colors throughout the day. Even if there were fewer fish on Day Two, we’d do our best. It was really tough but we knew if we were consistent and kept our heads together…”
They stuck with the program and went south. Two feeding periods did it.
“We hit one window in the morning from 8 to about 8:30. We got most of our bag there, and then hit one more nice window about a half-hour before we had to leave, and we upgraded two more times. The biggest fish the second day was a 20-3/4-inch fish,” Topper said.
At the end of Day Two, he said, he and Hasse looked at each other. “We said we fished our best and knew we’d reached our goal, and that was all we could do without that luck factor of getting a big fish. It is what it is at that point and no matter how it played out we were proud of the way we fished.
“The only thing we were worried about is that system has some big fish in it and there was a chance that someone hooked that 30-incher, and we couldn’t reach them. That’s always in the back of your mind, that a walleye lottery winner could have gotten that big fish,” Topper said. It was still anybody’s tournament to win, or lose, the standings were so tight.”
But back on shore, rumors began flying. They stayed calm, trying not to jinx themselves. Then came the call from Denny Fox, letting them know that they were in the top five. But, they still had no clue how they finished until the Showdown Shootout, with those top five playing musical chairs as their weights were announced.
“I watched the other guys walking up and kinda had a read that they knew they didn’t have it, but we had trained ourselves not to expect something until the end,” Topper said. “But it didn’t become a reality until Denny announced it, and to tell you the truth, it still hasn’t totally set in.
“We worked our tails off and were proud of what we did. We started the homework the day after the Minnesota championship last year at Lake of the Woods. We measured our distances and noted every known spot and distance to them.”
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