RED WING, Minn. — After a bit of disappointment from a second-place finish in the 2001 Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Championship on Green Bay, Ranger pro Tom Keenan of Hatley, Wis., went gunning for the top spot Saturday on the Mississippi River, abandoning his productive trolling stretch on the main channel of Pool 3 and returning to the site of last year’s win by Bruce Samson, Buffalo Slough. There, Keenan trolled up five fish for 13 pounds, 5 ounces to win $300,000 and erase any sense of previous shortcoming.
Up until then, Buffalo Slough had failed to kick out the prodigious catches of a year earlier, with slow current flow and dirty water diminishing the bite. But when Keenan went there on the final day, he found water that had cleared from visibility of 1 inch to 6 or 8 inches.
“The fish had been there all along,” Keenan says. “I had debated fishing there, but the water was dirty. There are X number of fish in the area, and they were unfished fish.”
To get the job done, Keenan trolled with leadcore line and water-slicing 30-pound Stren Superbraid on separate rods (the braided line has the same diameter as 6-pound monofilament) with hot-orange Cotton Cordell CD5 Wally Divers, lures that track straight when knocking bottom at high trolling speeds in excess of 2 mph. In the previous days, Keenan had alternated between No. 5 Rapala RS Shad Raps (which rattle and suspend) and the Wally Divers. As the tournament wore on, Keenan says, the walleyes seemed to prefer the Wally Divers.
In some ways, the 35-year-old Gander Mountain store manager from Wausau, Wis., went for broke in Buffalo Slough, sensing he needed the bigger fish necessary to win the tournament and outpace another hot tournament angler, Ranger pro Scott Allar of Welch, Minn., who took second with three fish weighing 10 pounds, 3 ounces.
“I didn’t think I could win in the main channel,” says Keenan, who caught all his fish, including a key 6-pounder, in a 90-yard stretch with scattered clam beds on bottom. “What had concerned me was that the main channel had been pounded for days.”
Keenan’s clutch performance, the only five-fish limit among the six finalists, was just what he needed to stave off Allar, a consistent, versatile angler who finished fourth in the RCL points standings for the year, holding the Angler of the Year lead until the second day of the final qualifying tournament on Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Over the first two days, Allar had trolled his way into the semis with a leadcore trolling pattern that incorporated a 30-foot leader of 14-pound Berkley FireLine and No. 5 Rapala Shad Raps in firetiger and blue. Even more important, though, was the specific underwater terrain Allar targeted.
“The secret is steep rock breaklines,” says Allar, who won $75,000. “It’s tricky to do and you lose a lot of lure. So it deters a lot of people from doing it. Once we found fish in the rocks, we went looking for something similar.”
Even so, Allar on day three switched between trolling and jigging with plastic shad bodies in the hunt for big fish, which delivered four of his fish en route to a first place in the semifinal round and two of his three fish Saturday.
“I had bait in my boat, and I never used it,” says the 36-year-old machine shop owner. “I’ve gotten to the point where I think I can catch more fish on rubber.”
One is the loneliest number
Even though sixth-place Lund pro Jerry Hein of Stillwater, Minn., had performed with consistency over the prior three days, he couldn’t do it without the help of a co-angler in the finals, when the pros fish alone.
The area Hein had been trolling with leadcore line on Pool 3 was a snaggy devil, with sharp underwater rocks from the railroad bed on shore. Trolling it was too difficult, Hein says, without someone to retie lures for him. He weighed one fish for 2 pounds, 10 ounces.
“I’m still pumped, but a little disappointed,” Hein says. “My spot was a two-person spot. I couldn’t fish it alone.”
Rounding out the rest of the top six were third-place Lund pro Steve Lamb of Nashville, Tenn.; fourth-place Ranger pro Jim Schulta of Hazelhurst, Wis.; and fifth-place Lund pro Douglas Vandersteen of Lundar, Manitoba.
In the end, trolling took the top prize for Keenan and had powered Allar and others into the finals. For Keenan, the technique was the recipe for walleye destruction.
“My theory was that the fish weren’t biting,” Keenan says. “So I thought I’d go strictly with power and as much water as possible. I chose to give them the heat and fish fast.”
Giving them the heat and fishing fast, Keenan has thoroughly erased any misgivings from his last close call in second place. Tom Keenan – your 2003 Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour champion.