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Author: Frank Ross
Wednesday morning on Milford Lake began the last full day of pre-fishing for Cabela's National Team Championship and as one might expect, every point and hump was well covered.
Last year's champions, Steve Stein and Kenny Ludwig arrived at our appointed meeting spot a few minutes before 6:30 a.m., obviously anxious to get started. That made three of us.
Being able to fish with top-flight walleye anglers is a great opportunity no matter what water you might be on, but Milford holds the promise of exciting things to come in the world of competitive walleye angling.
After a quick launch, we made our way out onto the lake to try some last-minute tactics that the two wanted to evaluate before time ran out. In short order we were moving in to a creek arm, and Kenny guided their big Ranger toward a rocky, tree studded shoreline. Crags drowned by the impoundment stood as ominous warnings to anglersloose your baits here!
"There's a lot of trees and brush here, but that's where we found them last week," Steve explained. "We're going to try casting crankbaits along the shoreline. It's not a traditional walleye technique, but it has been known to work in Kansas. It worked really well here last week."
Steve handed me a rod with a medium size red and yellow Shad Rap, while they worked similar baits with different colors to determine what might trigger bites best. In a matter of minutes I struck pay dirt, of sorts. After a delicate strike and a few cranks on the reel the awful truth was revealed, a small wiper came flipping to the surface. Ludwig smiled, but he always seems to be smiling, "We've caught a lot of those in the past couple of weeks. Keeps things interesting while you're looking for the right fish." Over the next half hour several more wipers, a few drum and a mooneye were hauled to the boat and unceremoniously released.
The fish we were looking for were the big, 6- to 8-pound walleyes that Milford is noted for. Minimum length for the tournament is 18", but those won't win much money. These two anglers aren't here just to place, they are here to win. When I asked them about their chances of doubling up with back-to-back trophies there was some good-natured kidding about how nice last year's trophy looked in their dens, but both agreed that a matching pair would be much better. Then Steve relented and modesty retuned them to reality. "I don't think we or anyone else has it wired at this point, but we feel like we'll do well, if we can get our fish to go," he said.
After 45 minutes of working baits along the shoreline it was time to chalk this technique up as "still a possibility" but not one that will be pulled from their bag of tricks early. By 7:30 we were changing to another spot and another technique, jigs. "We've done well pitching jigs with plastics and live bait, and pulling spinners, but I think that we're in a transition. Every day seems like they're doing something different. With the front that's blowing in this afternoon (thunderstorms are scheduled for late in the day) the bite may turn on ahead of it. The one thing you can count on with Kansas walleye is change. They're constantly on the move and you've got to keep finding them and trying to figure out what they're doing at the moment," Steve said.
"The technique we need to use here is simple. Just hook a crawler at the end so it can stretch out, drop it to the bottom and raise it up a few inches. I'm seeing lots of fish, but they're all on the bottom, which indicates they are in an inactive mode right now. If we put it right in their face and hold it there long enough maybe a big one will take it," Ludwig explained.
We were in about 15 feet of water off of one of the lake's many points, like 50 other boats within sight. As I scanned the shoreline trying to see what activity might be taking place in other boats there were no nets being hefted, but rather a steady stream of wipers being tossed back with shakes of angler's heads.
Finally, after an hour of concentrated jig work Ludwig boated the first walleye, but it wouldn't make the cut, even for a hungry local. Undaunted, he re-baited and continued his quest for tournament fish. In a few minutes Steve boated a walleye and the bite looked like it was on the upswing. "These fish are biting very delicately and I'm giving them a two count before setting the hook. I've had several hit and just drop it. If this keeps up we'll go to another tactic. These fish have been pounded hard for several days and they are getting spooky."
"When they get into this mode of delicate bites and dropping crawlers that means that they are sensing the jig, and even though we're using 1/8-ounce jigs it can be a factor. Sometimes we use just a bare hook with a Lindy sinker and a leader of 4 or 5 feet of 4 to 6 pound mono, and that seems to solve the problem. You've just got to pay closer attention," he explained.
With a new collection of boats starting to gather on the small hump of structure we were working, it was time to pull up stakes and try another area. As the boat came down off plane and we eased into a narrow creek mouth where several local boats were trying their luck I knew we were in one of their "good spots" because Steve began to whisper instructions when we got within earshot of the other anglers. "That blue boat is on our spot, but we can get close to it I think," Kenny said.
"This isn't like northern reservoirs where you can sweep wide areas, here you've got to fish a spot on a spot sometimes, where the fish seem to hold more than others." As we maneuvered between two boats that were vacating the area and edged closer to shore Steve whispered quietly, "ok, we're right over the spot." We'd been right over several spots already, but I was still focused on the line held off the reel's spool with my forefinger, waiting for that tick-tick of a bite that might lead to something without stripes.
Suddenly I felt a faint tug, counted to two and then, another tug. With a smart upward jerk of my rod I wailed my jig into the jaw of something that pulled back aggressively. My first thought was oh no, a big wiper but, the fight had walleye written all over it and that's when the activity in our boat changed. Steve called for the net and Kenny readied for the scoop. When a big gray-sided walleye flashed up and then back down, all of us were excited. "That a nice fish, that's a really nice Milford walleye," Steve observed.
When we got him to the boat it turned out to be a 26" fish that weighed 6 1/2 pounds. We quickly retuned it to the water where it would be needed on Friday or Saturday.
"Let's get out of here," Steve said. "A couple of boats saw us catch it, and we don't want to arouse any more interest.
Under normal circumstances it would be hard to evaluate an individual's character in only a few hours time, but when you're on the water with two guys who have a lot riding on every minute of time that ticks off the clock it can be very revealing. No matter where Steve Stein and Kenny Ludwig end up on this year's final standings, one thing's for sure. These two are made of championship material, but they've already proved that several times. Guess that's why Cabela's sponsors them.