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Author: Frank Ross
When the sun peeked up over the waters of Milford Lake close to 100 boats were already bobbing in the staging area for the first day of Cabela's National Walleye Team Championship, anxious to get started.
After last night's storm that caused the rules meeting to be moved ahead a half-hour, weather rumors were calling for rain and stormy skies through mid-morning. Once the morning fog burnt off, it was a perfect walleye dayfor about three hours.
For the past week of pre-fishing typical Kansas winds had been conspicuous by their absence and anglers were calling for more wind to turn on the bite. Unfortunately for many, their cries for wind were answered and then some. By mid-morning, the wind had picked up considerably over the mild breeze that was blowing when the army cannon boomed a huge blast to signal the 7 a.m. start of this two-day event. The wind was falling more in line with Kansas' standards by mid-day, gusting to an estimated 30 mph, and that played havoc with most of the field.
Many anglers crossing the stage reported catching good numbers of fish, but just as many were shaking their heads because the fish they caught fell short of the 18-inch minimum length. When all 250 boats had their baskets checked and weighed some anglers were disappointed, in sharp contrast to today's leaders who had their limit by 9:30 a.m.
Luke Eachus and Richard Stebbins, Jr., both Colorado mechanics by trade, found themselves standing at the top of a field of very talented walleye anglers from 28 states and two provinces of Canada with a total basket weight of 29.81 pounds for a limit of five fish. Only 12 other teams were able to achieve this feat, and 77 teams couldn't get the skunk out of their boat and another 57 only weighed one fish.
Unfortunately, for last year's inaugural champions, their names were among those cashing a single chip, with one fish weighing 4.26 pounds. At last year's National Championship, they had a similar first day and came back from 30th place. If they are to mount a similar come from behind victory this year it would be even more spectacular since they find themselves in 124th place. The good news for them, if they can look at it that way, is that there is only 8.04 pounds between where they stand now and their 30th place launch pad at Mille Lacs.
Of course, the gap is significantly greater.
Both Stein and Ludwig remained upbeat and philosophical. "We just couldn't get our fish to go today. Boat control was a real problem on our spots because of the direction and intensity of the wind. Sure, we're disappointed, but tomorrow's another day and there's still a lot of fishing to do," Stein said.
The number of anglers who had an unproductive day is quite remarkable considering most teams were catching as many as 50 walleye a day during the previous week's pre-fishing period. In stark contrast to the majority of the field, for today's leaders, it came fast and furious.
"We were just in the right place at the right time," Stebbins remarked. "We're on a very small spot where we know we can catch big fish. We think they are holding in the area and coming up on this spot to feed. We were just there when they came up and it happened very quickly."
In fact, the last two fish that filled out their basket came as a triple hookup. "We had three fish on at once, two fives and one that measured 17 inches," Eachus said. "The wind actually helped us. We were fishing a specific contour, but we won't talk about that until tomorrow. We were fishing jigs tipped with crawlers, like everyone else. It was calm and we were getting just a few peck, peck, pecks, then the wind picked up and the fish moved up to feed."
These two anglers went into today's opening round with no real expectations, and certainly neither expected to be in the lead at day's end. "We didn't have a pattern going into today. We picked up a couple of good fish on two different spots and knew there were big fish on this spot, we were just hoping to be there when they came up to feed. If the Lord gives us the fish we're going to catch them," Stebbins said.
Turning to a group of local volunteers, Stebbins said, "I hope you people are ready for some visitors. This lake is every bit as good as Mille Lacs and everybody know about that lake. Now they're going to know about this one, and the fishermen will come. This is a great walleye fishery."
This duo also held onto the big fish of the day lead for about an hour, weighing one fish that tipped the scales at 7.96 pounds. Later in the weigh-in Michigan anglers Tom and Ryan Boersma produced an 8.06 pound fish that held until Pennsylvania anglers Ray Zimmerman and Paul Santuchi showed up with a 9.27 pound beauty that Zimmerman caught at considerable expense. "It was awesome," he said, "But the worst thing was I lost a $150 rod over the side during the fight. The rod got tangled up and in it went. We'd caught so many big catfish during the past week but I couldn't take a chance and let it go."
The top five positions going into tomorrow's final day are:
Luke Eachus, Golden, CO
Richard Stebbins, Jr., Thornton, CO
John Bennett, Douglas, WY
Doug Kymala, Whitewood, SD
Bob Bentley, Gillette, WY
Mark Brackin, Gillette, WY
Jim Haddix, Sidney, NE
Jim Lenzen, Sidney, NE
Marty Stuefen, Cedar Rapids, IA
Mickey Stuefen, Cedar Rapids, IA
Tomorrow's tournament activies begin with a 7 a.m. launch from Milford Lake State Park and continue throughout the day. A live band, sponsor's displays, games for the kids will be open to the public at no charge.