WFXR’s George Noleff has gotten the rare chance to compete in a high-profile, national fishing tournament, The Cabela’s/Bass Pro/The Walleye Federation National Team Championship. He will provide daily updates to give you a firsthand account of the trials, rigors, and successes anglers find on the tournament trail.

Friday, Aug. 5

6:40 p.m.: And just like that, it’s over. My tournament experience has come to an end. We did not qualify for the final round of the Walleye Federation/Cabela’s/Bass Pro National Team Championship. We gave it our best shot, made another 30 mile run in rough conditions on Lake Oahe to a spot we knew held big fish, but we just couldn’t put them in the boat.

Do I wish we could have made the final 25 to fish for the championship tomorrow?

Sure, but this has been a great experience, a once in a lifetime chance to live an angler’s dream. Plus, I got to see the stark beauty of the northern prairie, and I made some new friends. You can’t beat that.

I’m richer for the experience.

The Walleye Up statue pays homage to two of Mobridge’s passions; rodeo and walleye fishing (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

I’ll bring back what I’ve gathered here to share my story and the stories of some of the people I’ve met and the places I’ve seen.

I hope you’ll enjoy it.

We’ll be leaving for home in just a few hours. Thanks for taking this trip with me.

4:55 a.m.: Day Two of the tournament launches in just a few hours. We’re not out of it, but we’re longshots. We’re going to have to pull a big bag today to make it past the cut-off to fish for the championship tomorrow.

The weather isn’t great for what we need to do today. The winds are high. That means a long run like we’ll probably have to make could be rough. It also makes it tough to troll, which is what we’ll probably be doing.

We’re headed to the launch soon. You can watch the launch live at the Walleye Federation Facebook page.

Thursday, Aug. 4

7:12 p.m.: Ouch! That’s literal and figurative. We had to deal with a 30 mile run through high winds and rough water to get to where we wanted to fish this morning. We knew there were big walleye there because we had seen them caught out of that stretch of lake the day before. Finding fish on Lake Oahe has been a challenge because it is so huge, and that necessitated the long run on the first day of the tournament to get to a place where the fish were. That also meant we got pretty beat up by the waves on the run down and the run back.

It all seemed to be worth it at first. We decided a trolling program was best. A lot of Lake Oahe walleye like to suspend in submerged trees. Dragging crankbaits or spinnerbaits just deep enough to tickle the tops of those trees can be a great way to target walleye, and it’s what we did. Within two minutes of setting our rods we had a fish on. It was nice one, a 23 inch long walleye. We thought we’d hit the mother lode. We struggled the next four and a half hours to work up another bite, only getting an undersized walleye and a catfish to hit. Not catching another keeper fish hurt.

Then, it was time to make the 30 mile run back to Mobridge for the Day One weigh-in. Our fish was just shy of four pounds. There are 250 teams in the field, and it must have been a rough day for many of them, too. About 140 teams didn’t weigh a fish. Other teams had small fish. Because of that, we are tied for 72nd place out of that 250 team field. You can see the current standings here.

Day One weigh-in at the Walleye Federation/Cabela’s/Bass Pro National Team Championship (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

We have another day to fish. We’re a long shot to make it to Saturday and the final round, but we’re still alive. We’ll see.

Fishing starts early tomorrow. I have to be up at 4:30 a.m. So, it’s off to bed for me. I’m exhausted.

5:38 a.m.: Tournament Day One! I have no idea what to expect. We’ll be heading for the boat ramp in Mobridge soon. I’m told it will be hectic. The tournament will launch in staggered flights with a set number of boats leaving at a certain time. We’ll all be expected back at a set time, too. From there, it will be time for the weigh-in. Our launch time is 7 a.m. and our return time is 2 p.m.

We had inconsistent results in our pre-fishing. So, our strategy is not quite set. We have options, but knowing which one to take will be a last minute decision based on weather and water conditions, and gut instinct. What you did in pre-fishing doesn’t matter as long as you produce during the tournament. Hopefully, we’ll be able to put together a winning program.

If you’d like to watch today’s tournament launch at 8 a.m. or the weigh-in, you can go to the Walleye Federation’s Facebook page.

Wednesday, Aug. 3

10:30 p.m.:

6:48 a.m.: Happy Tournament Eve! Tomorrow is the start of the Walleye Federation/Cabela’s/Bass Pro National Team Championship here on Lake Oahe in South Dakota. The tournament will be held out of the city of Mobridge.

This will be our fifth day of pre-fishing for the event, and we’re still trying to pin down a program to consistently catch fish. We’ve had hit or miss success. We have today to figure it out, or take our chances tomorrow. That’s a little bit of pressure.

If you all want to follow along on during the tournament, you can see the daily weigh-ins live on the Walleye Federation’s Facebook Page.

Tuesday, Aug. 2

9:33 p.m.: High temperatures were a factor today. It got up to 105 degrees at one point, and when you’re out on the open water of Lake Oahe with no cover, you feel it. The key was to stay hydrated. Knowing the forecast, we planned accordingly and had plenty of water on board. Dan and I stopped and restocked our water supply for later in the week when temps are supposed to be near 100 again.

Pre-fishing was a challenge today. We would have liked to have boated some larger fish. We have one more day to figure it out, and then the tournament begins on Thursday.

Of course, with temperatures like that, the fatigue rate was amped up exponentially. I am feeling it tonight. It’ll be good to get some sleep. But, before that, there is dinner. Dr. Nate Stender did his magic on the grill again tonight. He cooked up some fresh northern pike that he and his brother Landon caught. It was tasty!

2:44 p.m.:

8:10 a.m.:

5:30 a.m.: Early morning today after a late night yesterday. We stayed on the water longer than expected on Monday, trying to figure out a pattern to catch our slot fish. South Dakota fishing regulations play a big factor in this tournament.

Only two walleye 20 inches or larger, commonly referred to as overs, may be kept. That means you have to fill out your five fish bag with fish between 16 and 19 inches. We were hoping to find those big fish yesterday, but ended up coming up with a program to catch those slot fish. We’re going to try a different approach today to locate those larger fish today.

Dan DeBenedictis with a 17-inch long Lake Oahe walleye (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

Talk about tired. This continues to be an exhausting experience. Long days on the water and the pressure to find the right walleye are taxing. I’m getting sleep, but it’s still not feeling completely rested. We are just two days away from the start of the tournament. No pressure, right?

Last night, we enjoyed a fantastic dinner of grilled walleye and perch cooked up by Dr. Nate Stender. He and his brother Landon are a team from Norfolk, Nebraska. They’re staying at the same lodge with us in Akaska, South Dakota. They’re great guys, and Nate is an excellent cook.

Dinner of grilled walleye, roasted potatoes, and asparagus (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

We’re getting ready to head out now. I’ll have more later.

Monday, Aug. 1

10:59 p.m.:

4:13 p.m.:

6:48 a.m.: We are hoping to rebound today after not being able to fish the way we wanted to yesterday because of the wind. I’m sore and tired. I have a lot of respect for the men and women who travel the tournament trails, no matter the target species, because this is physically and emotionally taxing. The days are long and the pressure to find and catch fish is immense.

A lot of the anglers in these events are chasing a dream. They have other jobs, other lives, and they are trying to turn their passion for fishing into something more. That means a huge time and financial investment. It takes determination and courage to follow that dream. I love fishing, but I don’t know that I could do what these folks are doing on a full-time basis. It’s a lot.

Sunrise on the prairie (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

So, we’ll be on the water shortly. I’ll check back to let you know how we did today.

Sunday, July 31

6:37 p.m.: The wind blew us off the lake today. We had a plan and 20 mile an hour winds out of the northwest did them in. We’ll give it another shot tomorrow. This is a hard lake to figure out. First, it’s big and the fish, even though there are good numbers of walleye, are spread out. Second, it’s just a lake that’s foreign to me and my fishing partner. We have to learn it in a hurry because the tournament starts on Thursday.

We ended up seeking fishing a bay where we thought we might be able to jig us some fish, but we only hooked up once.

I’m tired, but we’ll get some dinner, get some sleep, and hopefully tomorrow, get some fish.

See you out on the water.

6:05 a.m.: Practice makes perfect, so the old saying goes. I sure hope so. This will be our third day of pre-fishing, practicing for the main event coming up later this week, the Walleye Federation/Cabela’s/Bass Pro National Team Championship. It’s being held on Lake Oahe in South Dakota. It’s a lake I’ve never fished before. I’m teamed up with tournament angler Dan DeBenedictis. He’s never fished this lake before, either.

Day Two of pre-fishing was better than Day One. We started finding and catching bigger fish. Now, we’re putting a program together to try to put more fish in the boat. It involves trolling, and that’s all I can say, right now. It’s a matter of fine tuning. I was frustrated on the first day, but after yesterday, I’m feeling more confident.

A Lake Oahe walleye (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

I’m also feeling tired. I was told that life on the tournament trail can be exhausting. There’s the long-distance travel, the 10 hour days of pre-fishing, there’s the gear organizing and repair, and there’s the countless other little things that you have to account for. It never stops. Oh, and did I mention the temperatures around here are forecast near 100 degrees the whole time we’ll be fishing here? This is the only tournament I’ll fish this year. There are plenty of other folks who will do this over and over.

At least I’m eating well. We brought along plenty of food, and I’ve tossed together some decent meals. We had steak the first night, sausage and pepper the second. We’re sharing our lodge with another team. They’re from Nebraska. Last night we had a crockpot meal they put together that included some fresh pork sausage from a hog one of the Nebraska guys owned. It may be the best sausage I’ve ever eaten. So, while I’m a little tired, I’m not hungry.

Cows from a ranch along Lake Oahe. (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

Well, time to get things going so we can get to the launch to start Day Three of pre-fishing. See you out on the water!

Saturday, July 30

6:02 a.m.: Back at it today. I have to admit, there was some frustration yesterday. We hooked up with a good number of walleyes, but they were all short. Only one was legal sized, and that won’t cut it once the tournament starts. That’s why you pre-fish, to work out a program that will allow you to compete. I hope that we’ll get closer to getting it down today.

I’m tired. I hear these tournament guys talk about how physically and emotionally taxing the trail is. Now, I can relate. My trip started on Tuesday and didn’t stop until Thursday evening, and that included more than 24 hours driving time for me. I’m just now starting to feel somewhat normal.

Lake Oahe is like no place I’ve seen before. It sits in the middle of the rolling South Dakota prairie. There is not a lot around it, mostly grassland. You can see ranches and farms in the distance in some places. Occasionally, there are herds of cattle that come down for a drink. We’ve also seen some deer. I’m told that bison and pronghorn antelope call this area home, too, but we haven’t seen any of those, yet. Fun fact about the pronghorn antelope, it’s not really an antelope. They’re a unique species of mammal native to the prairie region and they’re closest living relative on the planet is the giraffe. Wild, right?

This is a wide open area. Where we’re fishing in the Mobridge and Akaska region is kind of remote? How remote? Well, the nearest big retail store is an hour and a half away. Buying groceries is no small task, either. Unless you can find what you need in a convenience store, you could drive more than an hour to get to a grocery store. Some places just merge a variety of businesses together. Here in Akaska where I’m staying, the local bait and tackle shop is also a bar, grill, and convenience store.

One location, multiple businesses (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

The point is that the conveniences we take for granted are not found out here on the prairie. The people I’ve talked to who live here say that’s part of why they love it. They enjoy the solitude, and they say the trade-off is worth it.

So, we’ll pre-fish again today. My guess is we’ll be on the lake for hours. We came back last night and went over our research again to try to modify our gameplan. I’ll check back later today to let you know how we did.

Friday, July 29

11:33 a.m.: I finally saw Lake Oahe for the first time. It is gorgeous! It’s a prairie lake, very stark, but there’s something beautiful about that. We are pre-fishing, trying to establish the patterns of the walleye we’re targeting. So far, we’ve caught seven, but they’re all short fish. Hopefully, we’ll get the bigger fish figured out soon.

7:28 a.m.: After a three-day journey that started in Virginia and took me across six different states, I’m in Akaska, South Dakota. We’re staying at a place called the Mansland Lodge in Akaska, and using it as our base of operations. The Walleye Federation/Cabela’s/Bass Pro National Team Championship will be held next week on Lake Oahe in nearby Mobridge, South Dakota. At one point on this trip, I was awake for 21 straight hours. Once we got here, there was still gear rigging and organizing to do, but we got it done. Last night’s sleep was very welcome.

My first impression of South Dakota is that it is a wide-open, beautiful place. Maybe it was just a one-day thing, but the sky here is incredibly blue. There is a lot of space. There are also no mountains, at least not where I am, so that’s a big departure from what I’m used to in Roanoke.

The South Dakota prairie (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

So, what’s on tap today?

Pre-fishing.

We need to get on the lake to try to establish where the fish are and what techniques and patterns might take them. The more you can fish and learn about a lake before a tournament, the better you’ll do during the tournament. From what we’ve read and heard from folks here, there are several techniques used to catch walleye here. We’ve come prepared, and we’ll give everything from trolling to jigging a try to establish what will work.

We should be on the lake later this morning. It’s the first time I’ve ever fished here, so I’m excited. We’ll update this a little later to let you know how we did today.

See you out on the water.

Thursday, July 28

7:01 p.m.:

8:08 a.m.: We’re on the road. We drove all night from Ohio. We’re currently in Iowa and should make it to the tournament site in Mobridge, South Dakota this afternoon. Travel is exhausting and expensive, but it’s a reality on the tournament trail. Hopefully, it’ll pay off. I’ll have an update once we get to Mobridge later today.

Wednesday, July 27

Here we go. Almost. I’m meeting up with Dan this afternoon to load up the boat and his vehicle for the trip to Mobridge, South Dakota. I had to grab a few last-minute items this morning; snap jigs, crankbaits, some terminal tackle, and extra fishing line. I’m sure we’ll find other things we need once we get up there. Looking at the weather, it’s going to be hot on the prairie. A few days next week the forecast temperatures are supposed to be above 100 degrees. Maybe Chief Meteorologist John Carroll can call in a favor to help us with a break from that heat?

Anyway, we should be pulling out late this afternoon. If Google Maps is right, the route will take us through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and finally into South Dakota. We should arrive in Mobridge around 1 p.m. tomorrow. I’ll try to update more later, but if I don’t, we’ll see you out on the road.

Tuesday, July 26

8:07 p.m.: The first leg of the journey to the NTC is in the books. I made it from Roanoke to Akron, Ohio today. That’s where I’m spending the night. I’ll touch base with my fishing partner, Dan DeBenedictis tonight to go over any last-minute details before we leave for South Dakota and Lake Oahe tomorrow.

There is some gear that we’ll probably need, so I’ll stop by a place called Fisherman’s Central in New Franklin, Ohio. The place is a Mecca for fishing, especially for walleye gear, so it is a “must-visit” while I’m here.

Part of the fun of a road trip like this is exploring new places that you haven’t seen before, but sometimes it’s about revisiting a place you’re very familiar with. That’s why I’m spending the night in Akron. I grew up here. I was very fortunate to call the place in the photo below my home. It’s Rex Lake on the Portage Lakes Chain just south of Akron. What a fantastic place to be a kid! Growing up on a lake explains a lot about my love of fishing. My dad taught me how to fish right there in that yard. We caught bass, panfish, and catfish. I have great memories of it.

Rex Lake in New Franklin, Ohio (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

The other great thing about coming home is the food. There are some things that I can order to eat here that I can’t get anywhere else. One of them is a pizza from a place called Guiseppe’s (Yeah, it’s really spelled that way). Most of the time, someone’s idea of good pizza is all about the pizza they grew up with. I’ve been eating Guiseppe’s for as long as I can remember. The place has won like a zillion “Best Of” awards. Now, I wouldn’t expect you to travel all the way to Akron, Ohio for a pizza, but I would certainly understand it if you did for a pizza from Guiseppe’s.

Dining on a Guiseppe’s pizza tonight! (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

We’ll get into more food tomorrow, but now you know a little bit more about me and what makes me tick.

Speaking of food, I’ve been told there aren’t a lot of restaurant dining options where we’re going in South Dakota. So, I stopped by a grocery store on the way and stocked up. You may have seen some of my cooking segments that I’ve done with Hazelmarie Anderson and Charmayne Brown, so you know I’m pretty handy in the kitchen. We’re staying at a lodge with a kitchen, so I’ll be cooking a bit, which is something that I love. I’ll even share some of my recipes.

That’s the road trip, so far. We still have a lot of traveling to do before we can do any fishing. I also have a little more homework to do tonight. I’ll have another update tomorrow. See you on the road or on the water.

10:57 a.m.: We’re ready to hit the road. The first leg of the trip comes today when I’ll head to northeast Ohio to meet up with Dan. From there we’ll travel to Mobridge, South Dakota tomorrow. I’ve been packing for what seems like a week. First, there’s making sure I have enough clothes for two weeks. Then, there’s the gear. I have a large soft sided tackle box and a hard satchel filled with lures and terminal tackle. I’m also bringing a rod that I’ll use for finesse or jig fishing, depending on what the situation calls for. The first leg will take me through West Virginia and into Ohio. I’ll spend the night in Akron, Ohio tonight. I’ll update more once I get there, but I have to get on the road.

Monday, July 25

I’m still in Roanoke, but getting packed and ready for the trip to Mobridge, South Dakota and Lake Oahe. Oahe is a reservoir on the Missouri River. It’s a big lake. It stretches for more than 230 miles from the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, all the way to the capital of South Dakota, Pierre. Oahe is where this year’s Cabela’s/Bass Pro/The Walleye Federation National Team Championship (NTC) will be held next week.

Big lake on the prairie: Lake Oahe (Photo courtesy: South Dakota Dept. of Agriculture and Natural Resources)
Lake Oahe Map (Photo courtesy: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The Walleye Federation doesn’t mess around when it comes to picking the bodies of water for these championship events. You know it’s always going to be one of the best walleye lakes or rivers in the country, and Lake Oahe is no exception. It’s known for the number of walleye it holds.

So, what’s a walleye? It’s the largest member of the perch family in North America. They are prized for their fight as well as for table fare. Plain and simple, they taste good and can be cooked in just about any way imaginable.

We have walleyes in Virginia. They occur naturally in the New River where we have a genetic strain found only Virginia. The New River strain are known for their size. The Staunton River, Leesville Reservoir, and Philpott Reservoir also provide good walleye fishing in our region. Walleyes are among the most targeted fish in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions, and they are becoming very popular to target in the Commonwealth.

Here’s a big walleye I caught on Lake Erie (Photo: George Noleff/WFXR News)

How does an outdoors journalist in Roanoke wind up fishing in a prestigious event like the Cabela’s/Bass Pro/The Walleye Federation National Team Championship (NTC)?

The short answer is a little luck, a bit of knowledge about walleye fishing, and knowing the right people. The angler I’m partnered with is a tournament veteran by the name of Dan DeBenedictis. I’ve known Dan for years. Just like I am originally, he’s from Ohio. I first met him in 2016 while he was fishing a walleye tournament in Cleveland and I was a freelance journalist covering the event. We fished a number of times after that, and I even shot some video with him for a YouTube channel I operated.

The NTC is a team event. Two anglers form a team. Dan and another partner qualified for the NTC through strong finishes in regional events. But, because of circumstances, the other guy can’t make the NTC, so here I am as an alternate. It’s not a very complicated story.

Once I knew I was going to fish the event, I started doing my homework. If you’re serious about fishing any tournament, the quest for knowledge has to be your number one priority. Whether it’s bass, stripers, catfish, walleye, or any species, the more you know about the body of water you’re going to fish, as well as the behavior of your target, the more likely you are to succeed. That means hours of map study, reading as much as you can about a body of water, watching video after video, and talking to people with experience on the lake or stream.

The techniques used to catch walleye on Lake Oahe are going to be different from the techniques to catch them on the New River or Lake Erie, or anywhere else you can find them. That’s true of most species. The success is in the subtleties.

I still spend about two hours a night studying. Hopefully, it pays off.

Now, that I know a little about the techniques involved, it also means buying gear specific to how we’ll be fishing. That meant trips to various outdoors stores or ordering online.

I don’t want to give too much away about techniques, just yet, but one method involves trolling swimbaits in and around submerged tree cover. That will give me the opportunity to take a little bit of Virginia with me. I plan to give the Missile Baits Shockwave a try.

Salem-based Missile Baits Shockwave swimbait (Photo courtesy: Missile Baits)

You probably know that Missile is based in Salem, and is owned by John Crews. John knows a thing or two about tournaments himself. He captured a Bassmaster Elite Championship in Florida earlier this year. He’s a Bassmaster veteran. Though bass and walleye are different species with different behaviors, those Missile Shockwaves should work on walleye as well as they do on bass. We’ll see if we can’t make a little “Virginia magic” in the upper Midwest.

The other way to learn a body of water is called pre-fishing, and we’ll be doing that, too. The tournament doesn’t start until Thursday, Aug. 4, but we’ll be up there early to get in several days of pre-fishing to try to get to know the lake and learn everything we can about it, look for concentrations of fish, and to see if any patterns develop that can put big fish in the boat. That means later this week a trip to Ohio, and then an 18 hour ride, pulling a boat along the way, all the way to South Dakota.

We invite you along for the trip. I’ll be providing at least one daily update, and sometimes more, in this diary. I’ll also be doing live reports every morning on “Good Day Virginia”, as well as segments on “WFXR News at Six” and “WFXR News First at Ten”. Keep an eye on Facebook, too. We’ll be doing Facebook Lives at least twice a day, where I’ll be happy to answer your questions live.

So, there’s a lot to prepare for, a lot to cover, and some long road trip to look forward to. It’ll be fun. Glad you’re coming along. Look for updates here, and we’ll see you on the water.