While Hoyer has been fishing Devils since 2000, Hjelm has only sampled it once. The Rapala pro, who appeared invincible for most of the season, is coming off his worst event, a 32nd-place finish.
“I’m not mad about it,” explained Hjelm. “It was a decent finish. I didn’t lose fish; I just didn’t get enough bites. There’s going to be times like that. If there’s something to be disappointed about, it was that I had a 20-something point AOY lead. Maintaining a 20-point lead going into Devils would have been great, but it’s never that easy. I still have a legit chance, but I feel like I almost have to win this tournament, especially with it being one of John’s favorite places to fish. That’s where my mind is at right now. I let it slip away last tournament; that’s the reality. It has fueled the fire for Devils Lake.”
Six points behind Hjelm and 12 points behind Hoyer is Nitro Boats pro Dylan Nussbaum, who won the 2018 NWT qualifier on Devils Lake and became the youngest NWT champion in history.
“There’s always a chance; Dewey was trailing last year by a large margin,” recalled Nussbaum. “I like the fact that I’m sitting third where there’s not much pressure. To win AOY, I truly believe I have to win the event. Even with that, it’s going to be tough, because I’m expecting Hoyer and Dewey to bring it.”
When Nussbaum was just 20 years old, he traveled over 21 hours from his home state of Pennsylvania to fish Devils Lake for the first time.
“I can’t wait to get back. It’s one of the coolest fisheries on the planet. It reminds me so much of the Kinzua Reservoir back home. Now with forward-facing sonar, it’s going to be unreal. There are endless amounts of structure – from old road beds, foundations, trees, and weeds.”
When Nussbaum won in 2018, he was trolling leadcore. When Hoyer won in 2019, he was employing a combination of glide baits and slip bobbers with jigs and leeches. Nussbaum said he will again sample the leadcore bite, but he’s hoping to cast.
“I know Jigging Raps will be a major part of my casting program. I’ve also had a lot of success casting plastics like a Scented Jerk ShadZ on a Moon Eye jig. People are just starting to catch on to the effectiveness of that bait.”
All three pros believe it will take more than the 67 pounds Hoyer won with in 2019.
“I’m expecting 25 pounds a day will win this event,” added Nussbaum. “From what I hear, they’re catching a lot of those 3- and 4-pound fish. The 5- and 6-pounders are tournament-winning fish.”
“There was high water in the spring, and it has leveled out, but I know the water level will be higher than it was in 2019,” Hoyer said. “That should open up new areas. Overall, I’m expecting impressive catches. This is a serious playground with plenty of big fish, but also plenty of challenges.”
While late summer and early fall typically translates into deep-water fishing, both Hoyer and Hjelm believe the shallows could be part of the winning strategy.
“There’s going to be big, quality fish shallow,’ concluded Hoyer. “You may not get as many bites, but there will be fish shallow. But the deep rock is also an amazing pattern. I’m sort of split between exploring the shallows and finding a home run deep bite. It’s going to be wide open, especially with forward-facing sonar.”
“You can literally do whatever you want and catch fish,” Hjelm offered. “It might take being versatile to win. A guy might have to fish both shallow and deep. I personally think it’s going to be won not just on a single piece of structure, but on multiple spots and multiple ways. It’s going to be a fun tournament.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Central time (or first safe light) from Grahams Island State Park, located at 152 S. Duncan Rd. in Devils Lake. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the state park, specifically the Sivert Thompson Activities Center, beginning at 3 p.m. Central time. The full field fishes each of the first two days with the top 10 advancing to the third and final day. The winner in each division is determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.
Live weigh-in each day can be viewed here.
The National Walleye Tour consists of four regular-season events and a no-entry-fee championship. Pros compete against other pros, and co-anglers compete against other co-anglers. For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit www.nationalwalleyetour.com.