Iowa pro and partner take first for second consecutive year, fellow Raymarine pro Larry Rhoads II and partner Dan Johnson finish second
Escanaba, Michigan (October 11, 2018): This past weekend, Denver, Iowa-based walleye pro Tommy Skarlis and partner Jeff Lahr fought brutal winds and cold to place first for the second consecutive year at the World Walleye Championship, held this year on Bays de Noc out of Escanaba, Michigan. The World Walleye Championship (WWC) is the crown event on the Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC).
This year’s win follows Skarlis’ 2017 MWC Championship win on Minnesota’s Cass Lake Chain. It has been over 20 years since any professional walleye angler has posted back-to-back MWC Championships. Moreover, the recent win at Escanaba immediately qualifies the duo for the 2019 Cabela’s MWC on Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago, giving them a shot as the first team to win three World Walleye Championships in a row.
It’s been a long time in the making, as over 30 years ago Skarlis says he only dreamed of fishing the circuit. To have had the success he’s had—especially after a deer stand accident and broken neck nearly ended his career—he says he thanks God and feels “humbled and blessed.”
Skarlis and Lahr weigh 54-14 ounces for first place at the 2018 Cabela’s MWC World Walleye Championship.
“I don’t think I’m great, I just want to be great, so I attempt to fish smart at every event. Honestly, I fish scared, go in like a lamb and try to come out like a lion. As we say in Iowa, ‘Shoot for the moon and hit the barn,’’’ says Skarlis.
Despite 20 mph-plus winds, Skarlis says several factors added to his ability to produce fish while the majority of teams struggled on some level to produce walleyes during the event. Perhaps the most important was his ability to find, mark, and catch the fish he located on his Raymarine electronics.
“It’s was pretty much a ‘mark the fish, catch the fish’ scenario with my Raymarine Axiom units,” says Skarlis.
Specifically, Skarlis’ Ranger 621FS is outfitted with four Raymarine Axiom MFDs, two at the console—an Axiom 12 and Axiom PRO 9—and the same setup on the bow.
With regards to their system for boating winning fish, Skarlis and Lahr relied on their Raymarine Axiom Pro and Axiom units’ DownVision and SideVision, used in combination with Navionics mapping and high-resolution CHIRP 2D Sonar, as well as Raymarine’s patented RealVision 3D.
Raymarine Axiom Pro family
“It’s nice having two big screens running everything in full view or split screen to give me lots of info at the same time. The clarity and speed is absolutely amazing. If it looks like there’s a fish there, it’s a fish. The CHIRP Sonar, DownVision, SideVision, RealVision 3D, and how fast the mapping responds is just amazing. RealVision 3D helped me to identify the bumps and humps and it gives you a good idea of how the structure lays out. Combined with Navionics cartography, I feel like I understand every piece of structure. I use SideVision, too… all of it.”
He continues: “The speed of the units is unlike anything I’ve ever used. I could zoom into the mapping on one unit and split-screen the 2D CHIRP Sonar and DownVision on the other unit to immediately differentiate fish from the three prevalent patterns we identified from 20 all the way to 60 feet. We had to move quickly from area to area, mark fish, then catch those fish.”
Skarlis laughs as he refers to the Raymarine units at his dash as “Ray Ray”. “They’re my two friends. Kind of like how Clint Eastwood had Smith and Wesson.”
Axiom and Axiom Pro units easily allow user to split screen and view RealVision 3D (left); DownVision (right, top); and mapping (right, bottom).
He’s quick to credit his Raymarine electronics for giving him the ability to easily and accurately map and navigate waters, too, especially critical on large and potentially perilous bodies of water like Bays de Noc.
“On the top unit I run Navionics cartography to adjust for navigation and finding structure on the fly. I pretty much shade everything 10 feet and under so I know where it’s safe to navigate. Especially in the rough water of Days Two and Three, I had to run the shoreline and knew that (especially on Little Bay de Noc) there are rock piles that come within inches of the surface, so I had to move out and come back in. The speed and precision of my Axiom units and Navionics mapping gave me the confidence to navigate safely. Same goes for shading areas when fishing. I touch two buttons or the screen and can quickly shade to five or 10 feet, then once I get to where I’m fishing I shade everything 25 feet and deeper in white and everything 25 feet and shallower in blue. The best rock piles were those that topped out in 20 to 22 feet of water, so when we were pitching, this worked perfectly. When vertical jigging for these fish, I’d locate by shading out to 35 feet, then drive S turns up and around the breaks until I marked the fish. Then I’d touch the fish on the screen in CHIRP 2D Sonar, store a coordinate and then jig around that spot until I caught the fish or drove it off the screen.”
Skarlis and Lahr worked hard on Day One, locating walleyes both deep and shallow. Ultimately, it came down to time management, and they knew there was still hope when they finished at the scales in tenth place with 14-03, just behind fellow Raymarine pros Larry Rhoads II and Dan Johnson, who weighed an 18-06 five-fish limit.
“We could have had a bigger weight, but we chose to focus on the really deep fish on day one and I didn’t give us enough time to work those fish,” says Skarlis. “I told my partner, ‘We’re going to need to average 19 or 20 pounds a day to win this tournament.’ But we didn’t stub our toe the first day. We just had to work harder on day two and we climbed the board to fifth. Then we went out on the third day and I knew we needed a couple 24- to 29-inch fish that would go with the three unders around 22 inches.”
On Day Two the duo fought brutal winds by idling their big Evinrude into the wind, PowerPole Paddle deployed to slow down their drift while methodically jigging with gliding baits like Moonshine Shiver Minnows, #9 Jigging Raps, and Rapala Flat Jigs. “We were challenging two-to-three-foot waves with the back of the boat, but had located the fish we needed,” says Skarlis.
Presentation-wise, Skarlis was able to feel the majority of the bites despite the conditions and what’s typical with gliding baits.
“Most anglers say when you’re jigging these baits you don’t feel the bite, you pick it up and the fish is just there. But we felt 90% of the bites we had on the drop thanks to the St. Croix rods we were using, all medium-fast seven-foot Legend Elite, Legend Xtreme and Legend X, used with a combination of 10-20 pound superline typically tied to the bait with a fluorocarbon leader. The walleyes were eating perch, gobies, alewives… so we caught them on metallic-colored, glow, and plain old goby-colored lures. There was no must-have color pattern.”
Concentrating deeper, by 11:30 a.m. on the final day, Skarlis and Lahr didn’t have any fish so they moved into 20-30 foot depths and quickly located walleyes with their Raymarine Axiom units. “It was the move on day three when I started moving around and found fish, that really made a huge difference. It was similar to how we won the last championship on Cass Lake last year,” says Skarlis. “I could tell the difference between the walleyes and smallmouths by looking at the 2D CHIRP SONAR screen next to DownVision. The smallmouths were fatter blobs—like watermelons—and the walleyes looked like bananas. It’s amazing that I can easily mark fish at 35 to 40 mph on 2D CHIRP SONAR, then go back with DownVision and actually tell what species the fish is. At the end of the day, I can get my baits in front of more fish with Raymarine units, which means I can catch more fish.”
Split screen view of DownVision (left) and 2D Sonar (right) clearly reveals bottom-hugging walleyes.
At the end of the event, Skarlis admits the recent MWC Championship was fun, even when the weather conditions were less than ideal.
“I wish I would have had Axioms my whole career. They make me feel like an electronics genius because they’re so fast and easy to use, and with the shaded depth feature I can quickly and accurately find areas that are similar. That’s the excitement – these things are easy to use, zoom in and out on my map on the fly – and the processor is ultra-fast. I’ve seen it all, and it blows my mind,” says Skarlis.
At the end of the three-day event, Skarlis and Lahr weighed 54-14 ounces for first place.
Fellow Raymarine pro Larry Rhoads II and partner Dan Johnson finished second at the event with 54 pounds, 10 ounces, running one Raymarine A97 and one A98 at the dash and one A97 at the bow. At the dash, one unit is dedicated to split-screen sonar and DownVision, while the other runs Navionics mapping.
“I had installed this boat with A97 and A98 Raymarine electronics a couple months before Raymarine Axioms hit the market, but they’re still nonetheless amazing in what they do on the water,” says Rhoads.
Raymarine pro Larry Rhoads II utilized Navionics’ one-foot mapping contours as a crucial key to their success.
“We had two different patterns going in pre-fishing: a shallow weed pattern and a deep-water ledge pattern. The Raymarine A98 DownVision was critical in identifying the weeds that were still alive versus the stuff that was dead and at a 45-degree angle or lying on the bottom. So, this allowed us to drive around and identify the still live and green weeds.”
Ultimately, however, the decent weather of pre-fishing shifted to a fierce northeast wind and frontal pattern, which convinced Rhoads to drive around and glean the best high-percentage areas from the one-foot contours his Navionics Platinum map chip revealed.
“Due to the fronts, we discovered a deep-water pattern by which walleyes were bellied into the base of 40- to 50-foot breaks, which would show up on my 200kHz sonar but really popped on DownVision, which became critical. We’d cruise mile-plus stretches of break, find wolf packs of fish, put down a waypoint, and cast or jig gliding baits like Johnson Johnny Darters, Jigging Raps, or Moonshine Shiver Minnows, primarily in perch patterns, which the walleyes were coughing up.”
All said and done, fellow Raymarine pros Rhoads and Johnson feel incredibly satisfied with their second place performance at the WWC at Escanaba.
“We didn’t give it away. We have no regrets. Tommy and Jeff beat us. We fished a super clean tournament. We stayed within six miles of the launch the entire event, so, in the end, we spent over seven hours a day each day in fishing time rather than travel. We focused on key areas and worked them hard. In the end, we lost by four ounces to some of the legends of the sport. I can’t think of any better guys to have lost to.”
Rhoads and Johnson finished the event with 54-10 for second place.
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Foster arrived on the scene as a touring pro on the Professional Walleye Tour in 2002 and has never looked back. Through EyeTime Adventures he promotes the sport of fishing being heavily involved in the development of tournaments such as the Northern Oahe Walleye Series as well as children’s events, when schedules allow, he also guides a select group of clients. Additionally, he operates a successful hunting guide service, Dakota Pheasant Guide, which specializes in deer and pheasant hunts in South Dakota. Foster is well known for his prolific writing and has been extensively published on a national level as well as in every outdoor publication in the Upper Midwest.