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Big fish in a big pond

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They’re regarded as the top two walleye fisheries in the state, Lake of the Woods and Lake Mille Lacs. A recent AIM tournament and now the Minnesota Tournament Trail Championship would indicate that Lake of the Woods is an unequivocal No. 1, both in the number of walleyes and the number of trophy fish.

A pair of Lake Mille Lacs anglers probably wouldn’t disagree.

Mark Christensen of Isle, on the shores of Mille Lacs, and partner Eric Nesius of Argusville, N.D., landed two of those 28-plus-inch walleyes on Friday, Sept. 14, launching them from well back in the pack to the title in the two-day Minnesota Tournament Trail Championship out of Border View Lodge.

Their first victory as a team on the MTT was good for a $35,000 Skeeter boat. In their only other MTT event together, they finished second – at Mille Lacs.

Another Isle angler, Brad Hawthorne, can usually be found guiding on Mille Lacs. Before Thursday and Friday’s tournament, his biggest-ever walleye was an 11.5-pounder – on Mille Lacs. After two days on Lake of the Woods in the MTT Championship, he’ll have an ever bigger mount for the wall.

Hawthorne nearly hit the elusive 12-pound mark, landing a whopping 11.99-pound walleye on Friday to claim big-fish honors, worth $710.

The tournament drew 71 boats – about 30 more than the highly regarded AIM finale on Lake of the Woods last month. And as in the AIM tournament, trophy fish – over 28 inches – weren’t unusual.

High winds kept totals on the low side Thursday, when only four trophy fish were caught and none over 9.5 pounds. But with near-perfect conditions Friday, totals swelled, with 20-plus trophy fish, including Hawthorne’s fish of a lifetime.

Hawthorne said he caught the big fish on a No. 9 Firetiger Shad Rap in about 28 feet of water.

“Big baits for big fish,” he said of the lure. “The sun was high so we switched to brighter colors.”

He said he caught the fish at about 1:45 p.m. — about an hour-and-a-half before the end of the competition.

“Absolutely,” Hawthorne said when asked if he was starting to get worried Friday; he and teammate Bob Carlson registered only one fish weighing 1.51 pounds Thursday. “This year I’ve done 112 guide trips. I just do this (fish competitively) to remain viable. You just don’t want to finish (near the bottom).”

With the big fish and five “slot” fish Friday — teams were allowed to weigh six fish a day and two trophies for the tournament — the team jumped from second-to-last place to 28th.

Christensen-Nesius caught both their big fish the second day, allowing them to also come out of nowhere after a 9.25-pound total Thursday.

But Friday was a rollercoaster ride for the winners. With time winding down, they finally got a big fish at about 1:30 p.m., and then, minutes later, had what they thought was another fish over 28 inches. But the fish, although wide, measured a quarter-inch short of a trophy. Minutes after throwing that fish back, they landed their second trophy and, ultimately, the championship.

“That broke our hearts,” Christensen said of the fish that came up just short. “It was fat, but just short. It was a little bit disheartening. But then we caught (the second trophy fish) on the next pass in the same spot.”

The winners’ big fish were caught in about 33 feet of water using crank baits.

Echoing Hawthorne’s sentiments — and those of most other competitors — “We were looking for big fish, not trying to catch a lot of fish, so we were using big baits,” Christensen said. “We weren’t wasting a lot of time catching small fish with small baits.”

“One of the big things is we ran through a lot of different-colored crank baits,” Nesius said. “And when it (the bite) turned on it didn’t matter what color you were using. …Pinks, greens, golds — if you go to any tackle place at Lake of the Woods, they’ll tell you those are three pretty good colors.”

After the winners, the next 10 teams earned cash awards – $8,150 for second place down to $1,050 for 11th. The next 10 placers won merchandise prizes.

Chris Atwater of Nisswa and Scott Whipps of Ham Lake, who won the North Star Fall Walleye Classic on Lake of the Woods the previous week, finished just out of the prize hunt in 21st place.

For complete results, go to

BRIAN S. PETERSON is a freelance writer based in northern Minnesota.