MOBRIDGE, S.D. -- “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

That’s how John Hoyer summed up his big day of fishing Thursday on the waters of Lake Oahe, where the Minnesota pro angler overcame a slow start to propel his way atop the leaderboard after the first day of the National Walleye Tour tournament in Mobridge.

After going nearly five hours without catching a fish to start the day, Hoyer quickly turned it on by reeling in his biggest walleye he’s ever caught, helping him come up with a 24-pound bag of fish.

John Hoyer, left, and Dan Volbert, right, weigh in their 24 pound bag of fish to claim the top spot of the first day of action on Thursday during the National Walleye Tour tournament in Mobridge. (Sam Fosness / Republic)
John Hoyer, left, and Dan Volbert, right, weigh in their 24 pound bag of fish to claim the top spot of the first day of action on Thursday during the National Walleye Tour tournament in Mobridge. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

“It was really a test of will power. I didn’t catch one 18-incher during my pre-fishing practice, except for way down south of the lake,” Hoyer said. “I was kind of questioning everything at about noon when I didn’t have a fish. But they started biting and moving around, and I had two miracle bites.”

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In the 24 pound bag, the Orono, Minnesota, native caught two walleye over 30 inches, with one measuring about 32 inches, a personal best.

“I was kind of weighing out what the risk vs. rewards were by targeting the big fish. We couldn’t catch a small one to save our lives, which was a godsend,” Hoyer said.

Fishing with Hoyer on the opening day of the two-day tournament was co-angler, Dan Volbert, of Chaska, Minnesota.

Anglers hit the water at 7 a.m. and had to weigh their day's catch of walleye by 3 p.m. on Mobridge’s Main Street, where a packed crowd gathered to watch. The pro-amateur style tournament allows each boat to have two anglers, and 100 of the fishermen are pros, while the remaining 100 are amateur co-anglers. Each pro angler fishes with a different co-angler in the tournament, which are selected randomly.

The two-day event in Mobridge is the fourth leg of the tour. The championship will be held at Ottertail, Minnesota, in September.

Hoyer pointed to the change in weather patterns that the Mobridge area experienced this week as a major factor that helped him figure out where the big fish are in the Lake Oahe system, which stretches 231 miles along the northern portion of South Dakota. The slight wind gusts that moved through the Mobridge area on Thursday helped, Hoyer said.

Anglers fish under the bridge Thursday afternoon along Lake Oahe during the first day of the National Walleye Tour in Mobridge. (Sam Fosness / Republic)
Anglers fish under the bridge Thursday afternoon along Lake Oahe during the first day of the National Walleye Tour in Mobridge. (Sam Fosness / Republic)

“We were having some flat calm water lately, and walleye in the Dakotas don’t like to bite when it’s flat calm. But we got that little wind, which kind of shook the fish up,” he said.

For Hoyer, the big day on the water came at a crucial time. As he’s currently sitting in 49th for the Angler of the Year standings, Hoyer has to move up and make it in the top 40 to earn himself a chance to compete in the championship.

While his 24 pound bag that he and his partner reeled in will likely be enough to propel him to crack the top 40, judging by the fluctuating scores in the first day of action, Hoyer said he needs to stay calm under pressure.

“I’ve luckily been in this position before, so I know how to handle it. It’s really about knowing what time the fish are going to come,” he said. “You don’t get a chance very often to win a tournament, but if I get two of those big one’s again tomorrow, somebody is going to have to beat me.”

Trailing Hoyer was Minnesota pro angler Tim Abraham and South Dakota native Mike Loecker, who reeled in a 22 pound bag.

With a new boat and over $90,000 on the line, Hoyer is hoping to capture his first tournament victory of this summer’s National Walleye Tour.

“I love fishing Lake Oahe, and I’m just pumped to get back out on the water tomorrow,” Hoyer said.