Campbell Wins Big - $50,000 First Prize Tactics


Midwest Outdoors Magazine Columnist and Feature Writer, John Campbell, cashed the big $50,000 prize in April, by winning the first Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) championship qualifying event of 1999 and his career. Held in Michigan’s Detroit River, John posted a whopping three-day tournament weight of 73.83 pounds. A nearly 5 pound per fish average, Campbell vaulted from seventh to first on the final day of this trying and ever changing event. The story of how John won is not just an adventure and but serves as a learning experience for us all.

As is typical in April, the weather is forever changing. On top of this, Campbell, a known top qualifier all the way back to his days when he and partner Ted Takasaki won MWC team of the year honors, was used to fishing rivers like those he knows at home, the Mississippi and the Illinois. Both of these waters are very stained with visibility being considered clear when you can see your jig 6 to 8 inches down. This is in stark contrast to the Detroit, where clear is considered 6 to 8 feet!

By the time the tournament started, more than half of the walleyes they’d be fishing for had already spawned. John started the tourny by thinking he would find the clearest water he could and start pulling three way rigs like he does on the Illinois. The rig he uses consists of a Shimano CV70MHB Convergence baitcasting rod teamed with a Shimano Castaic Baitcaster spooled with 10-lb. test Stren Magnathin. The Castaic was critically important to the presentation because it has a thumb bar that allows one handed releasing of line to adjust for structure changes in the river channel. The business end of Johns rig consisted of a 3-ounce pencil weight off the bottom of the three way and then two Rapala’s tied in tandem off the back. The proper way to do this is tie one Rapala two feet behind the swivel and then remove the back treble hook. Then tie another 4-foot piece of line to the back of the first Rapala on to the nose of the second. This will basically deaden the action of the Rapala in the middle, but you won’t believe how well it catches fish! One other detail that Campbell never takes for granted are his hooks. He changes all his crankbait hooks to Gamakatsu brand hooks. He swears by their increased hooking ability.

To fish this, John would point the bow of his Ranger 620 into the current, start his 15 hp Mercury 4 stroke kicker, engage his TR-1 autopilot and start trolling upstream at about the pace of a slow walk. John was fishing the 17-foot breakline around the edge of a hole just downstream from what he termed a major spawning flat. He knew that fish that had just spawned would be retreating to this hole while fish waiting to move up to spawn would be occupying it also. As he moved upstream, he would face forward and sweep his rod tip forward and then follow the weight back down until it contacted bottom. The second it made contact, John would repeat the process. The key for him though, was the way he manipulated his troll. John kept his eyes glued to his Bottom Line Champion NCC 6500 depthfinder. By using the unique feature called, "revelation", that separates fish from bottom echoes, he was able to see fish as he passed over them. This was critical to his presentation, because after marking the fish, he would continue upstream 15 to 20 feet and then press the direction button on his TR-1 autopilot to start the boat sliding sideways in the current. Most of the fish John caught that day were the result of this side slide. John finished the day in eighth place, in a field of 120, about 4.5 pounds out of the lead.

The second day brought a completely different set of circumstances along with a new set of guidelines for fishing. The first thing that was going through everyone’s head was that they were in the last day of a warming trend and the weatherman was calling for a major cold front to push through about 1 o’clock local time. This meant that every tournament angler wanted to have a pretty good stash of fish before this front put the kibosh on the whole deal. Campbell showed up on his day one spot, saw clearer water, and decided to give this a chance anyway. The first thing he noticed was that he was marking much fewer fish on his Bottom Line graph than he had the day before. He did manage to pop one nice 4 pounder right away, but after one full pass on the hole, about 4 blocks, he knew it was time to pull up stakes and change tactics. With water clearing, John’s natural instinct was to head upstream, as that would be the clearest water of all. After a 30-mile trek, Campbell set down and started to graph an area that was about 30 feet deep. Marking very few fish, he moved slightly shallower, to 28 feet and Bingo! There they were! This type of depth called for different tactics though and Campbell also wanted to take advantage of what he thought would be an overly aggressive nature of these fish due to the incoming inclement weather. His tactic was to vertical jig these fish.

This was accomplished with a Shimano VSA-60MH V series spinning rod matched with a Shimano SA-1000FA Sustain reel with instant anti-reverse. John needed a perfect rod and flawless reel because he was going to attempt to bag the Detroit River hogs on only 6-lb. test Stren Gold. On the business end of this rig sat a 1-ounce, chartreuse, Lindy Jumbo Fuzz-E-Grub. Campbell tipped this with the biggest emerald shiners he could find in his Flambeau bait bucket, 5 to 6 inchers.

The essence of vertical jigging is to maintain the jig as directly beneath your rod tip as humanly possible. Campbell achieves this by pointing the bow of his Ranger 620 into the current or wind, whichever is stronger, and then relying on his Minnkota Maxxum trolling motor. Your boat will generally want to slide downstream faster than your jig, therefore a slight push upstream with the trolling motor will allow you to have the boat keep pace with the jig. Once this equilibrium is established, Campbell then begins the task of methodically jigging. Usually he’d use a simple lift drop with a 4 count. That being, lift the jig off bottom 2 to 6 inches, hold for a 3 count, and drop and touch bottom on the fourth count, immediately bringing the jig back to the rest position. Because he thought these fish would be exceptionally aggressive, he was more aggressive with his jigging routine. He would try and bang the jig on the bottom and rustle it around on the rocks creating a commotion. This approach resulted in over 25 fish boated that day and a total weight for the day of 27.07 pounds and a move up to seventh place in the standings after day two. In spite of this outstanding performance, Campbell actually lost distance from the leader. Local angler Bill St. Peter of Bay City, Mi., came in with a blowout bag of 33.93 pounds of walleyes on day 2 creating over a 5 pound lead between himself and Campbell. Realistically, Campbell was hoping to squeak out a third or fourth place.

On the final day, nearly every pro in the field knew the day was going to be a rough one. The cold front that the weatherman had forecast had come in in spades and the wind was howling out of the southeast. This meant that shallow Lake St. Clair had become turbid and the water flowing into the Detroit was going to be dark and silty. Campbell ran 30 miles upstream to his spot of the previous day and there it was, severely reduced visibility. John graphed the area with his Bottom Line and the fish were still there, but would they bite? Locals had told him that in those conditions the only way to get the fish was trolling crankbaits, but Campbell knew that his meager 3 ounce rig would never reach the bottom in those kind of depths, so he decided to teach the locals a lesson and catch them vertical jigging. That lesson ended about 45 minutes later with no fish in the boat and John deciding the locals were right. For the third day in a row, it was time to readapt and change approaches to stay up with the pack. His next move was a race downstream. The current was about 6 mph and his job was to beat the dirty water downstream and find some clearer water to attack the fish in. He found it in a very unlikely spot.

Some 5 years before, and the only other time he had fished the Detroit, his brother and he fished a spot in a tournament. It was the spot he now came upon and the water was clear. He had fished that tournament to become familiar with the river, just in case they ever held another, big money, tournament here. He set up to vertical jig a breakline, the exact same pass he had duplicated years before. On the first pass he nailed a 4 really nice fish including an 8.79 pounder.

He had noticed during the early part of the day that unlike the previous 2 days, pro boats were zinging here and there. This meant only one thing, they were having a tough day and Campbell had just taken a comfortable rest in the drivers seat. The reality of the situation, was that after that first pass, with Campbell’s amateur partner waving the net around as every fish came aboard, the other pro’s noticed and quickly converged. Within minutes there were 50 boats on a spot that moments ago was only John’s. The good news for Campbell was that it took them some time to figure out the pass that John was making down the breakline, and in that time Campbell advanced his cause. The fact was that that spot only wound up giving up a total of 14 fish that day and Campbell accounted for half of those himself.

The other adjustment that John made that day was to downsize slightly based on the fish becoming less aggressive. He moved down to a 5/8 ounce Lindy Jumbo Fuzz-E-Grub and tipped it with 3 to 4 inch Emerald Shiners. His presentation was nearer his normal style with a 4 count and moderate lift drop also. As the day came to a close, John banged one more fish, a 3.5 pounder. When they came to the scales, tournament director Mark Dorn looked in the leaders livewells to see what they had and told John, "we’re gonna hold you back". Holding an angler back means that they want him to come to the scales towards the end because he could win and they want to have it be very dramatic.

By the time there were only three anglers left, Dorn made the trip and surveyed the catches again. This time he told Campbell, "You’re going last, John". That meant, that Mark’s eyes had gauged John’s fish to be close to winners. Campbell saw the first of the three carry his basket towards the stage and knew he had enough to beat those fish. The next angler was the previous day’s leader, Bill St. Peter. Campbell looked at St. Peter’s basket and sweated, not knowing if he would even be close enough to eclipse that 5 pound lead St. Peter had. By the time John weighed he was .69 pounds heavier and $50,000 richer.