My 2002 Championship Win, Start to Finish, Part 3



Keith Kavajecz finishes the story of his 2002 PWT Championship win in this, Part 3 of his 3 part series.

Tournament Day Three – Final Day.


Back to boat four out – no sand bars hit, only one submerged stump dinged and fishing by 8:20. I didobserve that the upper river seemed to be down a good foot (lots of sand bars above water that were covered invisible the day before). I thought about Fairbairn in the river with dropping water – maybe he’d have a tougher day. The other thing I noticed was that, as I got closer to the state line, a predicted north wind seemed to be picking up and the waves were building.

Dave the cameraman was back on board – and as usual my lucky charmed paid off and I boated a 16&3/4 incher in the first hour – in the livewell. Dave off, out to spot two, but unlike the first two days, it did not produce. Not to worry – off to spot three. The waves were noticeably bigger – 2 to 3 footers – not hard to run in with my 21 foot Tundra – but certainly a pain to troll in – especially into the wind.

I begin to get worry – spot 3 produces no fish. Spot 4 gives me a sick feeling in my stomach as it produces no fish. In fact, I mark very few on my X-16 the entire 3 mile pass. I don’t even catch any short fish – and the wind is pushing harder now. I calculated I would have to leave. With these waves, to be safe, probably 1:45pm – and it’s already noon. I still only have that first fish in the well.

I run to spot 5 – an area that was great day one of pre-fishing. I got there only to find Parsons in the stretch. When he asked how I was doing and I held up one lowly finger – his shoulders slumped. He had 4 already and was just looking for a big one. Legally, we can tell each other on the water how many fish we have, but he can’t tell me what he is using, how deep he was fishing or even if this is the spot where he had caught his keepers. But at least I knew the walleyes were biting, I just needed to find an active area. I went about 1 mile up wind and made a long pass down this channel area. I didn’t get anything. Gary was gone by then and I hadn’t seen his net come out – but did mark lots of fish on my X-16. I decided to turn into the wind (which is also into the current) and see if that made a difference – it is now 12:30.

Finally – I got one – problem is, it’s just barely legal – 14&1/4 inches (probably .8 pounds). Oh well, I don’t have much time – in the well with it. Several hundred yards later – a nicer 16 inch fish – in the well with it. I spin and go through the area with the wind, no fish. I spin again – into the waves and quickly get another fish – 15 inches.

Now, decisions, decisions. It’s almost 1:00, 45 minutes of fishing left, I am on some active fish and will probably get another one, but I also have one space open for a bigger fish. I’d like to use that to upgrade that 14 incher. If I keep this 15 incher, I will have to weigh him (probably 1.2 pounds). I look at the fish, I look at my watch, I look at the fish, I look at my observer, I look at the fish, I look at the waves, I look at the fish………………. I put him in the livewell. But with that decision, I also decide that I need a big fish. This area seemed to only have small ones, so I reeled up and headed – you got it – 6 miles south, back to the state line area. I will have about 30 minutes to try to upgrade that 14 inch fish.

Did I mention #4 Jointed Shad Rap – Shad or Silver Shad – yeh, they had caught all my fish again. They were my bread and butter colors, but things were about to change. I went right to the area where Ortiz and the local boat had caught them the day before and made a short pass – no fish, but it was with the wind. I spun the boat around to make another pass and it was at that point that I made a critical decision – to switch colors on one Jointed Shad to Fire Tiger (a color Parsons had done well with in pre-fishing). I had to do something – I only had 20 minutes left.

Well, I didn’t go too far and the rod with the Fire Tiger lure doubled over. Having caught literally hundreds of white bass, I knew this looked right. I picked up the rod, and just like every walleye I had caught that week, the line started to climb to the surface. And just like every walleye that week, the fish hit the surface, just before I would start “skiing” it across the surface a short 60 feet to the net.

This time though, it was not to be, the line came up, the fish hit the surface and with one shake of its head the lure was out. I didn’t see the fish. It sure looked right. It sure felt like a 16 to 18 inch walleye. My observer was beside himself – “Was it a walleye? Was it a keeper?”. I looked at him and realized that I may have just lost my last opportunity to upgrade that small fish. I paused, I grinned and I said the same thing I said 100 times earlier that day….. “White Bass”. He paused, and looked at me, and smiled as he realized that I was not going to let that missed fish take me mentally out of the tournament when I still had 15 minutes left.

I only had to troll about a football field upstream, when the rod doubled again. The line rose up. The fish hit the surface. One of those beautiful round mouths appeared on the surface of the water. The fish skied in without even a twitch of a fight. Then, like my day one and day two observers, my day 3 partner netted the fish perfectly (just as we had discussed in the morning while waiting on shore to launch).

The fat little 17 incher had probably upgraded my weight by a pound, and with only 10 minutes left before I had to leave, I was done. Not a big weight, but I was guessing/hoping for 5.5 pounds.

Even in 3 foot waves for the first 10 miles, the run back didn’t take any longer on the clock than it had the first two days. Yet, in my mind it took forever. I wondered why the fishing was so slow today. Where could I have made better decisions? Should I have kept that first 14 incher? How about that 15 incher? Maybe I should have gutted it out and waited for two 17 inch fish to win this thing outright. Maybe it would be a tough day for everyone.

I was running ahead of schedule enough that I could take the time to stop and help Mark Martin get off a sand bar. He had ankle deep water below his big Lund – looked like Noah’s arc after the flood – high and dry. Ross Grothe was trying to pull him off, but every time Ross would pull, the rope would stretch and sling shot Ross backwards, filling his boat with water. Having a bigger boat and bigger engine, we doubled up the rope and my 250 Merc EFI made short time of dragging him off.

I was on time and on track to get in with 10 minutes to spare. Suddenly just 4 miles from the launch site – in a place I had run across 5 times this tournament (7 times if you include the last day of pre-fishing) I saw a brown streak of real dirty water. Guess what, not dirty water, but a sand bar that had popped up during the day! I hit it wide open. The mud flew 30 feet high as the engine tipped forward. The engine crackled loudly as the exhaust bellowed out of water. The boat skipped, the observer was yelling and pointing towards deeper water. Did I mention the mud was flying?? Again, I got lucky, just as our momentum was fading, the last bounce cleared the bar and we were back in “deep” (3 foot) water.

No parading of the underwear, so technically I didn’t get stuck. I thought briefly of my coveted “Golden Shovel Award” – smiled at the observer – raised up my jack plate and blasted off towards home.

Have you ever heard the term – Hurry up and Wait? We were back to the launch site at 3pm. I would not get to weigh my fish until nearly 7:00pm. The rumors in the boat yard at first sounded pretty good for me. Fairbairn’s fish had vanished with the falling water. Kraft’s fish quit biting because the wind had muddied up his shallow water rock pile. Everyone fourth through tenth did not have enough weight to make up my lead. But there was one kid who had a big basket.

Bobby Crow started the day 3.25 pounds behind me. With my estimated 5.5 pounds of fish, he needed 8.75 pounds to beat me. Parsons went and asked to see Bobby’s fish and they were good ones. 21, 20, 19&1/2, 18&1/2. Man, even with conservative weights I knew they had to be 9.2 pounds. I re-calculated my fish in my head – maybe if they were chunky – 5.8 at best – that still left me short – I knew I didn’t win.

They held three of us outside to enter the arena last. Bobby Crow, Dan Steir, and myself. The format was, that the angler that currently leads (at this point it was Tom Backer) would draw one of our three names from the Championship Cup. Then that person would weigh in. The leader would draw again until the outcome was decided. Total suspense, no one knew who was going to win (except for me of course- I knew Crow had it).

First name out – Dan Steir. He had 5 pounds and change, enough to take the lead. Dan drew the next name. I was thinking please, please draw me. I want to take the lead – even if only for a short time – on the final day. Next name…… Bobby Crow.

I watched as Bobby pulled long fish after long fish out of his well. But as he did, I noticed they weren’t the most robust fish I had seen this week. Still, too much weight. I was back down to my original 5.5 pounds guess – maybe even less. Man he had some nice walleyes. When they placed his basket on the scale and read his weight, my heart stopped – “Bobby Crow is your new leader with 8.30 pounds !!!”.

Wait a minute, 8.3 pounds, I had a 3.25 lead over him. That meant I only needed 5.05 pounds to tie him. At this point my wife said she thought I had lost. She said I was standing on the deck of my boat shaking my head as if to say, “Nope, I can’t beat that”. But the real reason I was shaking my head is because I couldn’t believe it. I might have enough weight! I MIGHT WIN!

I pulled my 4 walleyes from the well, showing each one to the huge crowd at the Civic Center. I could vaguely hear my wife’s “Woo, woos in the background”. One guy close to me in the stands was yelling “You got it, you got it”. I quickly made my way to the Emcee’s side. I’m sure Jim O’Rooke asked me some questions, I have no idea what I answered. I do remember him saying “Ok let’s weigh the fish. You need 5.06 pounds to take the lead…let’s see what he’s got……5.26 pounds!! Your new PWT Champion in the 100,000 dollar Mercury Walleye Championship is Keith Kavajecz!!!!”

Again, things get a little foggy at this point. I remember congratulating Bobby for a great tournament. I remember holding the trophy cup up with one had, and waving the other hand above my head. I remember ducking when the fireworks cracked through the auditorium. I remember my boys coming to the stage first – Tom so tall I didn’t recognize him at first. Mikey with a grin so big it was touching both of his ears. Billy, cool and calm sauntering up as if trying to impress the babes in the crowd. My mom and dad smiling and crying. And My Lovely Wife……..Lynn, with her newly presented 2 dozen roses, sobbing, and shaking and hugging and kissing.

The whole family got in the boat I had just won and took a victory lap around the auditorium. The Tom and Bill were flying the American Flag. Mikey was holding the big golden trophy cup. People were screaming and cheering. Thoughts of my good friend Norb Wallock danced in my head. The spot light so bright it was hard to see individual faces. More kisses and hugs from Lynn. Congratulations being shouted by my fellow competitors – my fishing family.

Whew……….. People sure can get excited about 12 fish that only weigh a little over 19 pounds. Well they might have been small in size, but these 12 walleyes are the biggest I’ve ever caught because, after all, they won me the Professional Walleye Trail/Mercury National Walleye Championship of 2002.