Dylan Nussbaum became youngest winner in history of professional walleye fishing with recent Devils Lake tournament win
LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. — Competitive fishing is nothing new to Dylan Nussbaum, but the rising star on the professional walleye circuit admits he felt more than a twinge of intimidation when he decided to “go for it” and compete on the big stage of the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour.
Nussbaum, 20, of St. Marys, Pa., says he started fishing local and regional walleye tournaments on Lake Erie and other eastern fisheries when he was 10 years old with his dad, Jesse.
Still, competing as a walleye pro on the national level was a big step, he says. Making the move to the country’s premier competitive walleye circuit put him in the same boat, so to speak, as National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame anglers such as Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz, along with a slew of other anglers destined for Hall of Fame status.
“It was actually very intimidating starting out. Seeing all these big names — people I always looked up to and watched their videos on how to catch walleyes,” said Nussbaum, who’s wrapping up his first year of competing on the NWT circuit. “But one thing my dad always told me is just treat them like they’re any other guy out there fishing and just look past the (decked-out boats) and who they are and just go out there and fish.”
That’s exactly what Nussbaum did in late July, when he won the Devils Lake NWT tournament on his first-ever trip to the popular North Dakota walleye fishery. Trolling crankbaits and lead-core line on East Devils Lake above deep rocks in 35 to 40 feet of water, Nussbaum brought 55.43 pounds of walleyes to the scales during the July 26-27 tournament to take home $63,926 in winnings.
In the process, he became the youngest professional angler ever to win a National Walleye Tour event, propelling himself from 50th place to 20th place in the NWT’s Angler of the Year standings and qualifying for the NWT championship set for Sept. 5-7 on Lake of the Woods.
The NWT format pairs walleye pros with different co-angler amateur partners each day on the water.
“It’s been pretty crazy — pretty awesome, actually,” Nussbaum said. “My phone has been blowing up since the tournament was over, pretty much.”
Earning his place
Nussbaum fished all three of the qualifying NWT tournaments, which in addition to Devils Lake were held on Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron in Bay City, Mich., and Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh, Wis.
That alone would have qualified him for the Lake of the Woods championship, but Nussbaum says he wanted to earn the spot with a Top 40 place in the standings and not because he paid the entry fees for all three qualifying events.
Winning at Devils Lake ensured that goal.
“Either way, I was going to make it, but I really wanted to earn my spot by getting in the top 40 instead of buying my way into it,” Nussbaum said. “That was really a big plus for this season for me.”
Becoming the youngest angler to win an NWT event puts Nussbaum among the top young guns in competitive walleye fishing, a roster that includes anglers such as as four-time NWT winner Korey Sprengel, said Chip Leer of Walker, Minn., host of “National Walleye Tour Television” and stage host for all of the NWT events.
“We’re seeing a little bit of a youthful push in the last couple of years,” Leer said. “Tournament walleye fishing at that level is an expensive sport, and it generally has a little bit older demographic. So, it’s been really fun to see the Sprengels and the Nussbaums and some of these other guys that are coming up.”
The guard is changing, Leer says.
“Two things are going on: We’ve got younger guys winning, and we’ve got a whole bunch of old-timers getting inducted into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “You kind of have both things going on at the same time, which is really an interesting time frame in walleye fishing.”
In a word, Nussbaum’s early success is “impressive,” Leer says, adding the young angler has dealt with the pressure like a seasoned pro.
“Being able to fend off a very intimidating group of Hall of Famers and guys with a lot of accolades is pretty hard,” Leer said.
Nussbaum credits much of his success to his dad and support from other family members.
“When I was 10 years old, we started doing tournaments, and we didn’t do very good at our first couple of tournaments,” he said. “I think that’s what drove us to want to do better.”
The father-son team has fished the Cabela’s National Team Championship tournaments the past four years, twice earning “all-American” distinction for their tournament finishes and placing fourth out of some 200 boats in a mid-May tournament on the Mississippi River in LaCrosse, Wis.
“Before this year when I started the NWT, we pretty much had a tournament every single weekend, whether it be in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York or Lake Erie,” Nussbaum said. “We started doing the National Team Championships after we started qualifying on the local circuits, and we actually have done very well.”
As with Devils Lake, fishing Lake of the Woods will be a new experience, Nussbaum says. He’ll test the waters beginning this week to see what he can learn about the big lake before the tournament.
“It looks like there are some huge fish up there,” Nussbaum said. “I’m pretty excited for it. It looks like it’s going to be a fun time.”
In many ways, the Lake of the Woods tournament should play into Nussbaum’s skills for trolling big water. Trolling — whether crankbaits and lead-core line or spinners and bottom bouncers — in the expanse of Big Traverse Bay is the hottest technique going on Lake of the Woods right now, and Nussbaum has honed his trolling skills fishing with his dad on Lake Erie and Pennsylvania’s Kinzua Reservoir, created by a dam on the Allegheny River.
With its flooded roadbeds and foundations, the Kinzua is similar to Devils Lake, Nussbaum says.
“I actually loved Devils Lake — that’s probably my favorite lake to fish now,” he said. “It was so much fun. You could catch fish any different way you wanted to.”
Nussbaum plans to return to his job as a machinist and welder for the winter but says his ultimate goal is a full-time career as a professional walleye fisherman. Following his groundbreaking NWT victory on Devils Lake, a strong finish on Lake of the Woods would help land the sponsors and personal appearances essential to making that happen.
“It was one of my biggest dreams to be the youngest angler to win one of these events, and this year that’s exactly what I did, and it’s pretty much a dream come true,” Nussbaum said. “I really felt like I was ready. I had nothing holding me back. I don’t have a house, I don’t have kids or anything like that holding me back so I wanted to do it while I was young.”
NWT schedule of events
Here’s a schedule of events for the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour championship, set for Wednesday, Sept. 5 through Friday, Sept. 7 on Lake of the Woods.
- Sept. 5-7: Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. each day from the Wheeler’s Point boat landing, returning to Sportsman’s Lodge, 3244 Bur Oak Road NW, Baudette, Minn., for daily weigh-ins that will start at 3 p.m. After the first two days, the tournament field will be cut to the top 10 pro and co-anglers.
- Each day: Triton Boats and Mercury Marine will offer free demo rides in Triton’s 216 Fishhunter boat departing from the Wheeler’s Point boat launch.
- Thursday, Sept. 6: “Future Angler” kids program, 4 p.m., hosted by the National Professional Anglers Association. Event includes a free rod-reel combo or “Future Pro” T-shirt for the first 150 kids who attend. Smokey the Bear also will be on hand.
More info: nationalwalleyetour.com.