Cappelli cooks up victory, brings home trophy

Pro walleye angler Sammy Cappelli combined intuition with talent and experience to cook up a major victory in the deep-freeze Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit tournament last week on the Illinois River.

Cappelli added another major trophy to his collection at home in Poland thanks to his ability to endure terrible weather and figure out the Illinois River walleyes and saugeyes.

He and teammate Tony Karrick of Chicago sacked a two-day limit of 10 walleyes and saugeyes weighing 21 pounds 5 ounces to win the tournament contested in sub-freezing temperatures and 20- to 30-mph wind gusting to more than 40 mph.

The brutal conditions played a significant role in Cappelli’s game-day decision to look beyond conventional wisdom that a jig bite would prevail on the Illinois River.

During practice days prior to the tournament, Cappelli said he decided success with vertical jigging was going to require precise control of the speed of the drift. If the boat was going too fast, the baits wouldn’t stay in the strike zone. If the drift was too slow, the baits would grab the snaggy bottom.

With the wind making boat control difficult, Cappelli opted to use his experience with lead-core line to troll Bandit and Rapala lures. He drew on previous visits to the Illinois River with his wife Rhonda and Youngstown friend Anthony Naples.

“Nobody pulls lead core on the Illinois River, but two years ago Rhonda and I figured out the lead-core bite and last year Naples and I found a spot where we crushed them,” Cappelli said. “I learned lead-core fishing on Milton and Mosquito.”

He and Karrick also had to overcome many competitors with local knowledge.

“MWC gets the best walleye anglers from 25 to 30 states as well as local experts. To win on the Illinois River you need to beat the river rats who know every boulder in the river.”

Weather and commercial barge traffic were major players, too. “The last two hours of the tournament were in a blizzard whiteout,” he said. “The Illinois is only about half as wide as the Ohio River, but has a ton of barge traffic that can really mess with you.”

His practice days produced catches weighing 13 to 16 pounds, which Cappelli guessed would be enough to put him and Karrick in contention.

Day one brought strong wind that made fishing their primary spot difficult, so Cappelli ran to two back-up locations. “We caught them good and culled to 9 pounds 6 ounces.”

Day two dawned with a wind chill of 11 degrees, which made a 55-mph boat ride feel like minus 30, so they settled on a nearby area that attracted a lot of other competitors. To avoid the crowd, Cappelli positioned the boat over eight feet of water.

“We used floating Rapalas, but we got most of our winning catch on a new prototype 2-inch Bandit. Sometimes we had four fish on at once,” he said.

With one hour remaining before weigh-in, Cappelli made a move. “I told Tony, ‘I know you’re cold and your hands are frozen, but let’s run to our other big fish spot.’ In 5 minutes, Tony said ‘I got one.’ I could see it was a big fish.”

Cappelli netted the 3-pound walleye and dropped it on the floor, “We’re done” he told Karrick. “We have a chance to win this if the other teams stumbled.”

He guessed correctly. Their 11-pound 15-ounce second-day catch was enough to claim first place. In addition to other prizes, the Cappelli team won a paid entry and travel expenses to the 2024 National Team Championship, which Cappelli won in 2017, and the 2024 world championship in which he finished fifth in 2022.

The winning Bandit lure will soon go into production in a bright new color named after Cappelli’s nickname, Sammy the Bull. The paint scheme mirrors the sponsor wrap on Cappelli’s Vexus walleye boat.

Jack Wollitz’s book, “The Common Angler,” is an immersive look at why anglers are passionate about fishing. Send a note to jackbbaass@gmail.com


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