OTTERTAIL, Minn. -- Mark Courts, a 23-year professional angler out of Harris, Minnesota, is having one of those years where not much has gone wrong on the water.
That’s what it takes to be in the running for an Angler of the Year Award on a national tour against other top professionals. That top spot in the season standings is exactly where Courts finds himself as the Cabela’s/Bass Pro Shops National Walleye Tour gets ready to finish off its 2021 season with its three-day championship Sept. 22-24 on Otter Tail Lake.
“No matter what kind of athlete you are, before game day you always have the butterflies,” Courts said. “I wouldn’t call it nerves. I’d just call it excitement. We’re all there to win the tournament. I think that’s our first and foremost goal. If the angler of the year thing works out, it works out. But I’m going there to win. I’m super excited.”
Courts is currently 12 points ahead of Chase Parsons of Denmark, Wisconsin, and 16 points in front of Alexandria, Minnesota’s Drake Herd in the Angler of the Year standings.
Courts has a total weight of 116.19 pounds for 32 fish and a big day of 27.04 pounds through this tour’s four regular-season events. He started the season taking 15th place in a field of 113 pros in Chamberlain, South Dakota, April 29-30 before taking 20th at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, May 27-28, 13th in Huron, Ohio, June 24-25 and 33rd out of 107 professionals at the final regular-season stop in Mobridge, South Dakota, July 29-30.
Courts has avoided that one really bad day that can send an angler down the season standings against the other top professionals in this field.
“A lot of it has to do with all my great sponsors. I couldn’t do it without any of them,” Courts said. “I feel like I run the best equipment, and that puts me in position to do well...That’s really what it boils down to. Being confident in my electronics and knowing what they’re telling me. My boat running good all year long. My motor being unbelievably reliable. My rods and reels, nothing going wrong. That’s the biggest thing. When you look at an Angler of the Year. You can’t have anything go wrong throughout the year, and really that’s been my year.”
That what he hopes continues as the best of this tournament circuit head to Ottertail next week. The top 40 professionals and co-angler amateurs based on the season point standings are invited to the championship that starts on Sept. 22.
The top 10 professionals and co-anglers after the first two days of this event will compete an additional day on Sept. 24 to determine a champion.
There is more than $100,000 in cash and prizes up for grabs to the winning pro at this tournament. Another nearly $8,000 and additional sponsor bonuses are on the line for the pro who comes away with the Angler of the Year honor.
Courts won the 2015 Angler of the Year Award on this tour.
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“It’s something that just adds to your career highlights,” he said. “It would be a pretty special one. Every Angler of the Year and any title you get in fishing is a big accomplishment. This one would probably mean a little bit more. I’ve had an extra partner all year long. My dad passed away in March. He’s been riding with me all year long.”
Courts has not fished Otter Tail Lake in almost 15 years, but he’s excited about fishing what he called one of Minnesota’s hidden gems when it comes to walleye fisheries.
“It’s not one of the big five ones like a Leech or Mille Lacs, Cass or (Winnibigoshish) or Lake of the Woods,” he said. “It’s kind of that hidden gem where it gets a lot of pressure from people up there, but not the kind of pressure that a lot of the lakes that the rest of the Midwest get.”
Otter Tail Lake will have changed some from the last time Courts was on it. Like some other good fisheries around Minnesota, the infestation of zebra mussels has led to changes in how fish might have used the system years ago.
“A lot of things have changed. Water clarity being number 1,” Courts said. “Whether water is clear or dirty, those fish will move to adjust to that. It’s not like I haven’t fished a lake with zebra mussels before. There’s definitely some things I’ll take into that tournament having the prior knowledge of being on the lake and what the main forage is and what those fish do. It’s a Midwest lake at this time of year. I’ll treat it like just another lake.”
Anglers will arrive in Ottertail almost a week ahead of the first day of the tournament to pre-fish. Courts will be on the water Sept. 16 to try to learn what he needs to know in terms of where the fish are right now.
“A lake like Otter Tail fits me really well. There’s a ton of structure,” he said. “There’s a lot of different patterns that will come out this week. There’s a lot of technology since the last time we were there. I run the best map in the industry, I think, with LakeMaster, and so it’s just breaking down the lake and seeing what transition period those fish are in. This time of year, those fish are transitioning to some of their winter haunts and some of their fall feeding patterns.”
At a championship like this, anybody has a chance of winning. It should make for a fun few days as the best professional and amateur anglers on this circuit battle for a tournament title, and Courts tries to hang on to his Angler of the Year lead.
“What I need to do is finish 12th or better and they can’t beat me,” Courts said of Chase Parsons and Drake Herd right behind him. “Otherwise, Chase has to beat me by 12 points and Drake has to beat me by 16 however the cards fall. My goal is to go out and make the top 10 and not have to worry about it.”