GRENADA, Miss. | Major League baseball has known it for years. Now major league crappie fishing knows it, too.

Never underestimate the Yankees.

Waterloo native Tommy Skarlis and partner Kyle Steinfeldt of Waverly attracted some curious and maybe even amused looks from other anglers during the days leading up to the 2013 Crappie Masters National Championship on Grenada Lake last week.

By Saturday afternoon, they were the talk of the crappie fishing world after an impressive performance that earned them the title of national champions. Skarlis and Steinfeldt weighed in a two-day tournament limit of 14 crappies for 27.83 pounds to edge partners Cory Batterson and Cody Batterson of Des Moines by nearly two pounds for the title.

Sponsored by the Do-It Corporation of Denver, where Steinfeldt works as a product sales manager, and by Off-Shore Tackle, Skarlis and Steinfeldt took a tried and true tactic that has helped Skarlis win several of professional walleye fishing's most prestigious titles and adapted it to crappie fishing. They trolled Berkley Flicker Shads and Salmo crankbaits on Off-Shore planer boards and targeted suspended crappies they located with the help of their Humminbird electronics and that unit's side-imaging feature.

"The fact that we did a bunch of stuff we'd never done before and with the learning curve and the newness of it all ... I don't know if I truly understand the magnitude of this feeling," said Skarlis, whose only previous crappie tournament experience was earlier this year on Lake Rathbun where he and Steinfeldt qualified for the championship.

"It's a sense of accomplishment and pride that I've felt very few times in my life, at least as far as my career is concerned. The only thing I can say is I am feeling truly blessed."

Skarlis and Steinfeldt won two fully rigged Nitro Z7 boats, as well as a big fish prize of $1,344 for the 2.67-pounder they boated on the second day of the tournament. The Battersons, a father-son team, earned $10,000, a MinnKota trolling motor and a $3,000 youth scholarship for Cody.

"I don't think it set in right away," said Steinfeldt. "I couldn't grasp what we did exactly. Later, it was just like, 'Wow, we just won the crappie national championship. I feel blessed and honored. It was just a very surreal experience."

It all began on something of a whim earlier this summer.

"We saw there was a crappie tournament at Rathbun, and kind of out of the blue we decided we were gonna go try it," Steinfeldt related. "It was just something new. There was a big learning curve. We both like fishing for walleyes and stuff, but crappies we didn't know much about."

Skarlis called on a couple of friends to learn the art of spider-rigging, where anglers employ umbrella rigs featuring multiple baits trailing from wire harnesses that imitate schools of baitfish.

"I got to spend a day with a couple of crappie legends in Oklahoma -- Todd Huckabee and Barry Marrow," said Skarlis. "It was a blast, and I wanted to do it again."

So, they entered the Rathbun tournament. Skarlis rigged his boat with a couple of extra rod holders, but he and Steinfeldt needed places to sit in the front of the boat.

"We were staying in a trailer, so we borrowed a banquet chair and a vinyl, retro dining room chair with tassles on it," Skarlis related.

Using small Do-It and Hutch Tackle jigs tipped with Berkley Power Bait Ripple Shads, among other things, Skarlis and Steinfeldt went through approximately 100 crappies in the qualifier and finished 12th.

"We had to look like a couple of hillbillies, but we spider-rigged our way into the championship," said Skarlis.

Thanks to the Battersons, Skarlis and Steinfeldt went to Mississippi with a measure of confidence.

"They've been fishing crappie tournaments for awhile, and they've won Rathbun a few times," noted Steinfeldt. "Five years ago, they went to Grenada and had the biggest basket on the second day trolling crankbaits."

Overall, it was a tough bite with the reservoir drawn down to accommodate work on the dam, but that played right into the Iowans' hands. Instead of a situation where the crappies were packed into the brushpiles for the spider-rigging experts, they were suspended in deeper water.

During the days leading up to the tournament, the Iowa teams fine-tuned their presentation. At first, they were only catching three or four good crappies a day. But by slowing down to around 1 mph, adjusting the sizes and colors of their crankbaits and getting their lines far from the boat with planer boards, they had a plan by tournament day they knew was a winner.

"I got a kick out of the local boys down there," said Steinfeldt. "They're not used to seeing planer boards. They were making fun of us pulling our 'mail boxes' around and calling us Yankees."

Only seven of the 192 teams in the championship managed seven-fish limits both days of the tournament.

And nobody did it better than the Yankees.

"I don't think it set in right away," said Steinfeldt. "I couldn't grasp what we did exactly. Later, it was just like, 'Wow, we just won the crappie national championship. I feel blessed and honored. It was just a very surreal experience."

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.