Stefan clinches first win with 48-6 on the Mississippi River - Major League Fishing

Stefan clinches first win with 48-6 on the Mississippi River

Image for Stefan clinches first win with 48-6 on the Mississippi River
Matt Stefan sacked up 15-8 on the final day to move from second place into first at Tackle Warehouse Invitationals Stop 6 on the Upper Mississippi River. Photo by Hunter Rud. Angler: Matthew Stefan.
July 27, 2023 • Erik Gaffron • Invitationals

LA CROSSE, Wis. – After more than a decade on the FLW Tour, Pro Circuit and Tackle Warehouse InvitationalsMatt Stefan finally earned his first win. Fishing on close-to-home waters, the Wisconsin pro tallied 15 pounds, 8 ounces on the final day of Mercury Stop 6 to move from second place to first with a 48-6 total. That gave him a 10-ounce cushion over Steve Lopez, who caught 47-12 on the week.

Stefan earned $81,000 for the win, plus qualification to REDCREST 2024. His Angler of the Year finish also earned him an invitation to the Bass Pro Tour.

On the points side, Ron Nelson clinched the Angler of the Year title on the final day, while Marshall Robinson locked up Polaris Rookie of the Year honors. Nelson, Stefan, Keith Carson, Martin Villa, Grae Buck, Nick Hatfield and Robinson all earned invites to the Bass Pro Tour.

Stefan had family on hand for the season finale in his home state.

Career justification for Stefan

“I’m feeling fantastic!” Stefan said. “I mean, this is something I’ve worked for my entire career. To finally have one of these … I kind of feel vindicated. I feel like I’ve justified my career, and from that standpoint, this was something I needed. To finally have it, I’m just ecstatic.”

Stefan was part of a group of anglers who made hay in Pool 7, despite seeing their fishing time there limited due to barge traffic at the lock. Stefan — as well as Lopez, third-place Tom Monsoor and fourth-place Nick Trim — all had to sweat out the final 90 minutes or so on Championship Thursday as they waited for an unexpected barge to make its way through the lock at a rather inopportune time. They made it back to weigh-in with minutes to spare.

“(Going into the final day) I don’t think any of us were concerned,” Stefan said. “The barge traffic app that we have showed no barges. But we got to (Pool) 7, and we saw the first chunk of a big one coming through, so at that point, we knew that we were going to be in there for (at least) an hour and a half. So, then we all kind of went into freak-out mode at that point. I didn’t think we were getting back. I thought there was a lot of money sitting in my livewell that I was going to throw back.”

Matthew Stefan found the winning bag along an eelgrass edge in Pool 7.

Pool 7 produces big

In retrospect, the fish in Pool 7 were worth the risk of being locked out. Stefan found a honey hole and finessed his way to the final Invitationals trophy of the season.

“Going into it I didn’t think I was on anything fantastic,” he said. “But the spot kind of showed itself the first day and that led to something good. I went back to the same stretch (each day). I worked the whole stretch. It’s probably a mile long, so I only made it through one time.”

Stefan found the fish on his stretch to be finicky all week, unable to get them to bite reaction or power baits. So, he leaned on a trusted tactic employed by many Mississippi River hammers: a wacky-rigged stick worm.

“Everything I caught today was on a 5-inch Berkley PowerBait MaxScent The General in black and blue or green pumpkin,” said Stefan. “I switched based on cloud conditions. If it was cloudy, I went with the black and blue. If it was sunny, I fished the green pumpkin. I was just throwing it in the holes, really keying in on any small holes within the eelgrass or on the outside edges.”

While Stefan doesn’t consider himself to be a true La Crosse “local,” he feels he had a massive advantage on the fishery, having cut his teeth in the central part of the state on the Wisconsin River, a place that he finds has striking similarities to the Upper Mississippi.

“I probably get out here maybe once a year, twice a year at most,” he said. “I don’t know it that well, I haven’t fished it since the TITLE championship a couple of years ago. But it is a body of water that I feel like I know very well based on fishing very similar to the river I live on, which is the Wisconsin River. I call it a ‘mini Mississippi’ because it lays out the exact same.”

Stefan had another thing in common with the rest of the top four. Not only did all four of them narrowly make it back from Pool 7 in time for weigh-in, all four hail from Wisconsin. As he and Lopez stressed about the lock situation together, they knew things were going to be as tight on the leaderboard as they had been with timing the lock.

“Steve was up there with me,” Stefan said. “So after we talked outside of the lock, I knew I had a shot. I didn’t think I had it won necessarily. Mike Brueggen could have still gone out and caught a giant bag. But at that point, I started to think, ‘I actually have a shot’. But I wasn’t sure until we actually weighed them in.”

Top 10 pros

1. Matthew Stefan – 48 – 06 (15) – $81,000

2. Steve Lopez – 47 – 12 (15) – $50,000

3. Tom Monsoor – 45 – 14 (15) – $20,000

4. Nick Trim – 44 – 15 (15) – $18,000

5. Jared Lintner – 44 – 07 (15) – $17,000

6. Cade Laufenberg – 44 – 07 (15) – $16,000

7. Mike Brueggen – 44 – 00 (15) – $15,000

8. Cody Meyer – 44 – 00 (15) – $14,000

9. Drew Gill – 42 – 06 (15) – $13,000

10. Tristan McCormick – 42 – 05 (15) – $12,000

Complete results