By Mark Lewandowski
The 9th annual Sunset Bay Walleye Shoot Out started for us days before the actual event.
We began our pre-fishing week on Tuesday, opting to work waters from Barcelona to Dunkirk. Skinny water proved more productive in terms of numbers. However, there was not much to show for in terms of size.
The next morning, strong rain moved through so we elected to get some extra rest. We fished Wednesday afternoon out of Cattaraugus Creek, searching skinny water and some deeper points that have been productive in the past. Again, mustering nothing of size.
On Thursday, we decided to run across the lake and fish off Maitland, Ont. the first time our team fished the north shore of Lake Erie. The flat, calm conditions let us get a good look and familiarize ourselves with the structure in the area. There was some colder water being held over that had some better fish. But after fishing Thursday, we felt we were headed in the right direction.
We had planned to fish with a four-man team but needed a fifth to fully utilize the nine-rod tournament limit. I reached out to another friend, Chris Rhodes, whom I met at fishing tournaments through the years. He was able to fish on Saturday, and we planned to take his boat because it was bigger and faster than our Lake Erie boat.
But before Chris was able to join us, we took part in the Shoot Out's Big Fish Friday. We fished similar water off Maitland, but the fish seemed inconsistent. We sort of took fish everywhere in the area — east, west, hard points, muddy flats. We caught a 9.57-pound walleye on a Westfield lure Friday, which was the eighth-largest weighed for Big Fish. We missed the payout by one place.
We didn’t really have a firm game plan for Saturday but more a general area and we knew the morning was going to be a rough run with the forecast. It was 34 miles across the lake. We poked out of the pier heads for the 7 a.m. shotgun start and were greeted with five foot waves. The rough conditions made for a long steam across. We knew of some good fish being caught to the east so some doubt as to whether we were making the right decision started to creep into our minds as we drove. About 2 hour and 15 minutes into the tournament, we had made it to where we wanted to set up.
As soon as we sat down for our first pass, we caught a 7 1/2-pound fish. Near the end of our troll, we hooked a second good fish. It was fought to the back of the boat when it took a hard dive back down. It came up for a second time nearly within range for the net, but the hook popped free. The boat went silent. If you never been lucky enough to experience this, it’s like getting your soul ripped out.
Figuring that we had to start running back at a little after 1 p.m., there was not much time left to fish. We picked up lines and ran back into the waves to make a second pass in a small stretch of water. Immediately when we sat down we caught five nice fish. Wow, what a relief – we have a box. Time to upgrade.
We picked up again and knew we had time for one more pass. We caught two upgrade fish with my father on the reel for both of them. I don’t think our team will ever hear the end of that. The fish came on a mix of worm harnesses and both shallow and deep diving stick baits. No color again really stood out.
At 1:10 p.m., we decided to take a nice slow run back across the lake to be in the pier heads safely by 3:30. We knew we had a good box, but to our surprise, we were placed last in line to weigh in. As the boxes began to weigh in, we knew we would be in the running but heard some rumblings of monster boxes. Did we have enough? Should we have made one more pass and ran the boat back harder?
The last few boxes to weigh in before us were all more than 45 pounds and we were still not positive if we had the weight to overcome them. When our box hit the scale, the nerves were flying.
We all watched as the scale jumped beyond 46 to 46.08. We did it! It was such an exciting moment for our team, knowing we had just won the largest one-day walleye tournament!
Reel Mania, the team of Mark Lewandowski Sr. and Jr. of Lancaster, Dave Miller of Lancaster, Ricky Deubel of Cleveland, and Chris Rhodes of Fairview, Pa., won the grand prize last weekend in a field of more than 120 boats of all sizes. More than 480 anglers from 17 states and two countries took to the waters Friday (known as Big Fish Friday) and Saturday (main event).
Story topics: walleye