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Bill Hilts Jr.: National Walleye Tour vists Lake Erie waters at Dunkirk

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Mike Yarema, left, of Phoenix, N.Y., and Craig Sleeman of Victor, hold up a couple of walleyes from an earlier National Walleye Tour event. They both qualified for the championship in Dunkirk.

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The pinnacle of the walleye world – the Cabela’s Bass Pro Shops National Walleye Tour Championships – will be invading the waters of Lake Erie out of Dunkirk in Chautauqua County next week, Aug. 24-26, and the walleye world will be watching.

The first two days will determine which of the 40 pros will be competing for the big prizes – three fully-rigged boats and cash awards – on the final day. The top 10 pro anglers (as well as the top 10 co-anglers) will participate in the final championship day. 

Adding to the excitement will be a couple of local anglers who passed the qualification test. Craig Sleeman of Victor is a regular on the Western New York walleye fishing scene when it comes to competition fishing. The former winner of the Sunset Bay Walleye Shootout (in 2017) made the leap to the National Walleye Tour as a full-time fisherman this year for the first time. He has fished several individual tournaments on tour in the last two years.

“The word excitement is an understatement,” said Sleeman, who calls his boat the Midnight Express – a 21-foot Ranger 621 with a 350 horse Mercury outboard on the back. “I’m just happy I don’t have to drive 1,600 miles to fish this. I think bringing the best 40 walleye anglers in the nation to our home body of water is going to be a challenge. They are definitely going to catch some big fish, but consistency is going to be the word for the week."

The road to the championship isn’t easy. Four qualifiers were held this year, starting in the Detroit River in Trenton, Mich. That was followed by events in the Missouri River in Chamberlain, S.D.; the Mississippi River in Prairie du Chien, Wis.; and Green Bay in Marinette, Wis. Points are earned at each event with the top 40 scorers invited to the title tourney.

Sleeman didn’t do it alone. A good friend of his is Mike Yarema of Phoenix in Oswego County. When the National Walleye Tour announced its 2022 schedule last fall and Dunkirk was the site of the championship, the duo agreed to work together to try to get Sleeman to qualify. Yarema signed on as a co-angler to fish all four tournaments and share in the driving duties as well as the expenses. It’s not cheap to make these long trips across the country. In the end, it was mission accomplished.

However, the story didn’t end there. If you believe in the saying “what goes around comes around,” the planets aligned for Yarema, too. During the final tournament in Green Bay, he won the luck of the draw and earned a first-place win in the co-angler section, giving him enough points to qualify for the Dunkirk dance, too. Co-anglers are placed on the boats of the pros by random draw.

Holding the championship in Dunkirk didn’t come easy, either. Dunkirk Mayor Wilfred Rosas did some research about the walleye tournament series and reached out to the National Walleye Tournament staff about two years ago because he believed this type of tournament would be attractive to not only local fishermen but to small businesses in the City of Dunkirk and surrounding areas.  Even though NWT had its tournament schedule full in 2021, the organization asked to have the championship in 2022 out of the Holiday Harbor launch ramp with a weigh-in to follow on the Dunkirk Pier in the City of Dunkirk.

“Fishing is extremely important to our community on Lake Erie,” Rosas said. “We have tried to support this popular sport with at least six big tournaments held here locally. No state grants or government money was used to fund this national tournament. We relied on our local generous sponsors to fund this project for the event to be brought to Dunkirk.”  

Based on preliminary economic impact figures provided, the tournament will generate more than $200,000 to the local economy. However, that’s only a small piece of a much bigger picture. The tournament will be aired on CBS Sports Network, Pursuit Channel, Fox Sports North, World Fishing Network, Wild TV Canada, Comcast Chicago and a host of digital platforms. The promotion is huge, all focused on Dunkirk and eastern Lake Erie.

“Our goal is to do a good job with this nationally televised event on the shores of Lake Erie and in the City of Dunkirk,” Rosas said. “We would love to have the anglers return with their families and spend quality time together while visiting and supporting our local businesses and all-year attractions.”

Events begin Sunday with a meet and greet with some of the walleye pros from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Clarion Hotel field in Dunkirk (adjacent to Tim Hortons).

The fishing action begins at 7 a.m. each day (Wednesday through Friday), concluding with weigh-ins at 3 p.m. at the Dunkirk Pier. The public is invited to attend the daily weigh-ins. On Thursday, following the weigh-in, there will be a Future Angler Fishing Clinic starting around 4:30 p.m. at the City Pier. This will be free for kids and a great way to pick up some fishing tips from some of the best anglers in the world. When that is over, the Pier Summer Concert Series will take over with some live entertainment.

Any of the 40 pros are good enough to win this competition, and it will be interesting to see where the pros will go and how they will fish. There are no boundaries as to where a boat can travel, as long they fish within the time allotment. Best five fish each day will determine the winner over the course of three days of fishing, and culling (replacing a smaller fish with a bigger fish) is allowed because they use livewells on the boats.

There will be live coverage of the weigh-in each day if you can’t make it in person. Check out the website at nationalwalleyetour.com

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