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Bill Hilts Jr.: Walleye Reaper narrowly wins Innovative Outdoors Challenge

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walleye challenge

Capt. Frank Schoenacker, of Ashville, holds up a 7.88-pound walleye that was big fish in the Innovative Outdoors Walleye Challenge last weekend. 

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If the Walleye Reaper team picked a favorite song for the 2022 Innovative Outdoors Walleye Challenge held last weekend out of Dunkirk, it would have been “Never Been Any Reason” by Head East. With nearly 50 teams vying for the title, the three-person team of Tyler Hale, of Cherry Creek; Isaiah Swerdon, of Ashville; and Steve Shoup, of Gerry, did what they needed to do by catching six walleyes with a total weight of 34.79 pounds to win the one-day contest in a tight race to the finish.

“There has never been any reason for us to head east during this tournament in late August,” Hale said. “However, that’s exactly what we did this year. We found some good spots during practice the week before, though, and we focused our efforts in 75 to 90 feet of water as far east as Silver Creek.”

Their approach was simple, using 7 and 8 colors of lead core line, downriggers, and divers, as they mixed up their lures – small Michigan Stinger spoons, Worm Burners and Renosky stickbaits – and switched things around when the fishing slowed down. The strategy worked.

“We worked as a team,” Hale said. “We caught over 60 fish on Friday, so we had a good idea where and how we wanted to fish. We just had to be patient. We’ve gone west my whole life, but this time we went east, and it paid off.” They only caught about 25 fish Saturday, but it was the best six fish among tournament competitors by a fraction of a pound.

Sitting in second place at the end of the day was the Current Obsession team consisting of John Lignos, of Orchard Park; Tom Leman, of Grand Island; and Tom’s sister, Beth Salansky, of Hamburg. Their best six fish weighed in at 34.54 pounds, just a quarter of a pound back of taking top honors as they finished second for the second consecutive year.

“It was the teamwork that really made a difference for us, tournament after tournament, year after year,” said Lignos. “We all get along. Everyone has a job to do. That’s a major factor for our success.”

Current Obsession had found some fish straight out of Dunkirk, but when the tournament’s main event came, they found the fish had moved a little east. They were targeting suspended fish 50 to 60 feet down over 80 to 90 feet of water. Their approach involved six and seven colors of lead core line and divers back 190 on a No. 2 setting. Green and black worm harnesses did the trick, both the EyeFish and Ultimate Outdoors offerings.

Third place was a fraction of a pound back, too. The Ice Breaker team, consisting of Randy Jaroszewski, of Hamburg; Ron Kozub, of Hamburg; William Curtin, of Orchard Park; and Dave Salvalzo, of Derby, did some running to find big fish – from Conneaut, Ohio, to Cattaraugus Creek. They settled in at Erie, Pa., where they recorded their biggest catch, a 40-mile run with the shotgun start Saturday morning. However, when they arrived, the screen was blank. The fish had moved.

“We went into panic mode,” said Jaroszewski. “We started to search and finally found them around 11 a.m. when we caught our first fish. We ground it out the remainder of the day and ended up right back where we started.” Stickbaits became the bait of choice for bigger fish, using 5 to 8 colors of lead core line.

“We were also using divers with a Smart Troll probe to help us keep the baits in the fish zone and at the thermocline where we were marking fish on our Garmin electronics,” Jaroszewski said.

At the weigh-in, the Ice Breaker squad collected a six-fish weight of 34.19 pounds, .35 pounds back from second and .60 from first place. It came right down to the wire … and the scale.

Rounding out the Top 10 teams were Hawg Hunters (Joe Papalia) with 33.49 pounds; Pole Dancer (Tom Miranda) with 33.45 pounds; Eye-Fish (Jim Klein) with 32.66 pounds; Catch the Best (Chuck Pohlman) with 32.57 pounds; Scary Good (Rob Ebersole) with 32.45 pounds; Creative Woods (Bryan Dusenbury) with 32.44 pounds; and Mac Attack (Daryll MacNeil) with 32.14 pounds.

In the battle for big fish in the Main Event, the Infinity-CRO team had a good story to tell. The team, consisting of Frank Schoenacker, of Ashville; Mike Sperry of Lakewood; and Howie Moore, of Jamestown, was fishing the tournament out of Schoenacker’s 25-foot Pro Line Model 25 Walk. On Big Fish Friday, the big motor was acting up and it would shut down at a higher RPM. They made the cautious decision to fish with their smaller kicker motor right in front of Dunkirk Harbor. Near the end of the day for the “appetizer” contest to the main event, they caught their biggest fish. They headed in immediately, not knowing how long it would take them to make it to the weigh-in line.

They made it in time and the fish was 7.88 pounds, just .02 from the money. The Friday contest only pays the top three. First place was Triple Threat (Pete Szklanka) with 8.48 pounds, followed by Fish Missel (Jim Taggart) with 8.05 pounds, and Penn-Demic (Stephen Sheldon) with 7.90 pounds.

Schoenacker pulled the cowl off the big motor, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that he had a small kink in the fuel line, something that must have happened when he did some maintenance on the motor earlier in the week. The motor was fixed. What would they do for Saturday?

The team decided to fish the same spot that produced the big one the day before. They caught a couple of good fish and then they hit a big one that they finally netted at the back of the boat. On the hand scale, it registered at 7.9 pounds in the boat. After that, the action slowed, and they didn’t put a good enough box together. They ended up in 37th place. However, they did weigh in their big fish. Official weight on the walleye was 7.88 pounds – the same exact weight as the fish the day before. This one took top honors for the Main Event.

Second place for big fish was the Eye Con team with 7.84 pounds, followed by Erie Obsession with 7.68 pounds, Ice Breaker with 7.49 pounds, and Pole Dancer with 7.46 pounds.

Hats off to Jim and Diane Steel, with Innovative Outdoors, who put together another great challenge, just a few days before the National Walleye Tour Championships that took place in Dunkirk.

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