Published By OutdoorsFIRST Media Published March 24, 2017
by Brett Carlson
HURON, Ohio - The most lucrative tournament trail in professional walleye fishing returns to action April 12-13 as the Cabela's National Walleye Tour visits the western basin of Lake Erie for what is expected to be a slugfest of epic proportions. The nationally televised season-opening event features the biggest names in the sport as they compete at a venue known for producing the biggest catches.
Lake Erie's reputation as the walleye capital of the world is safe for the foreseeable future after three successful spawning seasons. More pertinent to the upcoming tournament is the 2003 year class, a class that features walleyes that now weigh between 9 and 13 pounds. A mild, ice-free winter has allowed anglers to target these fish by boat and the results have been impressive.
"It's been some of the most fantastic fishing you've ever seen," said Ronnie Rhodes, a charter captain who operates Fin Tastic Walleye Charters. "It has been just incredible. The fishing is great right now and the future for Lake Erie is looking excellent."
Rhodes reported the current water temperature is between 32 and 34 degrees. The weather leading up to the tournament is critical as the big females are on the cusp of the spawn, which typically takes place in mid-April and coincides with the full moon.
"If the weather stays cold, I don't think you're going to see many fish that have spawned. They will be full of eggs and you'll see some really big bags. There have been a ton of 12 and 13-pounders caught this winter. Even some 15-pounders have been caught."
Jason Przekurat, the 2016 National Walleye Tour Championship winner, is eager to begin his title defense.
"It's been a busy winter for me, so I'm ready to get to Erie," said the Bone Collector-Hardcore pro. "When you think of Erie, you think of a slugfest. I'm so ready it's ridiculous. This is the first time we've been there this early in a long time. Providing the conditions are good, we're going to crack some huge bags. Seeing some 50-pound bags won't be surprising.
"The funny part about Erie is that it's not hard to catch fish," continued Przekurat. "But once you start catching 7s, you better be looking for 8s. Once you've found 8s, you better be looking for 9s. And once you've found 9s, you better be looking for 10s. It's possible to catch a 40-pound bag and be sitting in 30th place."
Both Rhodes and Przekurat believe the season opener will be a trolling tournament, with crankbaits playing the lead role. Rhodes has had success with the new Reef Runner Skinny Stick while Przekurat prefers the Berkley Flicker Minnow.
"Casting and vertically fishing can be done, but trolling is what we do here," said Rhodes, who has guided on Erie for more than 15 years. "It's the most efficient way to catch the bigger females."
"The big fish we target in tournaments do not hang out on structure; you're just not dealing with the right fish," added Przekurat, who took fifth last year at Erie. "It's a trolling bite and the rule of thumb is when the water temp is over 50 degrees you pull out the spinners. So, unless the weather changes, I see it being a crankbait tournament. The key is to find the prespawn or spawn fish. On a good-sized fish, that can be a 2-pound difference, which is huge. Last year I caught a 27 1/4-incher that weighed 9.3 pounds because it was full of eggs. I ended up not weighing a 29 1/2 because the 27 weighed more."
Fishing as a pro-am team, anglers are permitted to keep six fish and weigh their best five each day. All accessible water is in play - including Michigan, Ohio and Canada. Traditional areas, such as Kelleys Island, Pelee Island and the Bass islands are expected to be popular. However, last year, Ranger pro Tom Keenan headed east towards Lorain and came home with the title. From Huron, the run to North Bass Island is between 35 and 40 miles. In ideal weather, that's manageable, but Erie oftentimes delivers treacherous 4- and 5-foot swells.
"The weather is everything on Erie," said Rhodes. "This time of year, it can be nice or there can be a freak snowstorm. As always on Erie, Mother Nature will dictate where we can go. If it blows from the east, it can get rough and it can also be a tough bite. If the weather holds like it is, you'll need every bit of 45 pounds a day to win. And it should take more."
"I'm not going to say it will take 100, but I wouldn't be shocked if the winner hits 100," concluded Przekurat.
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Eastern time from the Huron Boat Basin, located at 417 Main Street in Huron. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the Huron Boat Basin, beginning at 3 p.m. The full field fishes each day with the winner in each division being determined by the heaviest cumulative weight.
The National Walleye Tour consists of three regular-season events and a year-end championship. Each regular season event is a two-day, pro-am tournament and delivers over a 100 percent payback. Pros compete against other pros, and co-anglers compete against other co-anglers.
Registration is ongoing for the Lake Erie event. The deadline for guaranteed entry (by signing up with a pro or co-angler) is March 27th. The last day to register for the event is Monday, April 10th. Registration can be taken over the phone at 501-794-2064 or online by visiting www.nationalwalleyetour.com/tournaments/register/. For more information on rules and tournament payouts, visit www.nationalwalleyetour.com.