Winning the 2023 Sunset Bay Shootout is the biggest accomplishment of my fishing career. The other top ten finishes, and even the wins, all pale in comparison. Over the span of my thirty-some-odd years chasing walleyes on Lake Erie, I have been frequently asked what it takes to be successful; my most common response is time on the water, confidence in the program you are running, and attention to detail. In the case of this one particular July weekend, those three pieces of advice and two other factors were key; the unrelenting enthusiasm of a 15-year-old, and a little bit of luck!
An unforgettable moment with a big trophy on the big stage
To Fish Or Not To Fish...
Recently, my work schedule has tended to dictate my fishing schedule, this year has been no exception. I purchased a new boat in May and was so busy that, for the first time ever, I had it mostly rigged by the dealer. The last key piece was rod holders, I picked up my new Muddycreek Tubes and Trees the Saturday prior to the tournament. I fished the boat for the first time on Sunday afternoon, everything worked as expected and we caught fish. Monday morning on the drive to work I was chatting with my 15-year-old son, Wyatt, and broke it to him that I was unsure of fishing the tournament the following weekend because we were going to have zero time to pre-fish. Wyatt didn’t say much, I could see the disappointment on his face. Tuesday at lunch, Wyatt said, “Dad, we gotta fish, you haven’t missed a year yet…..”. That was all the convincing it took! I recruited Wyatt’s turkey-hunting buddy, Will Baker, as our third teammate. I spent the remainder of the week fishing vicariously through friends who were either retired or were using vacation time. By Thursday evening I had sorted through enough information that I felt we had a decent starting point for Big Fish Friday.
If it hadn't been for my son Wyatt's enthusiasm, we may not have ever fished the Shootout
A Very Important Big Fish Friday
The three of us headed out Friday morning and set up on a school of fish that, judging by the boat traffic, was no big secret. The program we set up with was six lead core lines and two dipsy divers. In an attempt to be successful quickly Friday morning, I broke one of my own cardinal rules, I was trying to adapt somebody else’s program to my style of fishing. We did catch fish at that first spot, but nothing that was going to win any money. At 11 a.m., I decided we needed to find something better, so we ran west in the same depth of water hoping the fish we needed had just moved a bit. Blank screen when we set down. Ran a bit further, not much better. I had heard a second-hand report of some good fish out on the Canadian line, a 15-mile run from our current location, we went for broke. When we came down off plane, the screen lit up, nice walleye marks, diving on deep bait, SMELT! The perfect combination. I looked around and there wasn’t a boat within 2 miles. PERFECT! By now it's 12:30, we have 2 hours left to fish, and need to cover some water. I decided to speed up the boat to 2.2-2.4 mph on the GPS, we had 3 rods set and had a fish on, then another, for the next hour and a half we caught over 20 walleyes, the majority were over 5 pounds…… we found our spot for tournament day.
Smelt, smelt, and more smelt with walleyes mixed in! Jackpot
Saturday morning, the forecast is for favorable lake conditions, and after surviving the 164-boat shotgun start we are racing to our spot. The lake is getting rougher by the minute, and the wind direction is 90 degrees off from what it was yesterday. I have to recalculate our starting point to get us as long of a troll possible over our best waypoints without getting blown across the Canadian line which would get us disqualified. Upon arriving at our starting point, the screen is okay, we have plenty of bait but not as many or as big of fish. I don’t let on to my team that I'm a bit rattled, I tell myself to keep calm and we will find them…… I pace a lot if the fishing is tough, well I just about wore a hole in that boat floor. At 9:30, we finally got bit, a 16” walleye, not what we were looking for. Reset that rod, and a couple of minutes later the outside board surges back, that’s a decent fish, 8.1 pounds on the boat scale. That fish totally changed the mood on the boat and was the sign that we had found yesterday’s school. The action was non-stop for 45 minutes, the last 4 fish on that pass were under 20 inches, time to run back. We made 4 short passes on that line, each pass we boated one or two very respectable fish. At about 1:30, we set up on our last pass, about 20 other boats had found our spot by then, frustrating. Looking off to the west the sky was pretty dark, then I heard thunder, 5 minutes later saw the lightning and heard more thunder. Time to go boys!
A solid box to bring back to weigh-in
A Weigh-In I Won't Soon Forget
We made it into the harbor in front of the worst of the storm but we were still soaked, with 160 some tournament boats plus all the weekend boaters in the harbor seeking shelter, I had a full-time job captaining the vessel, so I left it up to my teammates to select our six biggest fish. Wyatt told me he thought we had 35 pounds or so….. not a bad box given the countless 4 and 5-pounders out there right now. Wyatt is a glass-half-full kind of kid, so I figured realistically we had 32 to 33 pounds. Turns out Wyatt was right, and the boat scale was wrong. We ended up with an 8.48-pound big fish, good enough for a second-place big fish tie, and our box was 35.27 pounds overall, beating the second-place team by half a pound!
The Bait That Got It Done
The Bomber Long A 15 absolutely got it done for us. The FishUSA exclusive colors Motion Sickness, Gold Purple Tiger, and Walleye Magic were the biggest producers. The stock color Pearl-Green Back-Orange Belly also put some fish in the boat. I pull the front treble and split ring off the lure, and replace the rear treble with a #4 Gamakatsu 2X Strong Treble Hook. This modification improves the action of the lure and increases the percentage of fish landed.
Our winning baits. You can tell they were thrashed by Lake Erie Walleye on tournament day!
The program I ran during the tournament was five, six, and seven colors of lead core on each side of the boat. One side was FishUSA Stealthcore (18#) and the other side was Suffix 832 (18#). The outside planer board was the shallowest, five colors, middle was six, and inside was the deepest with seven colors. This program gives me the ability to cover the entire portion of the water column that was holding fish. As for leader, Seaguar STS in 20# is what I ran on tournament day.
The leadcore was presented using Church Tackle’s TX-22 planer board, I find that this board is the most versatile. It runs very well at a variety of speeds and handles the heavy leadcore line extremely well.
Thank you all for reading! This is a win I will never forget and am extremely thankful for!