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Fall Brawl: Sheffield Lake fishing derby inspires intense angling

Fall Brawl: Sheffield Lake fishing derby inspires intense angling
October 28, 2020 James Proffitt

Editor’s note: Some corrections were made regarding Virgil Tent’s role in Fall Brawl on Oct. 31, 2020.

Anglers as a group are generally nice people – polite, kind, generous and peaceful. But throw out a couple high-end, super-sweet fishing machines and stacks of cash, and they’ll brawl hard. For six weeks.

The 10th Annual B’Laster Fall Brawl began at 12:01 a.m Oct. 16 and runs through 8:00 a.m. Nov. 29. It’s likely to get nasty: gale-force winds, snow, sleet, big waves, numb toes and fingers, and long, sleepless days and nights, as 12,087 people fish the Ohio waters of Lake Erie in the Great Lakes’ greatest fishing tournament ever.

“This is year number 10,” explained organizer Frank Murphy. “About 50 of us got together and threw a few bucks into a pot and it’s turned into this. Almost 8,000 last year, year nine.”

In one 24-hour period, just a few days before the entry cut-off, more than 1,000 people signed in-person and online entry forms, forking over their $30 – a paltry sum considering the odds. Prizes include two premium boats by Warrior and HewesCraft worth $170,000. Third, fourth and fifth-place finishers will receive $75,000, $65,000 and $55,000 respectively.

lake erie A big, fast, cozy Hewescraft boat, one of the two big prizes, on display at Erie Outfitters recently. (Photo by James Proffitt)

Dozens of other prizes are also offered by sponsors, from tackle and angling-related companies like Bay Rat Lures, Cisco Fishing Systems, and Grime Stoppers. Also, a charitable angle is synonymous with the fishing derby. Fundraising efforts include donation check-off boxes on entry forms, sales of 2020 Fall Brawl memorabilia, high-value banquet raffles and significant cash donations.

The Brawl’s sprawling public service net is cast wide and includes Berea Animal Rescue Fund, Wounded Warrior Project and Friendship Animal Protective League as well college scholarships and a food banks drive. Charitable proceeds are expected to exceed $40,000.

The event’s popularity has grown exponentially. In 2015 just 728 anglers fished while the next year it was 1,600. It quadrupled over the next three years. This year anglers hail from 30-plus states – all plying the waters of Lake Erie for big-trophy, big-money fish.

In search of the monsters

Charter captain Virgil Tent operates FishCrazy Charters and is registered in Fall Brawl. Tent said he’ll be searching for the big ones too. Night fishing used to be the best time for lunkers, according to Tent, but things change.

“Ten years ago the night bite was the thing, and we really didn’t fish more than two miles offshore,” he said. “At night they’ll come in tight and trap baitfish against the rocks, coming in close. Then they could head out and travel seven, 10 miles. Basically they’re looking for the warmest water and for that you’d be looking 30 feet down, 16 miles out on the lake bottom right now.”

But getting in on the action doesn’t have to mean getting on a boat.

A state-of-the-art Warrior boat is grand prize, valued at $100,000. (Photo by James Proffitt)

“When I started fishing for walleye back in ’98, ’99, I started casting from shore. The biggest fish I caught from shore was 12.5 pounds,” Tent said. “That kind of fish could put you in the money. But when you’re casting, your lures are only going to be in the water during the time you’re reeling them in. When you’re trolling three rods if you’re alone you have three lures in the water 100% of the time.”

But it only takes one fish, he said.

“If I catch 200 12-pound walleye, and you only catch one and it’s 13 pounds, you win,” Tent pointed out.

Where are the big fish – and who are they?

“I’ll predict the Brawl winner this year will be from the 2003 year-class, and those will be the majority of the trophy fish. But the 2007 and the 2010 year-classes contribute also,” said Travis Hartman, a fisheries biologist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “It’s not uncommon to see fish up to 20 years old, and we’ve seen them up to 26 years old.”

He said at 10 years, female walleye run in the 28- to 29-inch range, weighing 12 pounds or more.

“But really, most of the giant fish are usually 12 to 17 years old,” he said, going on to explain the fastest-growing fish don’t often make it past 17. “The fish I believe live the longest are the smaller, slower-growing fish.”

Brawler Lee Anderson displays a catch alongside one of the sponsors’ products, Grimestoppers. (Photo provided by Fall Brawl 2020)

Hartman’s been in the derby since the beginning, picking up fourth place in 2010 with a 12.35-pound fish. “Of course it was way different than now. I think it was $300 or $400 I won, compared to the tens of thousands it is now.”

The professional fish student said he’s always enjoyed late autumn fishing, so plans to hit the water heavy in the coming weeks.

“When we get bright weather, calm days when it’s like 50 degrees, you get the best days of the year. Brawl or not, I use vacation days during this time to fish,” Hartman said.

And Hartman was generous with the not-so-secret science he uses to zero in on lunkers.

“Based on a lot of our surveys, walleye eat gizzard shad in the fall, they’re absolutely feeding on gizzard shad. I troll crankbaits the size of shad and use my sonar to locate schools of bait and hope to get the walleye that are feeding on those,” he said.

Shallow-water night fishing can be especially rich grounds for walleye chasing baitfish and thus for shore anglers.

“If the gizzard shad and emerald shiners are coming inshore, they’re looking for food. The shad are always looking for the warmest water they can find this time of year, and the nearshore water is usually warmer and those shad are piling into it. That’s when the walleye are coming in and accessible,” Hartman explained.

“The shore guys, especially at night, have just as much chance of winning this time of year,” he said. “However, in the spring I can tell you where they are and how to catch them, but the fall is absolutely dictated by weather. Obviously as a Western Basin guy, I hope the weather cools down and the walleye move back west. Only time will tell.”

According to Hartman, dark nights and cloudy skies are his favored conditions. As far as crankbait colors, he prefers pink lemonade and blue Hawaiian patterns, going on to say the wrong bait in the right place always beats the right bait in the wrong place.

Two Brawlers, Cedar Point in the background, casting from boulders in the early morning hours at Lake Point Park in Marblehead. (Photo by James Proffitt)

For shore-bound anglers looking to hook into a big walleye, there are plenty of places to fish, from the Michigan line to the Pennsylvania line. Docks, break walls, piers, bridges – anywhere that can be legally and safely accessed should offer anglers great opportunity.

Murphy said several shore anglers have either won or placed in the money, though not in the most recent derbies. But that could change with a single cast, he said. Plus, there’s the coolness of it all.

“When those fish are in, I’ll tell you, it’s something,” he said. “I’ll go down there sometimes and walk around I talk to the guys and say ‘Hi!’ Most of them know me because I’ve been doing this for so long. I’ve been up in Lorain during the Brawl and those guys will set up a little community, they’ll have a little tent set up. They’ll have grills set up, everybody brings hot dogs, burgers. They’ll bring a pot of chili. It’s evolved into something way beyond what I ever thought.”

The biggest fishes must not be fishy

Brawlers can check the derby website each day to see the current leader board, which helps prevent needless trips to Erie Outfitters to present big hauls. But just because you walk through the door with a giant walleye, don’t go thinking you did well yet. Everything has to pass the smell test.

Craig Lewis and staff crank out registrations, and bait and tackle sales, at Erie Outfitters in Sheffield Lake. The site truly is Fall Brawl central. (Photo by James Proffitt)

“We have to do that,” said Tent, who runs the Lake Erie FishCrazy Walleye Derby in the spring. “The two derbies are the only ones which both have a mandatory polygraph test. Every time you deal with someone who ended up cheating, it’s always a surprise because it comes from someone you wouldn’t have suspected. Last year they polygraphed the top five at the Brawl and they had three that failed.”

Because of the diligent and extensive nature of confirming winning fish, fortunes can change quickly.

The last three Fall Brawl winners all came toward the end of the tournament, in the Cleveland area. The trio of lunkers weighed in at 12.4 and 13.7 and 14.97 pounds. The Ohio state record walleye was taken in November 1999, weighing in at 16.19 pounds and 33 inches. A week and a half into the Brawl the current leader is a 30.5-inch ,10.9-pound walleye.

A one-of-a-kind event

Jake Geiss operates an auto repair facility in Port Clinton. He entered the 2018 event but skipped 2019.

“I was just too busy with the shop,” he said. “It just takes too much energy and dedication. In 2018 I probably fished an extra ten days because I entered. But some guys fished nonstop. Now there’s people coming in from out-of-state for the tournament, like Wisconsin and Iowa, all over.”

But this year Geiss is sick – with walleye fever. Busy though he is, he entered. Like Tent, Geiss said he believes trollers have better odds.

“You’ve got one cast and they’ve got at least four to six, covering water, constantly moving, so I think there’s way less advantage on the bank,” he said, voice rising as he visualized a shore angler besting all the boats. “But hell yes, it’s actually way, way more fair to see someone bank fishing win it.”

Chris Clemons operates Lakeland Charters in Port Clinton and has been helping folks catch fish on the lake for four decades. He registered in the 2020 Fall Brawl but said he’s not exactly in it to win it.

“I’m not that serious about it, but I have friends of mine, fellow anglers, they’re crazy about it. They’ll go out four or five nights a week,” he said. “And my son loves to do it, so if I sign up I can go out with three or four guys on a boat.” Rules require all persons in a boat to be registered for any fish caught from that vessel to be eligible.

Clemons praised the event for the one-of-a-kind buzz it’s created each autumn.

“It’s pretty amazing. The whole business model they created generates a lot of income in the region from Port Clinton to Cleveland and beyond,” he said. “Guys are buying boats and trolling gear and buying lures, and they’re casting off the shorelines and piers. It’s really a big deal.”

No matter what happens, who wins with what fish and when and where, Murphy said, it’s not a bad $30 investment, all things considered.

“Look, you go to the gas station and fill up your truck and you buy a pack of smokes and a pair of $10 lottery tickets,” Murphy opined. “You spend thirty seconds scratching them off and you didn’t win anything, you throw them away. I say you buy a Fall Brawl lottery ticket. It recharges itself every day for like 45 days. Your odds are better than a scratch-off because that’s over in seconds. With a Fall Brawl ticket, you can fish as much as you want and your odds are whatever you want them to be.”


Read more on Lake Erie and fishing on Great Lakes Now: 

C+: Western Lake Erie receives mediocre score on new report card

Offshore Decline: Great Lakes fish populations at risk from low nutrient levels

COVID-19 Catches: Social distancing doesn’t stop Great Lakes fishing

Walleye: Lake Erie population skyrockets. Again.

Yellow Perch, Emerald Shiners: Diet change might have led to drop in fish catches


Featured image: A trio of Wisconsonites return to dock on the Vermilion River after 20 hours on the water during the first two days of the brawl. (Photo by James Proffitt)

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