PORT CLINTON, Ohio – Note to Jeff Graves’ friends: Ask him to buy you dinner. The Chagrin Falls, Ohio, angler was planning on entering the Lake Erie National Guard FLW Walleye Tour event as a co-angler, but his friends coaxed him into fishing on the professional side. It’s a good thing Graves listened.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into. I just kind of did this on a whim. This is a big-name event with some very talented anglers and I didn’t think I could hang with the big boys,” he said.
It only took one tournament, but Graves can count himself among those big boys. He weighed a 34-pound, 13-ounce limit today for a three-day total of 117 pounds, 6 ounces. It was enough to take home the first-place trophy and a check for $50,000.
He did virtually the same thing as the rest of the pack – trolling crankbaits. In fact, he was fishing the same general area the past three days that included an estimated 100 boats yesterday. Heavy fog blanketed Erie for much of the day today, making it impossible to count the traffic, but Graves said it seemed just as crowded.
“We’d be trolling along and all the sudden there’s a boat right in front of you. My partner was real good at pulling in the lures so we could avoid getting tangled,” he recalled.
Along with a capable partner, Graves figures the key to his victory was a combination of subtle ingredients that helped him weigh 15 fish over three days that averaged nearly 8 pounds.
“I was trolling 800 Series Reef Runners in copperhead and raspberry dolphin that dove to about 28 feet. I didn’t use any weight but I did a lot of zig-zagging. All of my bites were coming on the turns,” said Graves, who boated seven fish throughout the day.
Keenan comes up just short
Tom Keenan also brought in a strong limit. It weighed 34 pounds, 8 ounces, putting him just a pound and an ounce behind Graves with a three-day total of 116 pounds, 5 ounces. Keenan, however, had what could have been the winning walleye in his hands. He figured the fish weighed an estimated 8 pounds, which possibly would have bumped his weight up by the pound he needed to win.
“It was foul-hooked, so I had to throw it back,” he said.
Keenan’s co-angler partner, Daniel Leach of Linwood, Mich., said Keenan didn’t think twice about returning the fish to the water. Ironically, the fish would have helped Leach win the Co-angler Division. He ended up in second, as well.
“Tom’s got to be the most honest man in the world. He could have put the fish in the box and maybe won the tournament, but he immediately threw it back,” said Leach.
While most of the top-10 finalists shared the same water with a throng of other boats all three days, Keenan found his own water. He fished with the crowd early today and caught a quick limit, but went hunting for big fish by himself. While most of the anglers were concerned about finding clearer water, Keenan wanted dirty water.
“The dirtier the better. As long as I could find the right combination of temperature and color and I marked fish, I knew I could catch them,” he said.
Although Keenan ended up catching 15 walleye today, he just couldn’t get anything over the 7-pound mark, except, of course, for the one that was foul-hooked.
“I’m extremely disappointed. I’ve placed second in tournaments the last three out of four years, so I was really hoping for a win today,” he said.
Despite his disappointment, he didn’t make any bad decisions and he didn’t lose a single fish that bit today. It was, he admits, just the way goes with professional walleye fishing. In fact, he caught more walleyes today than the past two days combined. Most of the fish came on Reef Runner crankbaits he pulled at speeds between 1.8 and 2.2 miles per hour. The biggest fish, including those that helped give him the heaviest limit of the tournament yesterday at 46 pounds, 6 ounces, came when he made wide “S” turns. The lures on the outside bends seemed to catch the most fish.
Keenan motioned to the trophy presented to Graves and said the handsome walleye statue will serve as a motivation for the next tournament. Although he won’t be taking home the trophy this time, Keenan walked away with $22,500, which includes a $1,000 Ranger Cup bonus and a $6,500 engine bonus.
Day-one leader Danny Steffens slipped to fourth after the second day, but moved up to third place overall today. He’ll take home $11,000, which includes a $1,000 Ranger Cup bonus. He also caught a limit. It weighed 34 pounds, 6 ounces. All of his fish came on trolled Reef Runner crankbaits.
Best of the rest
Fourth-place angler John Balla of Bartlett, Illinois took home $11,500, including a $1,000 Ranger Cup bonus and a $2,500 engine bonus after catching 98 pounds, 11 ounces. Shawn Ritchie of Ohio placed fifth with 94-8 which earned him $7,000. Sixth-place pro Scott Geitgey, also of Ohio, took home $6,000 after weighing 94-4 over three days. Mark Brumbaugh placed seventh, followed by Keith Kavajecz of Wisconsin. Michigan angler Jeff Vereeke came in ninth and Mark Gwizdala rounded out the top-10 pros.
Szymczak wins Co-angler Division
“Jeff and I worked as a team. We really gelled. He was just a great individual to fish with,” said Scymczak, who was also fishing his first FLW Walleye Tour event. “The whole experience was incredible. I had three great pros. All of them were fun to fish and very professional.”
Daniel Leach of Michigan placed second in the co-angler division, followed by Todd Rairigh, Tim Depooter, John Speigel and Mike Taylor, who came in sixth. Jim Milewsky of Iowa took seventh. Tyrone Larson came in eighth, followed by Mike Bentz and Dale Janota of Wyoming.
The next National Guard FLW Walleye Tour event is scheduled to take place June 9-11 at Leech Lake in Walker, Minn.