By Brett Carlson
HURON, Ohio – After a wild, windy tournament on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, the National Walleye Tour, presented by Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s, is primed for another Great Lakes shootout. Instead of casting to rock piles and grinding for a handful of bites, the trolling sticks, planer boards, and long landing nets are expected to get heavy usage on Lake Erie. In other words, the third event of the 2021 season, held June 24-25, promises to be a catchfest. The challenge on Erie is finding something, anything, that will attain separation from a tight field of the best walleye anglers on the planet.
Last October, the NWT launched out of Huron for its year-end championship. In that three-day tournament, Hard Core pro Jason Przekurat won with just over 73 pounds, averaging roughly 24 pounds per day. The consensus is that 24 pounds a day won’t be enough to bring home the hardware this year, and it’s not even close.
“The numbers are going to be good,” said Ranger pro Mike Defibaugh, who won the 2017 NWT event on Erie. “The number of fish in the system is just astounding; it will boggle your mind. The weights have been strong this spring and early summer too. I think it will take mid-to-upper 60s to win this tournament. It’s not in the same ballpark as last fall. The 2015 class, that’s what a lot of these nicer fish are. They’re now nine months older, and they’re bigger.”
Defibaugh currently sits second in the Lucas Oil Angler of the Year race, trailing only Minnesota’s Drake Herd. While Defibaugh, who lives in Bellefontaine, Ohio, is excited to be competing on his home water, locating and staying on top of the 7- and 8-pound kickers can be taxing.
“The bigger fish are going to be more challenging, but not like last fall. No one really unlocked those bigger fish and that was odd. Those big fish were absent, or they just weren’t active (at the championship). I still don’t know what happened, but this spring, they were right back there again. They spawn in the western basin and then move their way back east. Right now, they’re sitting and holding where there’s bait, and then they continue the migration east, feeding along the way. Eventually, they want to live out east in the deeper water.”
At a recent local event, Defibaugh said seven bags over 40 pounds were weighed, and 37 pounds didn’t even cash a check. On the other hand, the recent warm weather might be pushing the fish along their migratory routes faster than usual.
“I think you’re going to see more long runs this June than last fall. The wild card is a really big run out east. In perfect conditions, 120 miles each way is not out of the question. I don’t want to make that run, but I’d rather fish for two hours on winning fish than spend eight hours on fish that aren’t giving me a chance. If that’s what it takes, I’m not going to hold back. Angler of the Year is the same way. If I focus on it, it’s going to impact the way I fish. I’m not a conservative fisherman, and I’m not going to fish that way.”
When Przekurat won last year, he trolled deep-diving crankbaits. This year, crankbaits such as Reef Runners, Bandits, and Deep Husky Jerks are again predicted to be major players. But trolling spinners with night crawlers could be equally popular.
“I think it will be almost 50-50 with cranks and spinners,” said Przekurat, fresh off a fourth-place finish at Green Bay. You can put spinners down until your arms fall off, but sometimes that means you’re dealing with smaller fish. I think there’s going to be guys doing both, and I also think there’s an opportunity to do well with a spinning rod in your hand.”
Defibaugh agrees with Przekurat and believes the jigging bite has potential.
“I’ve been in the top 10 before after day one without touching a trolling rod. It is possible, but the reef complexes are so big, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It’s hard to get locked in on something specific, but it is possible. The tournament I won in 2017 – four of my fish came on a jigging rod. I will spend some time (looking for a jigging bite), but I also have to accept the fact that there’s a lot of structure out there.”
Przekurat sees the mega easterly runs as a similarly intriguing, but risky gamble.
“Those east fish are suspending walleyes that are relating to nothing. They’re just swimming around and chasing bait. It takes time to locate those kinds of fish, and when you’re running east, you just don’t have that much time. Could a person go west and catch a big bag? Absolutely, but it’s not as likely.”
“Lake Erie is a huge body of water, and you can drive as far as you want and catch fish,” concluded Defibaugh. “There’s not a direction you can go and not catch fish. The problem is that these fish are moving, and they’re going to continue to move. Maybe one day you’re on 6- to 8- pound fish, and then the next day you only get 20 pounds in the same place.”
“It’s going to come down to doing your homework, driving around and finding out where those big fish live,” Przekurat said. “It’s going to be fun catching; we’re going to catch a pile of fish. But it’s going to be difficult figuring out how to get that separation.”
Anglers will take off each day at 7 a.m. Eastern time from the Huron City Boat Ramp, located at 41 Cleveland Rd. E. The daily weigh-ins will also take place at the Huron City Boat Ramp, 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 four regular-season events and a no-entry-fee 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.