Big catches at Walleye Derby

Team 75 Captain Tom Slawatycki, center, is joined by his crew Jim Dolly Jr., left, and Ben Slawatycki as they show off their Day 3 big bag, which took second place.

The final day of the three-day Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club Walleye Fishing Derby on Lake Erie is the most exciting day of the contest.

Thanks to the estimated Lake Erie walleye population of about 120 million this year, cooperative hungry fish were abundant. Many competitors caught between 25 and 50 walleyes daily. Teams can only weigh three walleyes daily, which made it very difficult since many of the fish were mere ounces different from each other, except for a few. It was “the few” that made a difference in the big bag weight of the day and big fish of the day for competitors who traveled from several states to be in Dunkirk.

Team 39, Lake Effect Charters, with Captain Cody Allen, fished the derby from his home port of Barcelona Harbor in nearby Westfield. Using six lead-core lines of six to 10 colors each, two Dipsey lines and one rigger to measure down deep temp and speed, Team 39 brought more than 200 walleyes to the boat over the three days of competition. The problem was that many of the fish were cookie-cutter replicas of each other, with most of the walleye running 4.9 to 5.2 pounds. His lead core lines were with 50-foot leaders, the Dipsey lines were running at 160-170 feet back with a pinned 50-foot leader, and the hot lures were a pink Renosky and yellow-green Walleye with no worm on either lure.

“It’s a great time to be a walleye fisherman fishing Lake Erie from the Chautauqua County border of New York,” Allen said.

Allen’s team moved between 70- and 140-foot depths, searching for bigger fish. Catching all those fish, they did not place for any cash winnings, but had much fun.

From the left, Mike Ebel, Tom Pirog and Dave Hardy pose with the Day 3 Big Fish, weighing in at 8.53 pounds, which was good for an $800 prize at the Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club Walleye Fishing Derby on Lake Erie.

Some anglers did find bigger fish that paid good cash in the winner’s circle. Brian Plecas caught the heaviest single walleye of the three-day contest at 9.71 pounds, good for $3,000. Dennis Pilar Jr. followed him at 9.59 pounds and second-place cash of $1,500, then David Thompson, at 8.97 pounds, good for third place and $1150. Tom Kroll, Jr. took fourth place with an 8.58-pound walleye, which was good for $950, and Tom Miranda weighed an 8.38-pound fish for $850. Cash winners to 15th place for heaviest walleye, all placed for cash winnings.

Weighing three fish for each of the three competition days, there is also a cash winnings category for three-day total weight. Dennis Pilar took top honors with a total bag for his nine fish tally at 58.24 pounds, good for a $2,000 cash prize. In second place was Tom Slawatycki of Team 75 with 55.87 pounds, good for $1,000. Curtiss Lovelace of Team 89, with 55.83 pounds, took third place for $600. With Team 92, David Thompson took fourth place with 55.77 pounds, good for $500, and Brad Melville, with 54.53 pounds, took fifth place and $400.

Captain Tom Slawatycki, heading Team 75 with his son, Ben and Jim Dolly, Jr., shared his fish-catching secrets this way: “Please share how we fished with everyone, it’ll make ’em better fishermen, and it’s more fun when you’re catching fish.”

Slawatycki’s team placed second for big bag on Day 3, with 20.54 pounds. They ran seven to 10 colors of lead core with 35-foot fluorocarbon leaders and one rigger to check water temp and current speed on the surface and near the bottom. Jim Dolly said that the surface temp was 75 degrees, while the 10 feet off the bottom, fishing in 89 to 93 feet of water, was 65 degrees. They ran 3D worm harnesses in black/pink and nuclear green colors and natural perch color Renosky stickbaits. The Team 75 boat is a Ranger 621, running a supercharged Verado 350HP main engine and 9.9 Mercury trolling motor, keeping rods/reels organized with Traxtech rod holders. Ben Slawatycki reported that among their tactics was following the golden that they learned from Jim Dolly senior — change lures to follow dark on dark days and bright on bright days.

“We changed when the sun came out and scored well,” Slawatycki said.

There were yet more prizes at the event awards ceremony. For the heaviest fish of Day 3, Tom Pirog, Jr. weighed in a nice 8.58-pound fish for a $600 cash reward. With an 8.30-pound fish, Robert Graber took home $500, and Steve Ball cashed in for third place and $400.

Tom Pirog with Team 75 noted: “This NCCC walleye derby is the best fishing contest in Lake Erie. You can win in so many ways, and that keeps all of us coming back and trying harder each time. Yet, the competition is so very good. We all do share at times and learn from each other. We caught our big fish today (8.58 pounds) off the Catt in 96 feet of water using five colors of lead core with a copper/gold Renosky. We use a 30-foot leader behind the lead core and run our rigs trolling at 1.8 mph. This is our third year in this tournament, and we love it.”

Pirog runs a 21-foot Alaska-style Hewes Craft boat with a Honda 225 HP main engine and a 9.9 HP Honda kicker.

Steve Ball with Team 55 brought in a nice Day 3 tally of three fish for a 20.08-pound box. Among those fish was an 8.17-pounder good for $800. Running straight out from Dunkirk, they used lead-core with Renosky and Bomber Long-A lures to score on the fish.

“We fished west for the first two days of the tournament, and today, Day 3, we switched to fishing east of the harbor and did much better,” Ball said.

The awards gathering attracted hundreds of onlookers. Master of ceremonies was the pleasant and cheerful Zen Olow, who handled the microphone and prize-winning presentations. Also with a microphone and radio-clear voice was NCCC President Dwayne Bobik, who managed the raffles and end-of-day burger and grill clearance sale. Everyone was well-fed with affordable $2 hot dogs and $3 cheeseburgers, including a complimentary bottle of chilled water. Participants were well-hydrated.

Each fish that entered the tournament was methodically scanned with a metal-detecting wand. The weigh box was made of transparent plastic material and wiped down with each fish. After each scan, the fish was placed into the weigh box. After one to two seconds, the digital scale provided the weight of the fish in the hundredth of a pound on a bright red readout for all to see. The scorekeeper then announced the weight was officially recorded to the computer, and the tally continued for each team’s three fish. Then a team member signed the score sheet for the calculation and was provided with a printout of the total. The scorekeeper then placed the signature tally in order of sequence received to a manual file. The process was conducted flawlessly for each of the three days of the competition.

Don Ruppert of Team 35 said, “Most teams just couldn’t find the big fish on this side of the border, but we had fun.”

The NCCC contest requires all fish to be caught in the New York state waters of Lake Erie to be eligible for prizes.

The 2023 NCCC Walleye Derby is over, but the 2024 Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club tournament is already in the planning.


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