At 12:01 this morning, more than 3,700 anglers began their quest: to catch the biggest walleye in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie.
It’s the seventh year for the Fall Brawl, which began with 50 guys who threw a couple bucks in a pot.
Now entrants come from more than a dozen states, filling up hotel rooms and lighting up the lake. The winner gets a $75,000 boat, with all the trimmings; the next four finishers walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in prizes.
“Nice nights, you won’t find a place to park a trailer,” said Frank Murphy of North Royalton, who organizes the tournament every year. “At East 55th, all you’ll see is lights out along the shoreline. It’s crazy how many people do this.”
This time of year, as the water cools and sends fish swimming toward the warmer shallows, you can catch giant walleye off a pier, as well as on a boat. The walleye population in Lake Erie is healthy and will be for at least the next 15 years, thanks to bumper hatchings.
“This time a year, you could fish 24 hours a day and catch something,” said Murphy, 60, who has been fishing since he was about 8 years old. “The further we go in the season, the more you’re going to catch fish.”
Lake Erie is known as the Walleye Capital of the World, for a fish with teeth, that anglers like the taste of and like the thrill of catching.
The Fall Brawl runs through Dec. 3.
Participants must be registered and pay a $30 entry fee. To be considered for prizes, they must take their catch to Erie Outfitters in Sheffield Lake to be weighed.
The winner last year was just over 12.8 pounds. In the past, the fish have weighed more than 14 pounds.
“When somebody’s got a fish that’s worth a lot of money, they don’t lollygag,” Murphy said. “They want to get it in before something goes wrong.”
And, if their fish ends up being one of the biggest, they must submit to a polygraph test.
A few people have failed the test, Murphy said, but it keeps the competition honest and encourages serious sportsmen and women to take part.
With smartphone photos and social media, the contest has taken on the feel of a reality show, he said.
Anglers post photos of their catches on the Fall Brawl Facebook pageeven before they get the hook out of the fish’s mouth.
“It’s real time nowadays. That adds to the appeal,” he said.
The Facebook page helps anglers get to know each other. And if they’ve got open seats on their boats, they can invite other participants, creating new friendships.
The competition has also netted new volunteers for the competition, and new sponsors, such as Valley View-based B’laster Corp. and Cleveland-based Cisco Fishing Systems, donate goods Murphy raffles off at events to raise more cash for prize money. Everything paid into the competition is paid out.
The Warrior 193 fiberglass boat, with EZ loader trailer and Evinrude motor, was heavily discounted, Murphy said.
The whole idea is to give back to the fishing community.
“It’s right at the end of the year thing,” Murphy said. “I figured it would grow. I was extremely happy with how it really took off this year.”