Matthew Branigan shows off his 14.97-pound walleye, which just might win the Lake Erie Fall Brawl, which ends Sunday. (Craig Lewis, Erie Outfitters)

Matthew Branigan took the whole week off to fish for walleye, in the last week of the Lake Erie Fall Brawl contest. And this morning his time paid off, when he caught a nearly 15-pound walleye, one of the largest ever caught in Ohio waters.

“We knew it was a big fish for sure,” said Branigan, 31, of Strongsville. “It was heavy. It had big head shakes, big pulls… We got the net under it and started celebrating. I’m sure people heard us from a mile away.”

With his 14.97-pound catch, Branigan is now in the lead to win the Fall Brawl, a competition of 3,700 anglers that began Oct. 20 and ends Sunday at 8 a.m.  It’s the seventh year for the Brawl, which began with 50 guys who threw a couple bucks in a pot.

The winner gets a $75,000 Warrior 193 fiberglass boat, with EZ loader trailer and Evinrude motor; the next four finishers walk away with tens of thousands of dollars in prizes.

“With so much money on the line for second, third, fourth and fifth, it’s going to be a grind right to the end,” said Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters, which will stay open all night Saturday to weigh entries. “Literally, that leader board — I’m a betting man — I would bet it’s going to change in the next 24 hours. It’s really exciting. I’m shaking.”

The Ohio record largest walleye weighed 16 pounds, 2 ounces, and is on display at Lake Erie Nature Center in Bay Village, Lewis said.

The winner of the Fall Brawl last year was just over 12.8 pounds. But the Brawl has never had a walleye this big.  

The walleye population in Lake Erie is healthy and will be for at least the next 15 years, thanks to bumper hatchings, experts say. 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.

And there are plenty of boats still fishing in the Brawl.

Branigan, who works for an industrial supply company, was on a Warrior boat inside the breakwall by East 72nd Street Marina this morning, with his friends Tyler Berthold, Anthony Dickard and Ryan Olson.

They headed out about 7 and had eight rods going. They were catching fish when about 8:30, Branigan caught his massive walleye with a Bandit crankbait.

“We actually thought we might be on a log at first until we picked up the rod,” he said.

Then, once they realized what they had, they got the boat out and drove straight to Erie Outfitters, where all fish in the contest must be weighed.

Branigan, who has lived in Cleveland for about a year, credits his catch to his friends, who he calls “true great fisherman.”

He likes fishing, he says, because it’s relaxing and challenging, and he learns something every day.

“What did I learn today? If you have great fishing partners, you’re going to get on the right fish. You just gotta keep grinding.”