LORAIN, Ohio — Catching Lake Erie walleye wasn’t a problem during the Cabela’s NTC Team Tournament Championships on Thursday through Saturday, with a flood of small fish now dominating the Lake Erie walleye population. Sammy Cappelli of Poland, Ohio and Erick Williams of Hubbard, Ohio, however, caught the 15 that counted most, including a final-day limit of five walleye weighing 37 pounds, 11 ounces to win the rich event.
Williams and Cappelli posted a three-day total of 15 walleye weighing 107 pounds, 3 ounces to score the biggest walleye win of the national walleye tournament season, taking home more than $175,000 in cash and prizes, including a couple of Ranger boats.
The huge tournament field of 251 two-angler teams had been trimmed to the top 25 boats for Saturday’s final day of fishing, and Cappelli and Williams had their work cut out for them. They were third in the standings, about four pounds behind Greg Clayton (Massillon, Ohio) and Don Lint (North Lawrence, Ohio), who had a two-day total of 73 pounds, 2 ounces.
On a windy day, Cappelli and Williams boated the heaviest limit of five walleye for an impressive 10-pound victory. Clayton and Lint slipped to 8th place, weighing only 11 pounds, 5 ounces. James Hough (Osceola, Indiana) and Dustin Clark (Lima, Ohio) moved up to second with 97 pounds, 3 ounces. Michael McCardle and Marc Brook (West Bend, Wisconsin) were third with 96 pounds.
Notable Ohio finishers were: (Paul Kerr (Lowellville, Ohio) and Brian Davis (North Canton), 6th with 90-14; Jason Kopf (Avon Lake, Ohio) and Rodger Riggs (Cleveland, Ohio), 16th with 81-01; Jay Gullett and Billy Robinson Jr. (Willard, Ohio), 17th with 79-03; Michael Zwilling (Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio) and Charles Wagner (Volant, Pennsylvania), 19th with 78-03; and Brandon Baker (Avon Lake, Ohio) and Cole Carlson (Avon, Ohio), 23rd with 71-04; and Timothy Johnson and Jason Zsebik (Vermilion, Ohio), 24th with 67-08.
“We were not really nervous going into the final day of fishing,” said Williams. “I told Sammy, ‘Let’s just go out there and fish.’ Our goal before the tournament began was to make the cut to 25 on the last day, giving us a shot at the big prize. We just stayed with the same program we’d used the first two days, and it worked.”
The windy weather made it difficult to troll with the diving plugs, spoons or spinner rigs most tournament walleye fishermen rely on for big catches. While some anglers raced to the Bass Islands, and beyond, in the quest for big walleye, the winners focused on a few small pockets of walleye in the Lorain area.
“We fished for three days and burned just 16 gallons of gasoline,” said Cappelli. “We had a solid program, and the gear we needed to make it work.”
The pair trolled at 1.7- to 1.8-miles per hour, using Off Shore planer boards to take the fishing lines away from the sight and sound of the boat. Using 3-ounce snap weights on the lines forced their diving plugs to run close to the lake bottom, where some big walleye had gathered. The most productive crankbaits were Bandits in the pink lemonade and cheap sunglasses color patterns.
“A real key were the orange Tattle Flags we installed on the yellow Off Shore planer boards,” said Williams. “The flags are sensitive enough to show if a small walleye, white perch or white bass was hooked, allowing us to crank in the lure and release the small fish. Without the Tattle Flags, we’d be dragging around small fish like so many other fishermen, lures that should have been catching big walleye.”
On the final day, the winners had a 10-pound walleye in the live well, as well as a couple of 8-pounders and a 3-pounder at about 10:30 a.m. They desperately needed to upgrade a small 15 1/4-inch walleye if they were going to win.
“The dream for both of us has been to win the Cabela’s national team championship, the year’s biggest walleye event, and we needed that last big walleye to make it come true,” said Cappelli. “We bumped up our trolling speed just a little bit as we moved over a hump in 37 feet of water, one of the small hot spots we had on our GPS, and the planer board went south. Erick was on the fishing rod like a shot and carefully brought in the 10-pounder.”
The thrill of landing the winning walleye was timely, they said. The Cabela’s camera boat was monitoring the leaders, putting the talented Northeast Ohio tournament fishermen in the spotlight. The tournament was being filmed for national television on “Americana Outdoors” on NBC Sports, the Pursuit Channel and other regional networks. Dates and airtimes will be announced at walleyefederation.com.
Williams and Cappelli have a couple of local tournaments left on their schedule, and a busy winter of rigging the pair of Ranger boats they won this week. Williams is hoping he and his son, David, 12, can wrap up their season by winning the Ohio Walleye Cup. It is the crown jewel of the Ohio Walleye Federation, and father and son have been chasing the title for three years.