Bill Hilts Jr.: Great Lakes tourneys dominate local fishing scene | Outdoors

Fishing tournaments aren’t for everyone. Competition and fishing don’t seem to go together for some. However, tournaments do have an important place in the world of fishing, be it for bass, walleye, salmon, trout, and even carp on the local fishing scene.

The first weekend in June is now a bit of a tradition for anglers in both of New York’s Great Lakes – Lake Ontario for the Skip Hartman Memorial Niagara County Pro-Am Salmon Tournament out of Wilson and Olcott, and Lake Erie for the Western New York Walleye Classic out of Barcelona.

A tournament is not like a derby in which you are looking to catch one big fish. The focus is to catch multiple tournament-legal fish for one or two days, depending on the event. To be the eventual winners, anglers must employ a certain strategy and hope it works out. And if that doesn’t happen, adapting “on the run” and taking what the lake (and Mother Nature) will give you can be an important key to success. A little bit of luck or maybe a touch of divine intervention can also help get you to the finish line.

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In the Skip Hartman Memorial, the West End Sportfishing Team won the two-day contest from start to finish in the Professional Division led by Capt. Tyler “Taz” Morrison of Wilson. He was joined by Capt. Mike Johannes of Cambria, Matt Tall of Wilson and Dayton Campbell of Wilson.

West end

West End Sportfishing won the Pro Division of the Niagara Pro-Am last weekend. From the left are Capt. Mike Johannes, Capt. Taz Morrison, Matt Tall and Dayton Campbell, all from Wilson.

“We targeted offshore water out of Wilson in about 400 feet,” Morrison said. “We caught our fish on a mix of neutral color spoons, flasher/flies, and a few cut bait rigs in the top 60 feet of water. The temperature broke off very fast. Our program was double divers between 80 feet and 160 feet back and riggers down 30, 45 and 60 feet. We also caught fish on five colors of lead core line. Spoons took the most bites at 30 and 45 feet.”

After the first day on Friday, the West End squad was in first place. A small craft advisory on Saturday postponed the tournament to Sunday.

“We felt good about the blow day because the only water that doesn’t change much is the offshore water,” said Morrison. “We went right back to our spot from Friday, and our fish didn’t move at all. The blow day was an advantage because it made other guys overthink their strategies and we didn’t change a thing. Mike (Johannes) and I have been charter fishing and working together for a long time. Everyone worked together flawlessly and that was a huge part of winning the event.”

The tournament limit was 12 salmon and trout each day, and West End limited out each day. Based on 10 points per fish and a point per pound, the West End crew totaled 409 points to win more than $10,000. The team narrowly defeated Dublin Up, led by Capt. Carl Martin of Pendleton, with a score of 396 points. Third place was Capt. Rob Wescott and Legacy with 379 points, followed by Capt. Vince Pierleoni and Thrillseeker with 366 points, and Tony Chatt and 5 More Minutes with 365 points.

In the 28-boat Amateur Division, the Mean Machine team led by Kyle Hovak of East Amherst took top honors with 205 points. Also on the team were Tom Milleville of Sanborn, Mark Waselauskas of Broadalbin, John Bielicki of Clarence and Steve Warren of Lake George. The winners dedicated their victory to Hovak’s father, George, who passed away last fall.

They paid attention to detail and might have had a little help from above, too.

“Wind played a big factor Friday,” Hovak said. “We set up in 200 feet of water west of Wilson and rode the waves east. We were running baits deeper on riggers/divers and longer coppers 300/400 feet out. We picked up a decent king right away and picked away at cohos. When it laid down a bit, we worked our way north and hit some fish in 300 feet of water to finish the day. We had a couple good rips on the 10-colors of lead core, which helped us make a change. We ran all spoons except the deep meat rigger.”

The team was in eighth place after the first day.

For Day 2 on Sunday, the Mean Machine decided to target that 300-foot area and run more long lines.

“Fortunately, the southwest wind allowed us to troll north,” Hovak said. “We ran six long lines – four to 10 colors of lead core line, one rod of 200-copper, one rod of 300-copper – using all spoons. We kept one rigger deep with a meat rig and picked up a 15-pound king. Our big fish weighed 19.89 pounds and it came on the 200-copper rigged with a magnum Pro King.

“All the big fish were on a north troll. We fished between Wilson and Olcott in 300-400 feet of water all day. It was a great win as my dad passed away last fall. It was tough not having him there this year. We won it for him.”

Runner-up in the Amateur Division was Keith Heitzenrater and his Hawg team with 195 points. Third place was Josh Wittkop of Lyndonville with Pole Dancer, scoring 185.89 points. Fourth place was Reely Tryin’ led by James Wing of Williamson with 185.28 points. James Spinelli of Wellsville and Hound Dog placed fifth with 178 points.

Meanwhile on Lake Erie out of Barcelona, the 2022 WNY Walleye Classic was the first major event of the season on the lake and hosted by Josh Larson and his staff from Primitive Patriot Outdoors.

Every big bite counted for the 43 teams fishing the event, looking for the best six walleyes at least 20 inches long. Team Wave Tamer, crewed by Capt. Don Ruppert of Angola, Scotty Wind of Hamburg, Art Wind of Hamburg and Jim “Silver” Kuwik of West Seneca, figured out a program that was labor intensive but productive. Fishing off the edge of Van Buren reef in 42 to 47 feet of water, they ran deep diving Bandits on five color lead core line to maintain contact with the bottom.

Wave Tamer

Wave Tamer was the winner of the WNY Walleye Classic. Left to right: Art Wind, Capt. Don Ruppert, Jim “Silver” Kuwik and Scotty Wind. 

“We knew we would lose baits and we knew we would re-tie leaders often,” said Ruppert, “but we had to keep our presentations on the bottom. Trolling direction also played a major role as the big bites came on a north troll. We would troll for 1.5 miles north bound, break it down, run back to our starting point and reset. It was a lot of work, but that’s what produced the quality bites needed. Kuwik dialed in the specific two-color patterns of black/green as well as Northern lights.”

The winning weight for Wave Tamer was 31.71 pounds. A close second was Eye Con led by Rob Oram of Angola with 31.65 pounds, just .06 pounds away from the win. Third place was Darin Baron’s Fishin’ Traditions with 28.8 pounds, followed closely by Kyle Kokanovich’s Ship of Fools with 28.78 pounds and Bud Marsh’s Crazy Eyes with 28 pounds.

Oram’s team had a bit of bad luck. On Saturday, Oram and his team had a dry cooler of fish with no ice. “When there is no ice or cooling at all, the fish dry out and lose moisture,” said Oram. They probably lost some weight.

Scott Spier of Springville and his Fishin’ Nutz team won the Saturday Big Fish category with an 8.25-pound walleye.

On Big Fish Friday, the Eye Con team caught a 9.2-pound walleye. However, the team was unable to make it in under its own power and wasn’t allowed to weigh in. Bud Marsh with Team Crazy Eyes won the day with a big fish weight of 8.83 pounds.