The big one

The big one

If you’re an angler, how would you like to catch one walleye worth over $100,000? James Atkinson Jr. of Streetsboro did exactly that last fall, his whopper walleye weighing 12.395 pounds and measuring 31.5 inches.

What has become known as the Walleye Fall Brawl began a decade ago when a group of 50 friends each tossed a few bucks into a pot as a friendly wager to see who could catch the largest walleye. From that simple beginning has steadily grown the largest fishing derby not only on Lake Erie but in the Midwest — and possibly the entire country. 

Brycen Burkhart with fish

Brycen Burkhart of Green, Ohio, placed first in the 2019 Walleye Fall Brawl Kids Division and won $1,000 in prizes.

Man with walleye
Man with walleye in net

The Fall Brawl is coordinated by Frank Murphy of North Royalton, who volunteers his time — lots of it. A fisherman all his life, Murphy says, “I just want to give something back to the fishing community for what fishing has done for me through the years. That’s why there is 100% payback of all the entry fees to the top five derby winners.”
Nearly 8,000 anglers participated last year, and Murphy anticipates as many as 10,000 will this year, each plunking down $30 for the privilege. Do the math, and that’s $300,000 in prize money that gets split five ways.

Here’s how the derby works: Once an angler has paid the entry fee, they then have six weeks to fish as much as they want, anywhere in the Ohio waters of Lake Erie. The 2020 Fall Brawl begins Friday, Oct. 16, at 12:01 a.m., and ends Sunday, Nov. 29, at 8 a.m. “That’s a month and a half of fishing opportunity, including seven weekends,” Murphy points out.  

It’s a one-walleye-takes-all contest, determined strictly by weight. Anglers are allowed to weigh as many walleyes as they’d like, but all the fish must be officially weighed at only one location: Erie Outfitters, a bait and tackle shop located along the south shore of Lake Erie, just west of Cleveland in Sheffield Lake.  

Murphy chooses to hold the derby in autumn for two reasons. “First, because walleyes are packing on weight this time of year,” he says. “They just keep getting heavier as fall goes on, which builds anticipation in the derby week by week. The final few days get crazy, with people fishing nonstop, around the clock. Second, there are constant fishing tournaments on Lake Erie in the spring through summer, but very few during fall, so I thought fall was the perfect time.”  

By the way, those anglers finishing in the top five spots must pass a polygraph test before collecting their winnings. Two of the initial top-five finishers last year flunked and were disqualified, allowing Atkinson to move up and claim the top prize.  “I believe the polygraph requirement is one of the main reasons the Fall Brawl has grown as big and quickly as it has,” Murphy says. “Fishermen know it’s on the up-and-up, and that the rules are strictly enforced.” 
Atkinson caught his winning walleye on the day after Thanksgiving, trolling a plastic minnow-imitation lure he had hand-painted blue. He and a buddy, Matt Bunch, were fishing about 1.5 miles north of Cleveland when the big fish hit. “It was the only fish we caught all day,” Atkinson says.  

Last year was also the first time Atkinson had entered the Fall Brawl, which goes to show that anyone can win — it only takes one fish. You don’t necessarily even need to be fishing from a boat. Most years, at least one of the top-five anglers manages to catch a winning fish from shore. 
If you’d like to try your luck in the 2020 Walleye Fall Brawl, registration is open. Details can be found at their website.