PORT CLINTON — Fishermen are very tight-lipped about their secrets. They wouldn’t tell you where Jimmy Hoffa was buried, even if, unlike everyone else, they knew.
But John Gillman, the Michigan angler who won the Cabela’s tournament on Lake Erie last weekend, is a glaring exception to that rule. When asked how he managed to catch five fish in one day that averaged better than 10 pounds a piece, Gillman spilled his guts, so to speak.
“I’ve got nothing to hide, so I don’t mind telling anyone everything about what we did that day,” Gillman said about his Saturday catch of 51.7 pounds that shattered the single-day record for the Cabela’s National Walleye Tour. “With technology the way it is, everybody knows everything, so I don’t see any reason not to share what worked so well.”
After the first round of fishing got postponed Friday by high winds, Gillman set out Saturday morning around 7 a.m. from the tournament starting point at the West Harbor public launch on Catawba Island and made a beeline for the water off Avon, about 50 miles east.
In his scouting runs in the days prior to the tournament, Gillman had found plenty of big fish near Pelee Island, but they were not big enough.
“We clobbered them at Pelee — we probably had 20 fish in the 28 to 30-inch range, but none of them were over 9½ pounds,” he said. “So we went east, where the same length fish went 10 to 12 pounds.”
Gillman said he based his destination selection partially on what he knows about the historical migration patterns of Lake Erie’s biggest walleye, from west to east as the water warms each summer.
“The key here is finding those big fish, and we were much more dialed in on that than the general public would be because this is what we do — we fish every day, and we have the best equipment on the market,” Gillman said.
About 8:15 a.m., he was in the water off Avon, west of Cleveland. Gillman located the precise area he wanted to fish using Lakemaster map cards, groundbreaking technology from Humminbird that can put you on top of a precise location on the big lake. Gillman was looking for certain high points in structure that he felt would be holding lots of baitfish after Friday’s big blow, and with those baitfish would be the monster walleye.
“I would not have found those spots without Lakemaster,” he said, “since you have to hit them exactly right.”
Although a die-hard spinner guru, Gillman trolled Reef Runner crankbaits because he was convinced that was what it would take to catch the biggest fish at that place and time.
Gillman does not troll with a gas engine, since he is looking for quiet operation and precision in his speed. He put his baits in the water next to the boat, then clicked his Minn Kota electric trolling motor up at one-tenth of a mile-per-hour intervals until he found the speed that produced the ideal action on the lures.
Gillman utilized the Minn Kota “i-Pilot Link” — through a remote control that he wore around his neck — that allows the trolling motor to communicate with both the fishfinder and the LakeMaster digital GPS maps. That gave him the capability to store information on productive locations, then return to those exact spots.
“The precise speed is critical, and with a gas engine it is very hard to feel the subtle changes in current or speed,” Gillman said. “You can’t just put your stuff down in the water and start trolling.”
Gillman had four huge fish in the box later in the day when the lake laid down and he switched to fishing spinners, and he moved off the structure a bit. He used one-ounce rigs and fished them 55 feet back at 1 mph.
“They were very close to the bottom, and I got a 30-incher, and then a 28 and another 28,” Gillman said. “That is like getting hit by lightning.”
Gillman fished with Sunline Super Natural fishing line, with 16-pound test on all of his trolling lines. He uses Gamakatsu hooks and fishes out of a Ranger boat that is pushed along by a 300-horsepower Mercury power plant.
“I’m very fortunate to have the best of the best in equipment,” Gillman said.
Six of the top seven finishers in the Cabela’s event were fishing that same patch of water off Avon, Gillman said.
“That will tell you the caliber of fish that were there — unbelievable. We were all there, but on that day, I was lucky enough to outfish those guys. On a lake like Erie, it is abyss fishing, but when you can pin them down on structure like that, you can put a beating on them.”
When the pros return to Erie, however, Gillman expects to start all over again with his search for the megafish.
“We hit it just right and had the day of a lifetime, but who knows, in a couple days or a couple weeks, those fish will all be gone, moving on to different water,” he said. “And next year, it will all be different.”
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