July 23, 2006 by Gary Mortenson
CLEVELAND - Throughout the entire week, Lake Erie did everything in its power to put its stamp on the four-day Stren Series Northest Division event. And today was no different. After wreaking havoc on the field over the first three days of competition, Lake Erie made sure to save its best for last. Not only did anglers have to battle driving rains for seven straight hours, but the top-10 finalists in Saturday's competition also tangled with a combination of 7-foot waves, high winds and even a few waterspouts. Yes, waterspouts. And like the first three days of tournament action, Lake Erie claimed yet another first-place qualifier - actually, make that two. Kevin Bishop, who was leading the Pro Division heading into today's finals with a 21-pound, 2-ounce sack, only managed three fish in today's competition, falling all the way down to seventh place by the time weigh-in had concluded. "It was tough out there," said Bishop. "We saw two waterspouts today, and one went right over our boat. But honestly, I didn't lose any fish that hurt me. I just didn't get the bites today. Overall though, I had an awesome week." Throw in the saga of day-three co-angler leader Stephen Semelsberger Jr., who carried a nearly 4-pound cushion into the finals only to wind up losing by almost 5 full pounds, and it was clear that Lake Erie was the ultimate arbitrator in today's competition - as usual. Vatalaro survives game of attrition When the rain finally settled down at about 5:30 p.m., one pro was left standing on the podium in first place - hometown favorite Vic Vatalaro of Kent, Ohio. Bolstered by a two-day catch of 38 pounds, 10 ounces, Vatalaro claimed victory as well as his third Stren Series title on Lake Erie - a remarkable accomplishment to say the least. "I never thought I'd win my second title on Lake Erie, but to win a third one, that's just out of control," said Vatalaro, who walked away with the title as well as a brand-new Ranger boat and cash and prizes totaling nearly $65,000. "It was a long, hard ride, and it was really rough out there today. The funny thing is that I almost played it safe and stayed close (to the marina). But in the end I decided to go for it. But I'll tell you, I'm really tired right now. I'm completely worn out." Like seemingly ever angler to venture out onto Lake Erie this week, Vatalaro also managed to return to weigh-in with quite a story of his own. After making a brutal, 55-mile run, Vatalaro discovered that a number of boaters from a Wal-Mart BFL tournament were holed up on his prime spot. "I thought I was in real trouble when I got there, but the guys were great and let me fish," said Vatalaro. "But even still, I only had about two hours and 15 minutes to fish because I really wanted to make sure that I got back in time." With a decent sack in the boat, Vatalaro decided that he couldn't risk staying any longer and departed. "I still didn't think I had enough to win because I figured the fish were biting for everybody. And to be honest, I was hoping to God, at that point, I had enough time to get back," said Vatalaro. "It was really rough out there until I got about 25 miles away. And then, I finally started to relax." Unfortunately for Vatalaro, Lake Erie was far from done with the Ohio native. "So we get to about three miles away from the marina, and I run out of gas," he said. "Luckily, I knew I'd saved some gas in my second tank. So I switched tanks, and wouldn't you know it? We ran out of gas again with like three-quarters of a mile to go. At that point there was nothing to do but hook up my trolling motor and try to get back in. And that's what I did. I trolled all the way back in on Lake Erie. Can you believe it? And to top it off, I got back with five minutes to spare!" Vatalaro, who has now won Stren Series titles on Lake Erie in 2001, 2003 and 2006, said he targeted smallmouth bass on deep ledges near 30-foot drop-offs with a combination of Mizmo Goby imitation baits, Berkley minnows and "thin" worms. "But I think the key was fishing with light line," he said. "I was using 10-pound-test line early in the tournament and wasn't catching anything. But after I switched to 6-pound-test, I started catching them." In the end, after battling the elements and overcoming seemingly every obstacle thrown his way, it was clear that Vatalaro earned every penny of his winning check. "Like I said, it's just been an unbelievable week," he said. Balog finds bittersweet success Although Joe Balog of Harrison Township, Mich., is one of the most accomplished anglers on Lake Erie, he fell short yet again in his quest for a Stren Series title on his "hometown" lake - a pattern that's been repeated more times than he'd care to remember. "This is my home lake, so I really thought I'd have a chance this time," Balog said. "I've won about 12 or 13 major tournaments on this lake. And I've finished in the top 10 at least five times at Stren Series events here. But for whatever reason, I just can't seem to close the deal." According to Balog, his plan of attack during the four-day event worked out perfectly - with one small exception. "I made about a 120-mile roundtrip today, so I was fishing far away from everyone else," said Balog, who ultimately recorded a two-day catch of 37 pounds, 12 ounces. "I had the area to myself, the fishing was good, and the weather forecast looked decent today. I really thought I could outlast the competition. And everything went as planned. But the big difference was that over the last two days, I hooked five big fish, but only managed to get two of them in the boat. And that was the difference. When you have guys like (Vatalaro) and Lefebre in the field, you can't slip up at all. And that's what I did." Balog, who fished a combination of ISG Dream tubes and Poor Boy's Drop Shot Goby baits, walked away with a check for $9,200 for his efforts - not that that lessened the pain of seeing yet another tournament title slip through his fingers. "I really thought I was going to do it this time," he said. "It really is just a game of ounces." King survives harrowing trip to net third Although Christopher King of South Amherst, Ohio, won $8,500 after finishing in third place with a total catch of 36 pounds, 13 ounces, he seemed just as happy to be standing on dry land by the time weigh-in had concluded. "It was really tough out there," said King. "We basically ran out there, got a few bites and ran back. We probably could have stayed longer, but at the time, we didn't know if we were going to make it back. At one point I looked at my co-angler, and his eyes just kept getting bigger and bigger. I told him, `I'm really not sure if we're going to make it back.' It was scary." Lefebre feels ache of finishing fourth Pro Dave Lefebre of Union City, Pa., said he had some deeply felt pain after finishing the tournament in fourth place. However, if truth be told, it wasn't because he'd just lost out on a tournament title. "I think every muscle in my body hurts today. My teeth even hurt," said Lefebre, of the grueling nature of traveling 150 miles roundtrip each day on Lake Erie. "It was brutal out there. I was ready to call it quits after day two. I had a triple root canal a few days ago, and I'll tell you, that didn't help either." For his pain and effort, Lefebre (35 pounds, 10 ounces) walked away with $7,550 in prize money. Hoskings fifth Meanwhile, Mike Hoskings of Dumfries, Va., finished the tournament in fifth place with a catch of 33 pounds, 7 ounces. "This is some sweet revenge," said Hoskins, who claims that Lake Erie has been the bane of his fishing existence for quite some time. "This tournament was tough, but it's been very rewarding at the same time." Hoskins, who turned in his best-ever performance on Lake Erie, was rewarded with $7,050 in prize money. Best of the rest Rounding out the top 10 pro finalists at the Lake Erie event: 6th: Chris Baldwin of Lexington, N.C., 31-9 7th: Kevin Bishop of Hilton, N.Y., 31-3 8th: Nate Wellman of Jenison, Mich., 29-6 9th: Kenny Holloway of Eatonton, Ga., 25-15 10th: Ben Felton of Marshall, Mich., 21-3 Coming up The next Stren Series event is a Midwest Division contest on the Mississippi River at Fort Madison, Iowa, Aug. 9-12. The next Northeast Division tournament, the third event of the 2006 season, will be held on the Potomac River in La Plata, Md., Aug. 16-19.