HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Just two weeks ago, four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn hadn't made a Bassmaster Elite Series top 12-cut since its inception in 2006. Now he's made two in a row.
And for the second straight tournament, the 61-year-old Clunn is in second place going into Sunday's finale.
Kevin Wirth maintained the lead for the third day in row in the Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn. The Crestwood, Ky., native has a total of 44 pounds, 13 ounces and leads Clunn by 3 pounds, 3 ounces.
"I thought I'd make a pretty good charge on (Wirth) today, and I gained two ounces," Clunn said. "But today was the day I was kind of worried about.
"I'm going to open up tomorrow and not play so much defense."
Wirth, who hasn't won a BASS tournament since 1994, didn't seem too worried that Clunn — or anyone else — might catch him in the 12-angler final Sunday, when the winner will earn $100,000.
The 45-year-old former jockey has stayed in shallow water about 2 miles back in a creek off the Cumberland River channel of Old Hickory. And during this tournament, he's defied conventional wisdom that a shallow-water bite couldn't hold for more than two days.
"It's got me this far," Wirth said. "I've gotten a lot accomplished. I needed the points for the (Bassmaster) Classic bad. That's the main goal. Anything else is good."
Wirth weighed his smallest five-bass limit of the tournament. In fact, his weights have gone down each day since he caught 17-2 Thursday, which continues to be the Berkley Big Bag of this event. Wirth had 15-10 Friday and 12-1 Saturday.
"It was a little bit slower than yesterday," he said. "But it's the weirdest thing: You can go by a place and not get a bite, then come back 30 minutes later and get one or two.
"I've got a couple of places I've been saving. I know nobody has been messing with them."
Clunn is also working a shallow flat with a creek channel running through it. Most of his bass have come on a Lucky Craft RC 3.5 crankbait, but he's also mixing in a jig for a couple of key fish.
Randy Howell of Springville, Ala., stayed in third place. But after being only 4-2 behind Wirth on Friday, he dropped to 7-12 behind the leader Saturday with a limit weighing only 8-7.
"I finally ran out of big fish today," said Howell, who still has the Purolator Big Bass of the tournament with the 6-6 he caught Friday. "But I made sure I caught a limit."
Dean Rojas jumped from 14th place to fourth Saturday with a bag of 14-3 — the third largest of the day. And the SPRO Frog specialist continues to build confidence that he can sack them again on Sunday on that topwater lure.
"From past experience, I knew I needed to really manage my fish," Rojas said. "I haven't really burned up all my areas. Today it was a matter of running some new stuff. I caught them there. And I went back to some old stuff and caught them there, too.
"I found some more new stuff this afternoon that will help me tomorrow. I'm excited about it."
Rojas has 36-14, which is 7-15 behind Wirth.
Alton Jones, Ray Sedgwick and Todd Faircloth were the big movers Saturday: Jones jumped from 33rd place to fifth with 15-11, the second-biggest bag of the day; Sedgewick leaped from 43rd place to eighth with the Berkley Big Bag of 15-14; and Faircloth made sure he'd at least stay hot on the heels of Kevin VanDam in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with a 13-5 limit that moved him from 32nd to 11th.
On the subject of Angler of the Year, VanDam continued his recovery from that Day One disaster of 7-5, squeaking into the top 50 cut Friday by 3 ounces. And he moved from 49th place to 32nd Saturday — a 34-point difference — with a limit weighing 10-13. It was his biggest bag of the tournament.
If Faircloth manages to finish sixth Sunday, he would tie VanDam with 2,254 AOY points. Anything less than that, and VanDam will have miraculously maintained his lead this week after finishing Day One in 63rd place.
There are two tournaments left in the 11-event Elite Series schedule. Mike McClelland (42nd place here) and Skeet Reese (28th place) will continue to be third and fourth, respectively — and within striking distance of the title, no matter what happens Sunday.
"It's going to be fun," said VanDam, who already owns three BASS Angler of the Year titles. "If it wasn't close, it wouldn't be fun.
"These next two events are going to be nerve-wracking."
"Fun" and "nerve-wracking" usually don't belong in the same thought. But for the ultra-competitive VanDam, that's the game he enjoys playing. However, even VanDam's nerves must have been quivering during the tightrope walk he completed on Old Hickory Lake this week.