OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Thankfully for Shaye Baker, his math mistake didn't cost him the Bassmaster Classic Wild Card Tournament presented by Star Tron. Chad Morgenthaler earned the victory with a 20-pound, 12-ounce five-bass limit Saturday on Lake Okeechobee.
Baker was left in third place and feeling a bit sheepish after he checked in with six bass in his livewells. But the 2-pound penalty cost him second-place money, not first place and the Classic berth, which was a lot easier to swallow.
"How in the heck do you have six fish in the livewell when you only catch 10 fish all day?" said Baker, the Tallassee, Ala., angler who celebrated his 27th birthday earlier in the week and led the tournament the first two days.
But even before the penalty, Baker didn't have enough weight to maintain a lead over Morgenthaler, who entered the day in second place – 5-13 behind Baker.
"It's still been one of the best weeks of my life," said Baker, who caught the biggest bass of his life (9-1) and the biggest tournament bag of his life (29-8) on Day One of the three-day tournament. Baker's mother, father and girlfriend made last-minute travel plans so they could attend Saturday's weigh-in.
In the end, Morgenthaler simply out-fished Baker and every other contender Saturday in the 12-man field, which had been cut from the original 49 anglers the first two days. Morgenthaler was never far from the lead – finishing in third-place on Day One before taking second-place on Day Two.
"This is my favorite lake in the country," said the southern Illinois native who recently moved to Branson, Mo. "I've finished in the Top 10 here more than any other lake in the country."
Morgenthaler's heart skipped a beat earlier this week when he saw the best spot he'd found in practice attract five aquatic vegetation spraying boats spreading weed-killer through the area.
"But the fish didn't leave," he said. "The hydrilla underneath the surface wasn't affected."
Morgenthaler, second-place finisher Jesse Tacoronte and Baker at times shared an area near Horse Island on the northwest side of Okeechobee. But Morgenthaler's primary area was behind Bird Island, farther south.
Like almost every successful angler here this week, Morgenthaler was flipping a soft plastic bait, punching through vegetation with a heavy tungsten weight – up to 2 ounces. Specifically, Morgenthaler, who has now qualified for his fourth Bassmaster Classic and will compete on the Elite Series next year, was using a Missile Baits D-Bomb in bruise and love bug colors.
"Bruise worked better when it was sunny, and love bug was better when it was cloudy," Morgenthaler said.
Morgenthaler, who has fished the FLW tour lately, was working primarily to get ready for the 2014 Elite Series season. Sponsor support from Jasper (Indiana) Engine & Transmission helped him make the decision to enter the Wild Card event. Thanks to that boost, Morgenthaler's Elite Series season will essentially begin a month earlier with a berth in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic at Alabama's Lake Guntersville.
"It was obviously meant to be," Morgenthaler said.