MUSKOGEE, Okla. — With the final day of the AutoZone Sooner Run looming, Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., is finally ready to dig deep into his bag of tricks and unlock his much-discussed secret spots on Fort Gibson Lake. The four-time Bassmaster winner has played the risky game of saving his best for last but it's paid off thus far as Biffle has been able to maintain the lead -- albeit by a precarious 12 ounces -- while working his B areas.
But Biffle was oh so close to really opening things up on Saturday. If not for a 6-pounder that got away at the last second, the 16-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier would be a lot more comfortable. Instead, Biffle toted 17 pounds, 4 ounces, to the scales to build his three-day total to 55-8.
All week, pundits, fans, fantasy fishing experts and Elite anglers have labeled Biffle as the man to beat. With an eroding lead, perhaps he's starting to feel the heat of the weighty expectations or perhaps he really is just saving his best for last.
"I came into this week expecting to win and I think so did everybody else," said Biffle, 52. "I'm actually worried about the alternative. I don't want to let anyone down."
The risky part of the equation for Biffle is he is unsure whether other anglers will be parked on his best stuff. If so, he would be put in the position of having to either scramble or share the water with another competitor.
But Biffle has been fishing in a crowd all week -- he was flanked by more than 50 spectator boats Saturday. It is a precise strategy -- though he revealed little -- that has kept Biffle at the top and he said nearly his entire rod selection would be deployed with a specific lure heading into the final day.
He is primarily focusing on shallow water, though deeper water, a relative term for Biffle, was playing a bit of a factor. Sunday, Biffle wouldn't rule that Gibson could yield a 25-pound bag. He said his best here in 40-plus years was in the 28 to 29 range.
"Anytime I'm in the lead, I'm happy," said Biffle, who will qualify for his second consecutive Bassmaster Elite Series Postseason at the conclusion of this event. "But I just can't help but think what could have been. I should have had more than 20 pounds yesterday (Friday) and today (Saturday). I was just sick when I lost that 6-pounder."
While Biffle is a graying tournament veteran, Pat Golden is a relative neophyte in terms of Elite contention. In fact, Golden, who is second with 54-12, qualified for the final day in Elite competition for the first time in his three-year Elite career.
Golden has run the same water for all three competition days. He is rotating between three areas and is dealing with pressure from other competitors but feels that he is doing something a little different that is enticing the right bites.
Like Biffle, he lost a big bite that would have aided his total considerably. Golden, 41, said he felt during practice that he could make some noise this week. Gibson, Golden said, fishes similar to High Rock Lake, a body of water that he has logged serious time on near his hometown of High Point, N.C.
Coming into this week, I didn't think it was feasible to get a victory here," said Golden. "But once I got to practice here, I knew that I had a chance. I'm having a blast."
Behind Golden was Rick Morris of Lake Gaston, Va., with 53-6. Morris continues a late-season run in which he has made up serious ground.
For the top three, there couldn't be a worse and more threatening combo in the 4th and 5th slots. Skeet Reese, the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points leader, has moved up the leaderboard each day, settling in fourth with 52-15. After a solid performance here, Reese is assured a solid points-lead heading into the Bassmaster Elite Series Postseason, set for the Montgomery, Ala., River Region in late July.
Kevin VanDam, winner of the Kentucky Lake Elite event last week, was fifth with 52-11. The five-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year has turned on the gas late this season and will enter the Postseason in the top half of the 12-angler field.
Only the top 12 qualified for Sunday will vie for the $100,000 top prize. Notables outside of the top five include two-time AOY Gary Klein (eighth) and 2007 Bassmaster Classic Boyd Duckett (10th).
The Sooner Run was initially set for the Arkansas River but due to unsafe conditions, BASS moved the event to Fort Gibson. The last time BASS visited Gibson was in October 2008 for the now-defunct 2008 BASS Club World Championship.
The public is invited to attend the final-day activities surrounding the event. Launch will begin at 6:30 a.m. CT at Sequoyah Bay and weigh-ins will take place at 3:30 p.m. CT. at Three Forks Harbor, 5201 Three Forks Rd., Fort Gibson, Okla. The Expo will begin at 12 p.m. CT. All events are free and open to the public. Included in the Three Forks Harbor festivities will be a Kid's area with face painting, arts and crafts and games.
On Sunday, Brian Jackson will be on hand and will attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records in the category of blowing up the most balloons by an individual.
The US Sportsman Alliance will present youth outdoor activities including archery, casting, game calling, boating education and trapping from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The local sponsor of the Sooner Run is the Muskogee Chamber of Commerce.
The Postseason, Toyota Trucks Championship Week, is set for July 24-31 and will be played out once again on two productive Alabama fisheries. The first leg, the July 24-25 Trophy Chase, returns to Lake Jordan out of Wetumpka. The finale, the Evan Williams Bourbon Trophy Triumph, is slated for July 30-31 on the Alabama River from Montgomery.