DECATUR, Ala. — It's basically down to this at Wheeler Lake: Kevin VanDam in his hole of water vs. Jeremy Starks in his hole of water. And just like in a boxing match, the "smack talk" has already started.
"I told him he better catch 25 pounds tomorrow if he wanted to win this thing," said Starks, who goes into the final day trailing VanDam by 1 pound, 7 ounces in the Bassmaster Elite Series Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts.
"He laughed and said he knows it."
So why would Starks, who has never won a BASS tournament, be talking smack to VanDam, the most accomplished angler in BASS history? Especially when Starks is in second place going into the final day?
First of all, he said it in fun. Second, but most important, Sunday will be the first time Starks has really fished the sweet spot he's been holding since the tournament started Thursday.
Only two casts were "accidently" made into Starks' hole Saturday: they produced a 5-pounder and a 6-pounder.
That's why VanDam, even though he caught the biggest five-bass limit of the tournament so far — 22 pounds, 12 ounces on Saturday — has a legitimate reason to wonder what kind of right uppercut Starks has been waiting to unleash on the field.
VanDam has a three-day total of 58-2; Starks is second with 56-11; and Terry Scroggins, who led the first two days, dropped to third with 53-11. Though he only trails VanDam by 4-7, Scroggins agrees it's a two-man shootout.
"Honestly, I don't think I'm going to have a shot," said Scroggins, who weighed his smallest limit of the tournament Saturday with 13-1. "KVD and Jeremy are on a big load of fish. The quality they're catching is a lot better than what I am."
Unlike his run-and-gun style, VanDam settled into one hole of water Saturday, within a mile of Starks. While they can see each other's boat, they aren't close enough to watch what the other is doing. Both are in the Decatur Flats area, a short distance from the Ingalls Harbor tournament site.
VanDam said he had to work for his fish Saturday; Starks tried not to work his fish at all.
"Jeremy has got a spot where he can just pull in there and catch them," said VanDam, three-time BASS Angler of the Year and two-time Bassmaster Classic champion. "But I've really got to work hard for mine.
"You've got to throw a lot of different baits at them to get these fish to bite. You've got to make them react to different things, or you've got to finesse them. I'm throwing six or seven different baits. You've got to show them everything to get them to bite something."
Starks found his sweet spot in practice, when the Rat-L-Trap he was throwing kept coming back with mussel shells on it. When he cast a 10-inch Berkley Power Worm in the shell bed, it never hit the bottom. One more cast like that and another quality bite convinced Starks he had a place all to himself where he could win the $100,000 first prize.
Since Thursday's launch, Starks has been casting into it sparingly, yet guarding it extensively. He estimated it took only 20 casts to produce the 36-11 second-place total he had Friday. Saturday he wasn't going to fish it at all.
"I didn't even fish my primary spot," said the 35-year-old Charleston, W.V., pro. "I just worked the outside edges. It's got quite a few small shell beds around the main one. I just picked them apart today and caught what I caught."
Starks' five-bass limit weighed 20-0 and was his best of the tournament.
"Someone tried to come in on me at one point," Starks said. "So I eased up that way. When I did, I went by my best spot. My co-angler fired over there, unknowingly. I didn't tell him where it was.
"As soon as his bait hit the water, he hooked a 5-pounder. I said if he's going to catch one, I am, too. So I fired out there and caught a 6-pounder. That's the only two casts that were made on it today.
"I'm going to grind on it all day tomorrow. I may go out there and zero, but I may come back with 30 pounds."
Several long-time BASS observers couldn't recall a similar tournament situation: where an angler has made so few casts and managed a spot so conservatively until the final day. It's a gamble. And it's one VanDam has seen backfire in the past.
"I've had it burn me too many times," said the Kalamazoo, Mich., native. "Against these guys, you better not lay off."
In fact, VanDam is already kicking himself for laying off on the first day of the tournament. Everybody predicted it would take an average of 15 pounds a day to win on Wheeler Lake, which has been in a down cycle since it's heyday in the mid-1990s.
"I pulled in this spot and caught five 3 1/2-pounders and left," he said. "But I should have stayed and caught more the first day, because (Friday) was a real struggle. They didn't bite near as well. I caught everything I could catch.
"But that first day, I could have caught a bigger bag. They were really biting good, a lot better than even today."
Starks could well be kicking himself Sunday afternoon for not putting this tournament out of reach on the first three days. After what he's seen so far though, he likes his chances.
"I can't wait," Starks said. "Who knows? It's just going to be fun."
The weigh-in begins at Ingalls Harbor at 4 p.m. ET.