DAYTON, Tenn. — The Bassmaster BASSfest finale appears to be a two-man contest between Jacob Wheeler and Matt Herren, separated by only a pound and an ounce, both full of confidence.
"I'm really getting dialed-in on a pattern," Herren said. "If that pattern holds, look out."
Herren has topped 21 pounds all three days and had his best day Saturday with 23-6. Wheeler had his worst day Saturday – 4 fish weighing 16-2. But he was expecting a struggle and was satisfied to still have a lead going into Sunday, when the winner will earn $125,000 and a 2015 Bassmaster Classic berth.
"I tried to save some stuff (for Sunday)," said Wheeler, who caught the biggest bag of the tournament with 29-13 on Thursday. "I had 30 boats following me today. I had to be careful what I was fishing."
Saturday was all about survival for him. Wheeler didn't go to his best spot on Lake Chickamauga, where caught three big ones Thursday, including an 8-pounder and a 7-pounder . He knew it was either fish it Saturday or save it for Sunday; he wasn't going to get both days.
"I knew that spot would be ruined if I fished it today," said Wheeler, explaining that at least one or two boats among all his followers Saturday were probably just looking for a good fishing spot rather than rooting for him.
Wheeler is also encouraged that the BASSfest field will shrink from 60 competitors Saturday to 12 Sunday, opening up more opportunities on a lake he's very familiar with. Wheeler knows he almost played it too safe Saturday. He caught two bass and most of his weight from one offshore spot between 10:45 and 11:45. The first was a 7-7, and the second was a 4½-pounder.
"That 7-7 was the key to my day," he said.
Both Herren and Wheeler have fish located both shallow and deep. Wheeler would probably prefer to stay deep. Herren said there is a "willow fly hatch" in the morning that is producing some good fish for him. His five bass Saturday included three caught deep and two caught shallow.
"I'm going to fish my heart out," said the 51-year-old Herren. "(Wheeler) better not stumble."
Shallow grass coming on strong
Few anglers believed this tournament could be won without fishing the deep ledges that hold big bass schools in this Tennessee River impoundment. And that may prove to be the winning pattern again this week.
But Lake Chickamauga's bass habitat is undoubtedly growing more diverse.
"I think the shallow grass has been overlooked here," said Cliff Crochet.
Casey Ashley qualified for Sunday's Top 12 and has caught better bags each day by staying shallow.
"I'm doing the same thing (each day)," Ashley said, "fishing shallow like I like to do. (The bass) seem to be getting bigger each day."
Ashley's daily totals have been 16-1, 17-7 and 21-3, giving him 54-11 and leaving him 13-10 behind Wheeler. That's a big deficit, but Ashley couldn't be happier with his performance.
"I've been beating the bank, and I haven't seen another boat all week," said Ashley, who then corrected himself, adding, "One day I saw Ott DeFoe."
Topwater lures, mostly a Pop-R, but also a prop bait, have done well for Ashley, who has also caught bass shallow on jigs and wacky-rigged worms.
Gerald Swindle couldn't be happier after his decision to avoid the boat-bumping over deep ledges and stay shallow has put him in sixth place (55-11) going into Sunday, marking his second straight Top 12 cut.
Swindle has "fished every boat dock on this lake" using a brown 3/8ths-ounce Booyah finesse jig paired with a green-pumpkin Zoom Z-Hog Jr. trailer.
"I haven't caught a bass in over six feet of water," Swindle said. "I'm staying in the dirt and fishing slow."
Terry Scroggins has also been successful with light-line tactics.
"It's the only way I could get them to bite," said Scroggins of his finesse setup: 6-lb. test Hi-Seas leader on 10-lb. test braid main line with a 6-inch green-pumpkin worm on a shaky head jig.
Scroggins is fifth with 56-4.
On Saturday, Tracy Adams made the biggest statement of the week about the shallow water possibilities at Chickamauga now. Adams had both the big bag of the day – 27 pounds, 9 ounces ¬– and the day's big bass ¬– 8 pounds, 9 ounces.
"I didn't really know there were that many big fish shallow," Adams said. "I spent the whole practice fishing deep. I caught all these in five feet of water or less."
His bait of choice today? A 3/8ths-ounce brown jig with a green-pumpkin Zoom Super Chunk trailer.
KVD: Spectators, a fishing lesson and change
Kevin VanDam had an eye-opener Saturday morning as his first fishing spot came into view on Lake Chickamauga.
“There already were 50 spectator boats on my spot,” he said. “Before I left, there were probably around 80 boats there.”
It was all good. VanDam gave the gallery high marks for politeness and respect while recognizing it’s all public water.
And then came this.
“I went to my second spot and there was a pontoon boat with about 15 people on board,” he continued. “Some had been drinking a few pops, including one guy who caught a fish on a bare hook.”
VanDam endured a good-natured joke from the animated angler.
On the serious side, VanDam was frustrated about failing to fill his limit. He had 4 fish totaling 15-13.
We all know what that will mean on Super Sunday. The VanDam game face will be on tight.
“I’m really torn between fishing shallow and deep,” he said. “I had a lot of places I wanted to go check, but there was too much pleasure boat traffic.”
Including the guy with the bait-free hook.
“It’s one of those deals where once you commit there’s not much rewinding and falling back on another area,” VanDam said. “I do plan to move around more (Sunday) since there’ll only be 11 other boats.”
Badges and blue lights
The presence of law enforcement stands out at the first BASSfest. It’s all for good reason so far.
Troopers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol escorted a motorcade of rigs towed by collegiate anglers in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Eastern Regional.
“I’m just glad they were in front of us instead of behind us,” said Tyler Wadzinski of the University of Tennessee.
On a bigger scale, the local and county law enforcement officials are keeping traffic flowing smoothly in and out of the BASSfest venue.
Some are going above and beyond the line of duty.
Dayton Police Chief Chris Sneed was seen handing out weigh-in bags during the BASSfest preliminary rounds and at the college finals. A major from the highway patrol doubled as a tow vehicle driver during those same finals.
“There’s not another town around where you can get away with doing wrong,” quipped Dave Mercer, tournament emcee. “Someone with a badge is everywhere you look.”
McClelland's Chickamauga roots
Before amassing over $1.5 million in B.A.S.S. earnings, Mike McClelland started his quest for a pro career on Lake Chickamauga. During his high school years McClelland convinced his father to let him compete in a tournament here.
The format paid equal sums to both pros and amateurs. McClelland collected $10,000 by fishing from the back of the boat. Gary Klein was in the front during one of those days.
“It was then and there I decided to skip college,” said McClelland, who lives in Bella Vista, Ark. “I decided I was going to be the next superstar.”
In this go around, Chickamauga was brutal for McClelland on Day 1, when he was in 129th place after catching two bass weighing 3 ½ pounds. But McClelland rallied from there. He was 81st after Day 2, then qualified to fish Saturday by taking the 10th and final spot in the Second Chance event on Nickajack Lake Friday, edging Kevin Short by two ounces and guaranteeing himself a $10,000 check. McClelland finished in 48th place Saturday on Chickamauga with a three-day total of 35-12.
"I didn't really know there were that many big fish shallow. I spent the whole practice fishing deep. I caught all these in five feet of water or less."
— Tracy Adams, who caught the big bag (27-9) and big bass (8-9) Saturday
"I'm going to fish my heart out. (Jacob Wheeler) better not stumble."
— Matt Herren, who is 1-pound, 1-ounce behind Wheeler
"I graphed around a lot today. When you've got 30 boats following you, you've got to be careful where you fish."
— Jacob Wheeler, who has been the BASSfest leader on Day 2 and 3
“I’m just dumb enough to get beat down and fish shallow, even when everyone else is going deep.”
— Gerald Swindle, who is 6th with 55-11 after the Top 12 cut.
"I've got to have current or bad weather. Today I didn't get either one."
— Greg Hackney, who caught 13-10 Saturday and dropped to 4th place
“It’s been hard to fish here. I mean I’m looking around and see Kevin VanDam and all those guys, and it just puts me in awe.”
— Stephen Mui, who finished 18th with 48-4.
"Today I was so relaxed. I had nothing to lose."
— Skylar Hamilton, 19, who finished 1st in the Second Chance event, and 52nd at Chickamauga with 13-14 Saturday.