BUFFALO, N.Y. — During Sunday morning's final launch of the Empire Chase presented by Farmer's Insurance, Kotaro Kiriyama made every effort to maintain eye contact with Aaron Martens. While the final day's leaders playfully compared notes on drop-shot hooks, the 37-year-old Japanese angler leading the tournament with 67 pounds, 13 ounces, periodically glanced up to check the movement of the trees lining the marina's shoreline.
"Oh, it's really starting to blow now," Kiriyama said, noting the increasing wind while attempting to appear focused on the conversation.
Despite the threat of higher winds, most of his fellow anglers suggested Kiriyama had nothing to fear with a 3-pound lead over Martens and the 10 other anglers separated by just ounces in the tightly-packed field.
Instead of focusing on Kiriyama, most Elite Series pros had their sights set on each other.
"A 3-pound lead is huge," Todd Faircloth said about fishing for smallmouth bass. After opening up a lead on Kevin VanDam in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race, Faircloth said he would still look for extra cushioning.
"We're all just gaining ounces by culling, now," he said.
Glenn DeLong, who turned in 19-2 on Day Three to make Sunday's top 12, had done a little math before launch.
"I've got to have something like 20 to 22 pounds to move from 12th to 7th — and you're talking 13 ounces there," DeLong said. "Even if one of those guys does break down, I still need about 10 pounds to pass him."
While the majority of the field worried about ounces and each other, Kiriyama paid close attention to Trip Weldon as he gave the morning weather report over the loudspeaker. The threat of weather potentially sabotaging Kiriyama's comfortable lead meant the man known as "the silent ninja" in BASS circles perked his ears up slightly higher than the others.
"I've got two spots, three spots, maybe," Kiriyama told Martens afterwards. "I just want to get there."
Getting to those spots, however, could be the only issue for the leader: With 11-knot winds predicted for the open waters of Lake Erie, Kiriyama will be traveling anywhere between 50 and 70 miles each way to go about his business.
And although he nabbed 25 pounds of smallmouth on Day Three, Lake Erie hasn't been exactly cordial during the tournament's first two days.
"Look, anything can happen," Mike Iaconelli said, sitting in fourth place with 62-5 before the final day launch. "Schools move around, there can be mechanical issues, anything."
After clarifying how he obviously wouldn't wish such an outcome on anyone in the field, Iaconelli expressed how pleased he was to reach his goal of simply making the top 50 in Buffalo. His next goal? Similar results at Oneida.
"It looks like it's going to be bumpy down around Dunkirk," John Murray said about the area most certainly in Kiriyama's path. But after discounting his chances of chasing down the leader from his fifth-place position, he revealed his day's game plan: "Basically, I'm just trying to get as many points as I can, now. I've been done at noon every day, so there's no saving anything today. I'll be out there."
Sure, anything is possible when it comes to bass fishing — and bass fishing in weather on Lake Erie in particular — but if Kiriyama can get there, the 2 inches separating his and Martens' boats at launch could be the closest anyone comes to touching the leader all day.