BUFFALO, N.Y. — Todd Faircloth wasn't a happy man at Saturday's weigh-in of the Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase presented by Farmer's Insurance. He had hoped to add another 20 pounds to his eighth-place, two-day total of 40 pounds, 8 ounces from Lake Erie, but knew his bag weighed well short of that.
"I just really felt like I stubbed my toe," Faircloth said Sunday morning. "I was a little disappointed.
"I didn't think there was any way I would make the top 12-cut with what I caught."
But the 33-year-old Jasper, Texas, resident had a smile on his face after the weigh-in concluded Saturday. Even though Faircloth had only 15-5, it was enough to actually move him up one place in the standings, into a tie for seventh place at 55-13.
And even though Kevin VanDam caught 16-6 Saturday — a pound and an ounce more than Faircloth — KVD dropped four places in the standings to finish 18th with 53-0. VanDam missed the top 12 cut by exactly 2 pounds.
As the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race comes to its conclusion next week at New York's Oneida Lake, it has been reduced to a two-man shootout between Faircloth and VanDam, the latter already holds three titles.
Entering the Empire Chase, VanDam held a 16-point lead over Faircloth. With his sixth place finish Sunday, Faircloth takes a 21-point lead over VanDam going into the season finale.
Faircloth was still upset with himself about Saturday's performance when he made what turned out to be a bad decision and wasted two hours. But he came back Sunday under more relaxed conditions and posted his best one-day total of the week — 21 pounds, 14 ounces — which bumped him up another spot in the standings.
Even with the Saturday stumble, it has been a positive week for Faircloth.
"Any time you gain a little ground on him, it helps," Faircloth said. "All in all, it's been a good week for me.
"But it's all going to come down to Oneida. It's going down to the last tournament. That's the way it should be. It makes it fun — fun for the fans and fun for the fishermen.
"It's pretty intense out there right now. I'm definitely feeling it, no doubt about it."
Faircloth admitted he started thinking about his Oneida Lake strategy Saturday night. It's a lake the Elite Series has visited each of the last two years and is largely dominated by smallmouth bass in plentiful supply: Some anglers will have 100-fish days at Oneida.
But it's also a place where the largemouth population figures more into a winning strategy than their numbers would lead you to believe. You might not catch as many, but you've only got to catch five bass for a limit. And the largemouths in Oneida tend to weigh more than the smallmouths.
Last year's visit to Oneida lasted only two days, as it was part of the Memorial Major, which shifted to Lake Onondaga the last two days.
Two years ago, during a four-day event at Oneida in early July, Tommy Biffle won it with 63-10 by concentrating exclusively on largemouths while flipping shallow bushes and laydowns.
In essence, Oneida offers the opportunity to go for broke with largemouths or play it conservatively with smallmouths.
"I thought a little bit about that (Saturday) night," Faircloth said. "I'm probably going to find me a place where I can catch a limit of smallmouths. But (the largemouths) definitely play a key role there.
"I've never fished for largemouths on that body of water during the course of a tournament. During practice, I've caught a few.
"It's hard to fish for them there because you don't get as many bites. When you go out there and catch smallmouths one after another, it's hard to leave them, because you think there's the potential to upgrade. But you're doing it by ounces, not pounds.
"My ideal game plan would be to go out and catch a solid limit of smallmouths. Then once you have that in the box, it will free you up a little. You can be slower and be more patient with it, and you might get a couple of key largemouth bites."
And in that ideal game plan Faircloth would claim the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and the $250,000 that goes with it — twice the prize money Skeet Reese won with last year's title.
Faircloth and Arkansas' Mike McClelland are the only two anglers on the Elite Series tour to have finished in the top 50 (and collected at least a $10,000 check in doing so) in all 10 tournaments this season. Skeet Reese and Bryan Hudgins were part of that group through nine events, but fell out with their 97th-place and 89th-place finishes, respectively, this week.
McClelland will still have an outside shot at theToyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title going into Oneida. By finishing 47th at Lake Erie, McClelland is 173 points behind VanDam and 194 back of Faircloth. In the unlikely scenario that both Faircloth and VanDam stumble badly and McClelland wins at Oneida, he could still take the title.
"I think I came to the conclusion today that I'm fishing for third place in Angler of the Year," said McClelland at Saturday's weigh-in.
Faircloth and VanDam will definitely have all the attention directed their way for the next week. And with a 21-point lead heading into it, Faircloth is definitely in the driver's seat.