RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — The party is over. Twelve anglers qualified for Saturday's semifinal round in the Bassmaster Legends presented by Ramada Worldwide.
But after the weigh-in Friday, when the field was cut from 50 to 12, you got the distinct impression that whoever wins, as this tournament shifts to a six-hole course on Lake Dardanelle's Illinois Bayou for the next two days, is going to earn every penny of the $250,000 top prize.
"It's not going to be a fun day," said three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam. "I know that. It's going to be a grind. It's going to be hard work."
VanDam finished third after two days on Lake Dardanelle with 32 pounds, 1 ounce. But he, like everyone else, will start at zero for what is essentially another two-day tournament starting Saturday.
This "hole course" format is always mentally taxing. Each pair of anglers will have 70 minutes to fish an area of the course before moving on to the next. The last 80 minutes of the day is called "happy hour," when the 12 anglers can go anywhere in the Illinois Bayou course to fish.
"I've never fished as hard in my life as I've fished when I've made one of these finals," said Kelly Jordon, who missed the cut by nine ounces Friday and finished 15th with 24-3. "You may find a good spot, then you look up, and you've got to leave it in 10 minutes."
But this final will be even more grueling because every angler who made it has been fishing in or near the Arkansas River current that runs through Lake Dardanelle.
That was hard enough to figure out. Remember, this is a veteran group of accomplished professional bass anglers. However, Lee Bailey finished 50th with only three keeper-size fish in two days that totaled 5-15. And John Crews barely topped him with three keepers weighing 6-0.
As is always the case in an Elite Series tournament, several other pros found a productive pattern. Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., caught a five-bass limit weighing 16-0 Thursday and followed it with 17-0 Friday to rank first after two days with 33-0. He was one of five pros who totaled over 30 pounds.
But even Fred Roumbanis, who led on Day One with 20-5, struggled on Day Two. He weighed a three-fish bag Friday of 6-11, which was one ounce shy of the big bass (6-12) he caught Friday.
And now the top 12, consistent or not, will shift to a backwater area off the main river channel that is unlike anything they've fished the last two days.
"It's totally different," said Greg Hackney, who was second to Martens with 32-6. "I'll have a lot of rods out (Saturday), a lot of rods.
"For me to do well in there, it's pretty much two different deals. You've pretty much got to figure out quickly which one is working."
Hackney didn't want to go into any more detail on his "two different deals." But several other anglers mentioned the basic dilemma facing them: Do you fish "in" and pound the bank, or do you fish "out" on deep lake structure, like brushpiles and creek channel bends.
The problem with fishing "out" is that it's time consuming, and that's the last thing you'd choose in a hole course format where time is precious.
"It's hard to fish out a lot," VanDam said. "I do have some spots located that I definitely want to fish that are out. There's not much on the bank in (the course). The grass is not like it used to be, and there's not that many fish shallow this time of year. I'm not going to fish the super shallow stuff."
Timmy Horton, who finished seventh with a total of 27-15 over two days, noted that there's a precedent for fishing out. Davy HIte won the Bassmaster Elite 50 tournament on Lake Dardanelle in 2005 by finding some deep structure where he loaded his livewell in just a few minutes. But Hite hardly had a fish that day before finding the sweet spot.
"It's such a risk to do that," Horton said. "But you can sure win a tournament doing it."