Going into the A.R.E. Truck Caps Bassmaster Elite at Cayuga Lake, Chris "Zaldaingerous" Zaldain was 63rd in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points. With a little math and a little Kentucky windage, he figured he needed a top nine finish at Cayuga to qualify for the postseason – meaning the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship.
"My back was against the wall," he said. "I knew I needed a solid finish." What he had going for him were two things: He's good at drop shotting, and he has lots of drive to do well.
"The first step I took was making sure I was the very first boat in the water in the morning [for practice]," he said. "I woke up at 4:10, had my boat in the water at 4:30, and was idling around by 5:00."
He was practicing, but not necessarily fishing. "The tournament wasn't a ledge tournament, but a lot of graphing – 15-hour days on the water – did pay off," he said.
"Real late on the first practice day, I was in a mid-lake area I'd heard was really good. I fished all the way around it – flipped shallow grass in 4 to 6 feet, then backed off to 10 to 15 feet – and thought it wasn't that good.
"As I was idling out with my Raymarine DownVision going, I see this flat in 20 to 22 feet. There's a thin layer of 2-foot grass down there that I hadn't seen anywhere else. Usually in that lake it was all either big, tall clumps or just sand bottom.
"After about a minute of idling this expansive flat, I saw one clump the size of a boat deck that topped out at 12 feet – and I saw fish around it. I hit a waypoint, made one cast and caught 5 1/2-pounder."
He quit fishing right away, idled around and saw a little more that he liked. He figured the main spot was "out in the middle of nowhere" so he wasn't worried about anyone finding it.
The next two practice days he fished shallow and deep, and found a bunch of "ultra-shallow" fish flipping and frogging. His tournament game plan was to fish for those fish first, since "they're easy ones and they're not going to replenish," then eventually go to that deep spot.
Day 1 of the tournament was "gnarly," Zaldain said. He started shallow, but with the clouds and rain that shallow bite wasn't happening. So at around 11:00, with only two fish, he went to the deep spot.
No one else was there, and from Noon 'til 3:00, he caught 25 fish drop shotting. He weighed close to 16 pounds, was in the Top 20 and, thinking he had the spot all to himself, was psyched for Day 2.
That day he planned to start on that spot, and even with a bad boat draw figured he'd have no competition on it. But as he rolled up to it, he saw a boat that he eventually figured out was Todd Faircloth's. The two are Strike King teammates, know each other pretty well and had each found the same spot.
Zaldain trolled over to Faircloth and explained the situation: that he had found the spot in practice and fished there yesterday – after Faircloth had already left, figuring no one else had found it.
If Faircloth was skeptical, that disappeared pretty quickly: His Marshal that day had been Zaldain's on Day 1, and Zaldain called on him for back up. At that point, according to Zaldain, Faircloth's response was "basically, 'whatever, let's start to whackin' on 'em.'"
Which they did. By 8:00 they both had 20 pounds and mutually agreed to leave and not return.
Day 3 was pretty much a repeat of Day 2. Faircloth left at 9:00, but Zaldain hung around – not to fish, but to explore. "After the first 90 minutes, the flurry was done and the fish dispersed," he said. "I wanted to find where they went to. I thought I'd find other clumps in the area."
Zaldain started the last day in third, with Faircloth in second and Greg Hackney in first. That's the way they eventually finished, but Zaldain was intent on making up the 4 pounds Faircloth had on him and maybe the 5 Hackney had.
He beat Faircloth to the spot, but didn't start fishing. "Instead of being a jerk, I waited for him. He was in second, was second in the Angler of the Year points – I said, 'Let's let him settle in and make his first cast.'"
They started fishing, but it turned out "that red hot section wasn't so hot anymore," Zaldain said. Thanks to his exploration the day before, he found the bass had moved deeper: 24 feet. He caught 'em a little better than Faircloth that day, but not enough to move up.
Zaldain's main technique was drop shotting a Strike King Super Finesse Worm in green pumpkin with the tail dipped chartreuse. The chartreuse was to emulate perch. His secondary bait was a Strike King Dream Shot in the same color combo.
The rest of his rig was a 1/0 hook and 1/4-ounce cylinder-style drop shot weight, which he used because it moved through the grass better.
"The key was having a 24- to 26-inch drop shot leader," he said. "I wanted the leader to keep the worm suspended up over that grass."
Lines were also key for him. His leader was 10-pound Seaguar Tatsu Fluorocarbon, an unusually big line size because the grass was so thick. His main line was 20-pound Seaguar Smackdown Braid, key because it sawed through the grass which floated up and showed Zaldain what was there.
"I hit a waypoint when I knew there was a good, crisp clump of coontail and milfoil down there," he noted.
Finally, he used a slightly heavier rod – a Megabass Orochi XX shaky head rod instead of a drop shot rod. "That gave me a little more horsepower to yank fish out of those weeds," he said.
Even though he ended up not fishing ultra-shallow much in the tournament, that bite was on when the sun was out. He looked for "very small clumps of blown up, dead eelgrass underneath a dock, tree or on a bank. The smaller the better – like a garbage can lid-size target."
He pitched a Strike King Sexy Frog (watermelon) on top of those mats.