Justin Lucas started his day in third place at this tournament and leading the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. He has a lot riding on every decision he makes between now and when it’s all over in September.
On his first drift he hooked into a very nice smallmouth, fought it quickly and masterfully into his rig, but noticed it was deep hooked.
He performed some experienced boatside surgery, and opted to release the bass rather than keep it.
Deep-hooked bass stand a far better chance of survival if they don’t have to endure a livewell for hours on end.
“That was a 3 1/2-pounder, dude,” he said shaking his head. “It swallowed the hook, and yesterday they were just nipping at it. I don’t know what else I could have done.”
He made a wise decision keeping conservation at the forefront of his mind. It was a risky one, too. A fish that size likely won’t help him win today, based on the weights so for this week.
I think it was a brilliant call, but time will tell.
(He just caught another one that was a bit smaller, but it’s a start.)
Kevin VanDam won this tournament a year ago with 90 pounds, 3 ounces. The greatest tournament bass angler of all time will not be fishing in the 12-man final today. He finished 36th. But the man who has won 25 B.A.S.S. tournaments, 4 Bassmaster Classics and 7 Angler of the Year titles knows a special event when he sees one.
“This doesn’t happen very often,” VanDam said on-stage Saturday. “This is a historic event. This is the best smallmouth tournament ever in the history of man here in Waddington this week.”
In a good smallmouth bass fishery, a five-bass limit of 20 pounds will put you near the top of the leaderboard. In three days on the St. Lawrence River, there were 107 bags weighing at least 20 pounds, topped by Matt Lee’s 27-12 on Thursday.
The weigh-in scales have taken a beating. Nearly 2 ½ tons of almost exclusively smallmouth bass have been weighed over three days – 4,883 pounds, 8 ounces, to be exact. The 1,275 bass weighed averaged 3.83 pounds.
It took an average of 19-pounds-plus the first two days to make the Top 50 cut. It took almost 22 pounds a day to make the Top 12 cut. That doesn’t happen often on a good largemouth fishery. As VanDam noted, it’s history-making on a smallmouth fishery.
How about a 30-pound limit and a 100-pound winning weight on Sunday? Those are about the only feats left unaccomplished on the St. Lawrence River this week. While unlikely, neither is outside the realm of possibility today.
I don't recall an Elite Series tournament where the anglers have been so accurate in their forecasts. Their predictions the day before a tournament are usually about as accurate as a 10-day weather forecast.
But let's give credit where credit is due. On Wednesday, Justin Lucas said, "I don't think it's going to take 20 pounds a day to get (a top 50 check after two days), but I won't be surprised if it's 19-something."
It took a two-day total of 38-11 to make the Top 50, in other words, 19 pounds, 5.5 ounces, a day.
On Wednesday, Brandon Palaniuk guessed it would take 21 pounds a day to make the Top 12 cut, in other words, 63 pounds.
Both of those predictions seemed outlandish at the time. We won't know the exact accuracy of Palaniuk's estimate until the weigh-in concludes this afternoon. But three tournament days on the St. Lawrence River have proven them to be astonishingly on the money.
Jacob Powroznik says gobies are like sushi for smallmouth bass, and the St. Lawrence River is one big sushi bar.
"That's all they eat," Powroznik said. "It's kind of like us going to the sushi bar. Gobies even feel like a piece of sushi. They're real soft, and they don't have any sharp spines."
When the invasive species first made it into the St. Lawrence River/Great Lakes, it was feared they would hurt the sportfish population, possibly by feeding upon spawning bed eggs. However, they've proven to be steroids for smallmouth bass.
Powroznik loves to fish the St. Lawrence River. He's been making a trip here, tournament or not, for the past 15 years.
"I think I've fished six tournaments here and the worst I've finished is 25th," he said. "It's a special place. Anytime it's on the schedule, it's good times."
Powroznik has fished two Elite Series events here, finishing 25th in 2017 and 7th in 2015. He wasn't on the Elite Series in 2013. Powroznik started the day in 12th place, 4-4 behind leader Brandon Lester. But he was realistic about his chances of finishing much higher.
"It's going to take an absolute load to win this derby," Powroznik said yesterday. "I hate to say this, but I'm not on the caliber of fish to win this tournament. I think I could finish in the top 20."
As 1 p.m. approaches, that's exactly where Powroznik is on BASSTrakk, 20th place. It would be another solid finish in a solid season. Powroznik was 8th in AOY points coming into this event.
Josh Bertrand and Justin Lucas are playing for ALL the money today, as in not only an Elite Series win on the St. Lawrence River but the coveted Toyota Angler of the Year title. Over the last two days, as other contenders in AOY have dropped back, they’ve made it a two-man race. After Day 1, when Bertrand was 4th and Lucas was 16th, Bertrand had the AOY lead. After Day 2, when Bertrand was 3rd and Lucas was 5th, the “mythical standings” put Lucas in the lead. (Remember all points are based on the final tournament standings, nothing else.)
They’re continuing to battle it out today. As you can see from Gettys Brannon’s photo above, Bertrand landed one of those St. Lawrence lunkers that practically jumped over his trolling motor.
BASSTrakk currently shows Lucas leading the tournament with 22 pounds and Bertrand in 4th place with 17 pounds. But this tournament has a long way to the finish line, and the AOY title might not be decided until the last day of the AOY Championship next month. For now, it’s entertaining watching these two guys go head-to-head for all the money.
The 2018 Rookie of the Year race is truly setting up to be a race to the finish. Prior to this event the top contenders were Jake Whitaker, Ray Hanselman and Roy Hawk. He came out of the gate strong at the first event on Lake Martin, while scoring 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes early in the season. Hanselman, a Texas pro, took it away in his home state with a strong finish at Lake Travis. Whitaker gained ground at the Mississippi River while his fellow contenders did not.
And here we are at the St. Lawrence River. Going into Day 3, Hawk and Whitaker were tied for first place with 521 points apiece. Hanselman struggled and fell out of the race, missing the cut and finishing 64th. Hawk started the day tied in points with him and was 19th in the event. If Hawk moves up from 19th he will have the outright lead, but if he falls below the lead goes back to Whitaker.
The significance of this Saturday is much more significant than the rest. In fact, it is the most important Saturday of the season. A choice few anglers are fishing for the win, which nearly pales in comparison to the remainder of the field, whose priority is gaining valuable points in Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year. This is it—the last chance—unless you qualify for Championship Sunday. Some anglers will leave here and go to the AOY Championship in September. Others will go home for the season.
Michael Iaconelli explained.
"Making the top 50 is a great thing but the goal is always to advance to Championship Sunday, and here, to gain as many points as possible going into the AOY Championship,” he said.
"In this particular event, because the weights are so big, guys are catching really big smallmouth, and you’re going to have to gamble to advance,” he continued. “In a normal event you just kind of keep doing what you are doing, and you’ve got a good shot at making it to Championship Sunday. You need a 5 or 6 pounder to add to those 4s to get in, and do that today.”
Lots is on the line and with only 50 anglers remaining they will have a chance to spread out, giving them better odds of reaping those rewards.
Local fishing guides will tell you that late August and early September are the best times to catch a big smallmouth bass from the St. Lawrence River. Plus there’s the fact that one of the two New York record smallmouth bass, weighing 8 pounds, 4 ounces, was caught from the St. Lawrence River on August 28, 2016. (The other 8-4 came from Lake Erie.)
As Brandon Palaniuk put it, “These fish are fed up and set up.” In other words, they’ve been gobbling gobies since the spawn ended and are bunched mostly around deep structure in the river, rather than being scattered from deep to shallow like they were the last time the Elite Series came here July 20-23, 2017. They’re in a full summertime pattern now.
You can see the evidence in the chart below. Most telling is the fact that the average bass weighed on Day 1 this year was exactly a half-pound heavier than in the 2017 tournament in July. The average bass weighed yesterday was .41 heavier than on Day 2 a year ago.
Total lbs. weighed
|3.32 lbs.||3.73 lbs.|
Total lbs. weighed
|Ave. wt./bass||3.45 lbs.||3.95 lbs.|