Wow, 'only' 34 bags over 20 pounds

Even the anglers that caught them again Friday thought the smallmouth bass bite was harder to pinpoint than on Day 1 at the St. Lawrence. But on paper, it wasn't that much tougher.

Instead of 52 bags over 20 pounds, there were "only" 34. Instead of seven 5-bass limits weighing 25 pounds or more, there were only two.

However, after two days leader Brandon Lester is halfway to 100 pounds at 50-1. A century mark total on a smallmouth fishery is a mountain yet unconquered.

"That's still my goal - 100 pounds," said Brandon Palaniuk, who sacked 25-12 Friday, one ounce less than Lester, and moved up to sixth place with 46-11. "I bet (Kevin) VanDam a hundred dollars this morning that it would take 100 pounds to win. He said, 'No way.' So I want to win my hundred dollars.

"To my knowledge, no one has ever broken 100 pounds on smallmouth. And I've never made the century club, so I'd love to do it on smallmouth."

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What will the cut-weight be?

This will be a make-or-break weigh-in for some Elite Series anglers. When the field is cut to the top 50 for Saturday's competition, it will mark the end of the 2018 season for several anglers who came into this event with a reasonable chance to qualify for the Toyota Angler of the Year Championship next month at Georgia's Lake Chatuge.

What will be the cut-weight today? I'm going to guess 39-3, based on history. Last year here 50th place on Day 1 was 18-0. The Day 2 50th place cut-weight was 34-13. So the formula was double 18-0, which is 36-0, and subtract 1 pounds, 3 ounces.

This year 50th place on Day 1 was 20-3. Double that and you get 40-6. Subtract 1 pound, 3 ounces and you have 39-3. Obviously, there's nothing scientific about this.

Whatever the cut-weight is, you can bet someone will make it and someone will miss it be a single ounce, if not in a tiebreaker. That seldom varies in any tournament dominated by smallmouth bass, where there's less variation between the weight of the fish than there is in a largemouth bass event.

Another 'wow' weigh-in?

If you glance at the current BASSTrakk totals, you might think Day 2 on the St. Lawrence River isn't going to match Day 1. It rarely does, wherever the Elite Series goes.

But keep this in mind: Yesterday at this time there were only 12 bags of 20 pounds or more on BASSTrakk, and the official scales recorded a whopping 52. Today there are 11.

BASSTrakk is only a guesstimate. Some guys weigh all their bass on digital scales, like Matt Lee, for instance, who showed 27-4 on BASSTrakk and officially weighed 27-12. And most guys just make a ballpark guess. With these big smallmouth bass, their guesstimates are often light.


Fishing for Saturday

On Saturday the tournament field is cut to the top 50 anglers, with the remainder having fished their last day of the 2018 Elite Series season. 

Everyone wants to fish and some anglers need it more than others. Here are a few notable names. 

Mike McClelland, currently 56th in the points, is fishing on the strength of his current fifth-place showing in the BASSTrakk standings. The points will be updated after today’s weigh-in, and McClelland will certainly move up closer to the bubble. Another day could put him in contention to qualify for the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship. 

Same for Brandon Lester, 53rd in the points, leading the tournament according to BASSTrakk. The long shot is David Walker, 76th in points and just behind Lester in the tournament. 

Everyone has a goal for today and for most, including all of the above, just making it to Saturday is universal on the priority list.

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Anticipating the p.m. bite

The smallmouth bite seemed to really turn on yesterday afternoon. There's a reason for that, according to local guide Randy Yeager.

"This is an afternoon fishery," Yeager said. "Smallies love sun, and the afternoon bite is always best here."

That definitely seemed to be the case yesterday. Today there were only four 20-pound bags showing on BASSTrakk at noon. Day 2 seldom matches the overall totals from Day 1, no matter where the Elite Series goes. But the afternoon bite might kick the St. Lawrence River smallmouth bass into high gear again today.

The hot zone

We must be in the vicinity of fish because we're in the vicinity of guys who are catching them today. In short order we watched Josh Bertrand, third with 45-7, and then Jesse Wiggins, sixth with 41-12, trying to upgrade their limits.

They and other top contenders nearby are all doing virtually the same things, bouncing and dragging drop shots or other finesse baits along the bottom and over humps and rock piles. If I were fishing the "bent rod pattern," this is the place I'd be.

Leaderboard shuffle

We all want to know if today will be a repeat of Thursday with the phenomenal catches of smallmouth that crossed the scales. In the meantime, the BASSTrakk standings indicate otherwise. 

“We leaned on them pretty heavy during practice and then today.” David Walker told me that yesterday at the weigh-in. “The catches might drop some tomorrow.”

So far that is correct. By this time yesterday the Top 10 on the scoreboard had 20 pounds in their livewells. Today only four anglers have hit the 20-pound mark, according to BASSTrakk. 

And there are just five of the Top 12 from Thursday currently inside that mark. Those anglers are David Walker, holding second, Scott Rook, James Elam, Jesse Wiggins and Brandon Lester.

Finally, five for KVD

Kevin VanDam has tried a variety of tactics to fill out his limit, and the latest switch finally paid off. The 3 1/2-pounder latched onto a hardbait, one with Kevin's name on it, most likely. The fish should give him 38 pounds and move him into the top 20 at this point. 

"I lost a big one just now," he told me a few minutes later. "That's three big ones I've lost this morning. It's incredible how hard these fish fight!"

Rook off the bubble, for now

Scott Rook came into this event ranked 51st in Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points. He knew it was do-or-die if he was going to qualify for next month's AOY Championship, which includes only the top 50 from the regular season final standings.

"I told my wife if I don't catch 20 pounds (Thursday) I might as well go home because I'll be out of it," Rook said. "I knew that. But, of course, I needed to move up a little in AOY, and a 25-pound stringer certainly helps that."

Yeah, his 4th-place 25-pound, 11-ounce bag certainly did that. If the tournament ended yesterday, Rook would be in 31st place in the AOY standings, going from bubble boy for the AOY Championship to a possible automatic Classic berth. 

But AOY points aren't earned until the standings are final. He knows he's got to catch a big stringer again today. So far, he's struggling. BASSTrakk showed him with two 2-pounders at 10 a.m. Rook handled the pressure well yesterday. He's fishing among a group of anglers, where everybody sees what everybody else is catching.

"You can't go out there and put that pressure on you to perform," he said. "Just go out there and fish. That's all you can do. I took my time. You can't panic in that situation. Everybody around me was catching 4-pounders.

"I think I was doing something a little bit different than what a lot of them are doing."
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A keeper for KVD

Kevin VanDam's patience finally paid off with what looks like a 4-pound smallmouth. He played it for maybe 5 minutes, tiring the it out in the current before scooping it out of the water. During that time, he made two or three circuits from the bow to the stern, keeping an open lane between him and a much-needed catch.

As VanDam motored away to start another drift, we spotted Ott DeFoe fight and land a keeper that might help him. Maybe things are starting to heat up here, just when the crowd of anglers have started to thin out.