Lucas, Elam running away

As we pass the halfway point of this three-day tournament, Justin Lucas and James Elam are taking the air out of two big balloons. Lucas came into this event with a 9-point AOY lead and knowing if he finished 8th or higher, Josh Bertrand couldn't catch him, even if Bertrand won the tournament.

At 11 a.m. today, BASSTrakk showed Lucas in 4th place with 10 3/4 pounds today, and he's got every bit of that, to go with his 6th place bag of 13-6 yesterday. Meanwhile, Bertrand is still mired in 50th place.

As for the $25,000 first-place prize and the blue B.A.S.S. Elite Series trophy that goes with a win here, Elam has topped his Day 1 first-place bag of 16-10 with 17-10 today, and he's opened a 7-pound lead over second-place Chris Lane, according to BASSTrakk.

However, there's still plenty of drama left in this concerning the automatic GEICO Bassmaster Classic qualifying spots. And there will be until Sunday's weigh-in is complete. The same goes for the Rookie of the Year race between Roy Hawk and Jake Whitaker. With so much at stake, there will be theatrics in this event until the very end.

Weekend outlook

There is usually nothing unusual about a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament being held during a weekend. An exception will be the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship. Beyond the obvious here are the reasons why.

Saturday is an off day as the anglers participate in Bassmaster University at the Elite Expo at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Hiawassee. Lake Chatuge gets a break from the fishing pressure, or maybe not.

The north Georgia lake is a popular resort, vacation and retiree haven. On top if it all there are supposedly weekend bass tournaments on the schedule. What angling pressure is relieved by the Elite Series pros is replaced by tournament anglers, and on top of that, weekend fishermen just out for the fun. Keep in mind that Chatuge is only 7,500 acres, so it won’t take much fishing pressure to impact the bite.

When the fishing resumes on Sunday it could be under different weather conditions. In the forecast is a 30 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. That is the only hope for improving the fishing. Wind-driven current, sun and clouds. Both combine to stimulate fish movement. Even so slight, any change in the weather will be better than none at all.

Topwater bite heats up

As predicted the sun is rising and the topwater bite is getting hot. What’s cool about that is we are seeing the sport’s best 50 anglers dialing into the best lures and tactics after Thursday when they just began to figure things out.

Jacob Wheeler told me this morning that his topwater bite is contingent on the presence of isolated bottom cover. That is logical because as the sun rises it draws the bass tighter to the shade—or ambush points—provided by the many brushpiles strategically placed by anglers on the lake bottom. The tantalizing action of a noisy topwater brings them up to the surface.

Justin Lucas just all but confirmed that theory on Bassmaster LIVE. Lucas now has about 10 pounds in his livewell, which was his daily goal for achieving his goal of Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year.

“When you get around them (bass) they are everywhere around those (brushpiles),” said Lucas. He is using a fast-moving topwater to bring them up.

James Elam, the current BASSTrakk leader, also is dialed into the topwater bite. Elam has discovered a pencil popper is ideal for covering water and making the bass show themselves. A pencil popper is a walking bait with a weight-filled chamber at the rear that enables the lure to be cast long distances. The object of using the walking bait is twofold. First, to catch a fish and secondly, to enable Elam to throw a follow up lure into the strike zone. A wake bait is the follow-up lure.

“They are more prone to bite the walking bait because it’s more of a reaction lure,” he said.

That is another enlightening discovery made by more and more anglers so far. The Chatuge bass have grown wary of lures tossed at them on the surface due to angler pressure. Short strikes have been problematic. Giving the bass less time to look at the bait and trigger their predator instinct with a fast-moving reaction lure is a wise move.

Lucas with 4-pounder

Toyota Angler of the Year Leader Justin Lucas is feeling it. The California native who now lives in Alabama just landed a 4-pound bass. He fist pumped and hollered like he just won the AOY Championship. And he may have. BASSTrakk has him at 8-4 for the day. We believe he’s closer to 10 pounds. On Day 1 Lucas underestimated his total weight by about 3 pounds. As I’m writing this post he lands another bass and culls again.

Lucas with a limit

Justin Lucas just caught back to back bass to fill out his limit. His fourth keeper appeared to be a 3-pound class fish. Maybe a little less. With it, Lucas showed some excitement for the first time. The fifth keeper was in the 1 pound range. Thomas Allen and I believe this gives him about 7 pounds.

Whitaker's time is now

On one hand, you might think Jake Whitaker would be in a bit of a panic at 10:30 today. He's only got a single 1-pound, 12-ounce keeper, according to BASSTrakk. However, Whitaker knows how this lake fishes, and how he was successful fishing it yesterday. It's just now prime time for the Rookie of the Year contender.

"When the sun gets up here, that's when you can get them to bite," he said after weighing a 13 1/2-pound, sixth-place bag Thursday. "Most of my big ones came after 10:30 or 11:00.

"I think I found a section of the lake where I can get more bites and they're the right size."

Bertrand’s check cashing streak

Josh Bertrand is not having a great tournament here at Lake Chatuge. But that should not minimize the amazing season he has had. Bertrand is the only angler to make the top 50 cut in all eight regular season Elite tournaments this year.

Here are Bertrand’s finishes this year in chronological order: 20, 46, 6, 26, 44, 30, 8 and 1. That has the 29 year old sitting 2nd in Toyota Angler of the Year standings. Justin Lucas, who leads AOY only missed one check this year, with a 73rd place at Kentucky Lake. But he made up for that with five top 12 finishes.

"I've been lucky to get on a roll," said Bertrand earlier in the year. "I'm learning better how to manage practice and the tournament. And I've been making less bonehead decisions."

Bertrand has been a check making machine since joining the Elite Series in 2013. He has fished a total of 71 Bassmaster tournaments, including Opens, and has made a check 51 times. That includes this week’s AOY Championship where all 50 qualifiers are paid.

Wheeler's reaction bite theory

One of the buzz phrases of the week is about the spotted bass “always looking up.” Translated, that describes how deepwater bass that are suspended or on the bottom look up toward the surface for passing blueback herring. That scenario draws the bass to the surface to feed.

Jacob Wheeler has a different theory.

“The spotted bass on Chatuge have been suspended out in the open water since May, just like they have on the Tennessee River where I live,” said Wheeler, who lives near Chattanooga, Tenn. “That makes them tougher to catch because they are conditioned to all these lures going above their heads.”

Wheeler talked about the importance of the reaction bite in triggering the fish to feed.

“You have to force them into making a decision about taking the lure or not,” he explained. “Utilizing fast moving reaction baits makes them look at a lure going past them, not above them.”

Crankbaits and swimbaits come to mind. Although not a strike-zone penetrating choice, a topwater walking bait is a reaction bite. It emulates a blueback herring and stands out with it’s splashing, noisy action that can grab the attention of a bass in deep water. Wheeler told me some of his bass came from up to 30 feet to charge at his topwater lures.

Classic berths hotly-contested

If you finish in the top 35 of the final Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, you are guaranteed a berth in the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic. That number usually extends a few more places, based on double-qualifiers. For instance, as the 2018 Classic champ, Jordan Lee is automatically qualified for the 2019 Classic. However, Lee isn’t going to finish in the AOY top 35 this year, so he isn’t a double-qualifier. Neither is Drew Benton, who earned an automatic berth with his win at Texas Fest on Lake Travis.

This season is different too because of the new Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Championship. Previously, at this time some double-qualifiers would have been determined based on Opens victories by Elite Series anglers who were also in the AOY top 35. But this year those double-qualifiers, if any, won’t be known until the Opens Championship Oct. 18-20 on Table Rock Lake.

All that is to say that finishing in the top 35 in the AOY final standings Sunday seems more important than ever. And there was a lot of movement around the top 35 “bubble” on Day 1. Remember, no points are earned on a single tournament day. The points are based solely on the final standings. However, the daily updated standings during a tournament indicate a trend. Below you’ll see who is trending up and who is trending down around that top 35 bubble based on the Day 1 standings:

Trending Up
Bill Lowen+6(37th to 31st)
Keith Poche +4 (31st to 27th)
Jake Whitaker +8 (32nd to 24th)
Chad Pipkens+5(39th to 34th)
Jason Christie+4(41st to 37th)

Trending Down
Chris Zaldain -12 (23rd to 35th)
Cliff Pace-8 (25th to 33rd)
Jared Lintner-6 (34th to 40th)
Scott Rook-5 (36th to 41st)
Edwin Evers -4 (35th to 39th)