Zaldain on the board

Photographer Andy Crawford just phoned in this report about Chris Zaldain:

"After catching nothing at his shallow spot, Zaldain moved to what he described as a boat wreck in 17 feet of water. He boated a smallmouth weighing 2 pounds, 8 ounces (according to BASSTrakk), and then dumped a keeper at boat side. Not good news but the new spot obviously shows potential."

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Johnston needs one stress-free day

Mechanical failures have marred Cory Johnston's first two days of the AOY Championship. On Day 1, it was an outboard motor failure. On Day 2, it was a trolling motor failure.

"I had no trolling motor all day," Johnston said yesterday. "When I got to my spot, nothing."

Yet the first-year Elite Series angler from Canada remains in the thick of the AOY race. Johnston weighed 19-7 on Day 1 and 21-0 yesterday. He began the tournament third in the AOY race, 14 points behind leader Scott Canterbury. If Johnston can simply have a stress-free day - no mechanical failures - he's capable of weighing the big bag of the tournament today.

"I learned a lot (Monday)," Johnston said. "I learned that the fish I found in practice are still there. I had to catch them differently. If I don't run around and I stay put and figure out how to catch them, I can weigh a big bag.

"I rolled up in the last half hour, did things differently in the same area where I found a great big group of them in practice, made 10 casts, hooked seven, lost two and had to come in. I lost one great big one. Every cast I could make without getting grass on my bait, I caught a fish."

So what's the biggest five-bass limit, within reason, you can expect from Lake St. Clair now?

"You can catch a 30-pound sack here," Johnston said. "Absolutely they're here. I caught two 6 1/2s the first day of practice, and another one over 6 the third day. They're here. No doubt."

The Seth Feider Show, AOY implications

"Bassmaster LIVE" today included a 40-minute segment we'll call "The Seth Feider Show." It began at 12:21 p.m. when Feider landed a 4-pound, 5-ounce smallmouth bass. That fish was followed by three five-pounders in a row and ended with a 4-11 at 1:02. In summation, Feider caught a 25-pound bag in 40 minutes.

He knew this spot would be productive after finding it in practice at the south end of Lake St. Clair. More impressively, when he decided not to endure the rough ride south yesterday, he pulled up to a known community hole and did the same thing - 26 pounds, 12 ounces, to be exact, in about 30 minutes.

Feider doesn't have a chance to win the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race. He came into the event in 8th place, trailing leader Scott Canterbury by 53 points. But what Feider has done over the past two days demonstrates that the AOY title could be decided at any point on tomorrow's final day. When it's possible to catch 25 pounds in 30 minutes, anyone who hasn't been mathematically eliminated has a chance Tuesday.

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Lester is back

Brandon Lester is riding the momentum of a great year going into the final two days of the season. When evaluating an Elite Series anglers success we too often just limit their championship appearances only with the Elite events. So far, Lester has four Championship Sunday appearances in the Elite Series. But he also has a Championship Saturday appearance in a Bassmaster Open, and a championship round appearance at the Classic held in Knoxville, Tenn. Add them all up and his year has been phenomenal.

And now here he is again. Lester chose to spend his entire tournament in the St. Clair River, doing what he does best. That is targeting riverine smallmouth, just like he does back home on the likes of the Tennessee River impoundments in northern Alabama, near his home in Fayetteville, Tenn. Here, he has a shallow and deep bite going. A key area is a point bordered by river channels on both sides, with an overall depth of 40 feet.

“They slide up on that point to feed,” he said. “It’s a perfect spot to reload.”

That’s a good thing, and he’ll need it on Tuesday. As for baits, nothing special there. He is rotating through a drop shot, Ned rig and swimbait.

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Mueller's game plan

Call Paul Mueller’s game plan on Sunday all about putting points on the board. He initially planned to hit an area found during practice the first thing in the morning. He ditched the plan after judging the wind would make the long run there and back too risky.

“I just don’t think it’s wise to make a long run like that, not knowing if the fish might have moved, and do it on the first day of the tournament,” he said.

Instead, Mueller began the day in a nearer area that he’d not fished during practice. Ironically, he only made the stop to keep a lure in the water while contemplating whether or not to make the long run to his primary area. It turned out to be a good move. On the first cast he caught a four-pounder and then stayed for most of the day. Staying rewarded him with a limit weighing 22 pounds, 4 ounces.

Today, with there winds calmer, Mueller planned to make the run to his best area.

It looks like things are falling into place. BASSTrakk now shows Mueller in second place with 18-12 in the livewell. Most importantly, the game plan has him inside the Classic cut. 

Combs culls with a 4 1/2-pounder

Keith Combs is in the process of completing a solid season on the Elite Series - again. The Huntington, Texas, pro uncharacteristically finished 43rd in the AOY standings last year and missed qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic. But he came into this year's AOY Championship ranked 12th and he's having a good week at St. Clair.

Combs was 19th with 18-4 yesterday. He had 18 pounds at 11:45 today, which included this 4 1/2-pound smallmouth.

Since qualifying for the Elite Series in 2011, Combs has proven to be one of the best anglers on the circuit. He finished second to Gerald Swindle in the 2016 AOY race. Combs was 9th in 2017. His Elite Series victories include the remarkable 2013 tournament at Falcon Lake, when he totaled 111 pounds, 5 ounces, and the 2017 AOY Championship at Mille Lacs, when he had 72-5 over three days.

While Combs doesn't have much at stake this week, he does realize the significance of winning this tournament, saying, "It's important. I still have people letting me know how they saw me catching 'em on that big jig at Mille Lacs."

Mystery with Mueller

Paul Mueller has been in the abyss with no signal for Bassmaster LIVE or BASSTrakk. I managed to get in contact with his cameraman Tim. Mueller unofficially has 5 fish for 14-8. He was the Bassmaster Classic bubble boy coming into this event as he sat in 42nd in points. He moved up to 38th yesterday because of his 4th place standing at St. Clair. He had 22-6 and hopes to back it up once again. He just popped into BASSTrakk and is 6th unofficially half way through Day 2.

Hartman over $250K, and counting

Jamie Hartman has had a whale of a time fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series this season, especially considering he's coming off a medical hardship season due to a back injury. His winnings so far this season are $267,467, and counting.

Most of that money came via not one, but two Elite Series victories - at Lake Gunterville and Cayuga Lake. And, oh, what a few ounces have meant for Hartman. He won the $100,000 top prize at Guntersville by six ounces over Chris Zaldain and Matt Arey. He won another $100,000 at Cayuga by 10 ounces over Jeff Gustafson.

Hartman came into the AOY Championship in 18th place. His 2020 Classic berth is assured, and he's going to take home some more B.A.S.S. money this week. Hartman finished in 35th on Day 1 yesterday. He had a 14 1/2-pound limit by 10 a.m. today. He'll add a minimum of $11,000 to his earnings this week.

Prince catching big ones today

Cliff Prince is continuing a rally that started at the St. Lawrence River in August and has him on the verge of clinching a Bassmaster Classic berth. After placing 9th yesterday with 21-3, Prince has put 18 1/2 pounds of bass in the boat this morning, plus this big muskie.

The Palatka, Fla., angler could afford to celebrate the muskie catch with a smile. That might not have been the case prior to his recent rally, when a Classic berth seemed unlikely. But Prince posted finishes of 26th at St. Lawrence, 10th at Cayuga Lake and 41st at Lake Tenkiller.

He was 40th in the AOY standings entering St. Clair. Two good days in a row here have put a smile on Prince's face, even when he's holding a toothy muskellunge.

Hudnall's Classic quest

Derek Hudnall’s quest to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic is coming from an unlikely source and place. The Louisianan had never before been to Lake St. Clair, and caught his personal best smallmouth—three times—on the morning of his first practice. What is even more remarkable is that Hudnall has apparently graduated with high marks from a crash course in smallmouth fishing that evolved over practice.

“What I learned here so far is if you can find a small area where there are big smallmouth, then you can typically adjust with them,” he said. “That’s what it takes here, and how I’ve been able to put together a legit pattern.”

Here’s the proof. On Sunday, Hudnall caught his biggest smallmouth of the day on a totally different pattern than he did in practice. He vacated that area at 10:30 a.m. in search of new water. He found it. That’s where he is now.

“Yesterday, it seemed like everywhere I stopped that I caught a big one,” he continued. “I’m not getting a whole lot of bites but when I do, it’s a good one.”

Hudnall also knows that under the constantly changing conditions in play with the weather (mostly wind), that it will take starting over each day.

“The water is getting cooler and I think that is pushing my fish shallower,” he said. “It might be the bait is coming shallow and the bass are following them.”