Zaldain's mental game

I have followed with keen interest the evolution of Chris Zaldain’s career. Yesterday I was impressed with this comment that speaks a lot about how he’s matured as an angler.

“What I’ve observed from the great anglers is how they treat the first day of a tournament like a fourth practice day,” he said. “Leaving open my options instead of locking myself into a lure or pattern is the best approach.”

Zaldain is practicing what he preaches. Yesterday he started the day with a jerkbait. Today it’s a slow-moving finesse lure. And he followed the same plan last week at Lake Tenkiller, finishing second to Carl Jocumsen.

Leaving options open is also a good idea in the fall on Great Lakes smallmouth fisheries.

“They stay on the move, and move horizontally from point to point, and grassline to grassland, munching on food along the way.”

Most of all, Zaldain is calm, cool and collected. That is what it will take to stay in contention for the likes of a career-making Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title.

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Movers and shakers from Day 1 of AOY

Coming into the AOY Championship, it seemed there were a few anglers who could move from outside the Classic cut back into contention. Anglers like Jake Whitaker, Skylar Hamilton, and Derek Hudnall all moved from outside the cut into the Top 42 in the points race. Whitaker is 7th in this event, Hamilton (6th) and Hudnall tied for 2nd. They got the help they needed, but some anglers also made it tough on them as they caught good on Day 1 as well.

Todd Auten, Cliff Prince, Paul Mueller all played some great offense/defense as they kept pace in the points by landing in the Top 10 of this event, respectively. They came into this event in 39th, 40th, and 42nd in points, just above the Classic line. With a stout performance on Day 1, they moved up to 36th, 37th, and 38th, giving themselves some breathing room on the Classic line. They can't let up though because there is plenty of room to fall for all six bubble boys to fall in this event and give back the well-earned points they garnered.

Greg DiPalma and Garrett Paquette also helped the anglers as they struggled and dropped back in the race. Paquette fell 5 spots and was 43rd after yesterday, meanwhile, DiPalma fell to 49th after dropping a zero on the stat sheet. DiPalma has some fish today so he will gain, at minimum, 51 points today and will jump into the Classic as the bubble boy with those 51 points. With DiPalma landing a fish and probably registering points today that puts 8 anglers within 35 points of each other which seems like a lot but most of those 8 are either at the top of the standings or bottom so a lot of points can be lost and gained on Day 2 of this event.

The biggest mover on Day 1 was Caleb Sumrall who moved up 8 spots in AOY, up to 20th. Skylar Hamilton was the second biggest jumper as he moved 5 spots into 40th. The biggest fallers include Greg Dipalma who dropped 14 spots, Ray Hanselman lost 6 places in points. Meanwhile, Matt Herren and Garrett Paquette both lost 5 places.

Blaylock's confidence

Stetson Blaylock is off to a good start on Monday. Call it a case of riding off a confidence-building Sunday. Part of that comes from the fact that Blaylock caught his personal best smallmouth limit weighing 24 pounds, 12 ounces.

“It’s crazy that where I caught them on Sunday was a place that I caught them like that maybe six years ago,” he said.

Blaylock revisited history on the last day of practice, and had this to say about the confidence he gained to make the spot his go-to for Sunday.

“I caught a five pounder and there were a dozen like it that followed it to the boat,” he added.

Even better, initially the hot spot was where Blaylock thought he’d need to weed through small fish to gain ground on the likes of the five pounders that came from the spot on Sunday.

“I think it’s what I’m throwing, which are some baits that I don’t think a lot of other guys are using,” he said. “My baits make a different noise and I think those fish are reacting to it.”

What else is going on is other anglers are fishing around Blaylock.

“There are other guys fishing like me, but not using the kind of baits that I am throwing.”

Blaylock surged with even more confidence in making this statement.

“The cool part is I am catching other fish in areas where I did not in practice,” he explained. “This is one of those lakes where you don’t have to pinpoint them and know where they are, because you just need to be in general areas where they are positioned.”

DiPalma lands 51-point bass

Greg DiPalma was the only angler in the 50-man Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship who didn't weigh-in a bass yesterday. So when DiPalma landed a 3-pound, 12-ounce bass at 7:42 today, it not only gave him a tremendous sense of relief, it added 51 points to his AOY-points total.

If you don't weigh-in a legal keeper - 14 inches at Lake St. Clair - you don't receive any AOY points, in any Elite Series tournament, not just this one. On the sliding scale of one point for each place in the standings, beginning with 100 points for first place, last place here this week is worth 51 points.

DiPalma, a 37-year-old Elite Series rookie from Millville, N.J., thought he'd pretty much clinched a Bassmaster Classic berth coming into this event. He was 35th in the AOY standings, 37 points above the 42nd-place cutline. But when he got zero points for no keepers yesterday, the revised AOY standings had DiPalma dropping all the way down to 49th place.

As long as DiPalma makes it back to the weigh-in today, even if it's just with that one single bass, he'll have earned 51 points and be back inside the Classic cut.

So why didn't DiPalma catch a fish yesterday? The short version of the story is that he fished for about 15 minutes after making the long, bumpy run south to Belle River Hump when he realized his bilge pumps weren't working. It took DiPalma from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., using all his considerable big-water boating skills, to navigate his sinking ship back to Metro Park.

"It was a non-stop butt-whipping," DiPalma said. "I had to marshal all my boating experience to keep that boat afloat."

DiPalma has a Captain's License and hours of big-water experience on the East Coast. Once a boat starts filling with water and waves continue crashing over the gunnels, it takes some skills to escape disaster.

So, yeah, DiPalma feels like a new man today - with a dry boat, a 3-pound, 12-ounce bass in the livewell and 51 additional points, at least, in his AOY total, provided he makes it back to Metro Park at check-in time this afternoon. And it's doubtful DiPalma will be pushing his luck today.

Zaldain dialing it in

Chris Zaldain leads the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year rankings in what is shaping up to be a tight race to the finish. Zaldain expressed great confidence in what could happen the next two days. He’s off to a good start with a five-pounder in the livewell as of 6:45 a.m.

Catching 20 pounds each day was his plan coming into the tournament. After yesterday he needs to set that goal higher.

“It looks good because I caught two five pounders on what I thought was my worst spot, and the smallest fish on my best spots,” he said. “What that tells me is that things are changing a lot and I’ve got to adjust and leave open my options.”

That’s a good sign. In the past Zaldain has developed a habit of locking into a lure no matter how well it performs.

“I’m mixing up a lot of things, trying baits that I did not use in practice,” he added. “The fish are changing and I’ve got to change with them.”

That is working too. Photographer Andy Crawford said Zaldain switched to a finesse-type lure that he is slowly retrieving and dragging over his spot. That is a very unique flat that is lined by a grassline. What’s cool about the spot is melting winter ice has scoured the bottom to create small holes for baitfish to seek refuge from the current. So current, grass and depth. It’s all there. And at least one five-pounder.

The fickle finger of fishing fate

There's nothing quite like an early autumn tournament on one of the Great Lakes to put some extra wiggle in the fickle finger of fishing fate. The swing between good luck and bad luck becomes wider with high winds and big water.

First, the bad luck: 1) Greg DiPalma's bilge pumps quit after the run south to Belle River Hump and he spent the rest of his day using all his considerable boating skills to get a sinking ship back to Metro Park - fishless; 2) AOY leader Scott Canterbury is forced to compete all day without the use of his malfunctioning depth-fingers on the bow of his boat; 3) AOY contender Cory Johnston's outboard motor quit but he's able to switch boats with his brother Chris in order to stay in contention for the AOY title.

Then there's the good luck, or as Seth Feider deemed it, "dumb luck." Feider weighed a phenomenal 26-pound, 12-ounce five-bass limit on Day 1 at Lake St. Clair. It was two pounds heavier than the second-place bags of 24-12 caught by Stetson Blaylock and Derek Hudnall.

"In all of practice I found one spot and it was on the south end of the lake," Feider said. "I didn't think it was fishable (Sunday), so I just completely scrapped that."

Feider stayed north, had a few small keepers in the boat and decided to fish a river channel buoy, which he noted was a well-known "community hole."

"The waves were crashing real hard, so I stopped short, went to drift, picked up a (Rapala) DT 10 (crankbait), fired it out on this little point. caught a four-something and hit Spot-Lock (on his Minn Kota Ultrex trolling motor)," Feider said. "I caught 'em every cast for 20 or 30 minutes. Right there, one spot, never moved the boat, same bait, same cast, everything."

When asked if that was part of his plan for the day, Feider replied, "Absolutely not. I caught a fish there five years ago. I had not been there in practice. It was just dumb luck really."

So the question is this: Who does the fickle finger of fishing fate swing in favor of and swing against today on Lake St. Clair?

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Blaylock: "What am I doing!"

As the rain started pelting down on Stetson Blaylock, and he was thinking about moving closer to the check-in site at Metro Park,he hooked up with yet another big smallmouth bass. However, Blaylock didn't think it was all that big - until he boat-flipped it.

"What am I doing!" shouted Blaylock upon realizing this was a near-5-pounder. Well, when it's your day, it's your day. Blaylock puts everything on a digital scale, which indicated that one weighed 4.80 pounds, allowing him to cull a 4.25-pounder. So he should have at least 22-8 today.

"I'm pretty sure that's my biggest bag of smallmouth ever," said Blaylock.

He started the day fourth in the AOY standings, 20 points behind Scott Canterbury. He's seemingly on the edge of contending for the AOY title due to the fact that both Chris Zaldain and Cory Johnston are between him and Canterbury. Blaylock is certainly keeping himself in the AOY conversation for another day, that's what he's doing.

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Hudnall's big move

BASSTrakk shows Derek Hudnall in second place with 23 pounds. His location is uncertain (the BASSTrakk map shows him in the Mojave Desert). What we do know is the weights are correct. I just traded text messages with Ronnie Moore, who confirmed Hudnall texted those weights to him. Ronnie plugged them into BASSTrakk because Hudnall is fishing without a marshal.

What is interesting to note is that Hudnall caught two personal best smallmouth during practice. Those fish came from the St. Clair River.

Even more important is the weight nudges him closer to getting inside the Classic cut. Before today, Hudnall had 522 points for 46th place. The cutline for 42nd place was 536 points. 

Here comes Feider

Seth Feider has done what he does best. And that is not being intimidated by wind and waves. He has jumped into the lead with 23 pounds, 4 ounces. In the livewell is a trio of 5 pounders and another smallmouth weighing 3-8. The dink in the box weighs 3-8. Look for him to cull the lightweights as the day goes on.

Now on the board are four bags weighing over 20 pounds. The pre-tournament prediction to be in contention to win was a daily weight of 25 pounds. That’s still doable but those predictions also came before the anglers encountered sustained winds of 20 mph

Zaldain ups his game

Chris Zaldain left his starting spot with two smallies in the boat for about 5 1/2 pounds, and I headed in to work up the photo gallery (which will be available soon) because he told me yesterday his No. 2 spot meant a 20-mile run.

But he obviously changed his mind and stopped short — and quickly put two more chunky bass in his livewell.

Jake Latendresse, the videographer on the boat with Zaldain, texted me that he wasn’t planning to stay on that spot long, but that he had boated a 2-12 and a 5-pounder.

About 45 minutes later he added a 4-12 to round out a limit that weighs an estimated 18-4, according to BASSTrakk. Toyota Bassaster AOY leader Scott Canterbury is showing two fish for 5-12, so things could get really interesting in the points race.