Classic qualifiers coming into focus

Qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic is the No. 1 goal of every Elite Series angler at the start of each season. As we approach the end of this final event of the year, those qualifiers have come into focus.

The top 39 in the final Angler of the Year points standings automatically qualify for the Classic. That list extends with various scenarios. For instance, the defending Classic champion also receives an automatic berth to the following Classic. Hank Cherry finished 38th in the AOY standings this week, so that bumps the Classic qualifiers from the AOY standings one spot to 40. Patrick Walters will have triple-qualified after he's crowned champion of Texas Fest this afternoon. Walters also won an Bassmaster Open this season at Lake Hartwell. So that bumps the AOY list down two more places to 42.

Now that the final AOY points are all but set, with some minor adjustments based on how the Top 10 finish today, here's a look at those final qualifying spots:

  • Brad Whatley was on the 39th-place bubble coming in, qualified for today's Top 10 and is now well inside the cut at 29th.
  • Bill Lowen was even lower on the bubble — in 40th place — and stayed in the Classic cut with a 40th-place AOY finish.
  • Ed Loughran was 41st before Lake Fork and jumped to 31st by qualifying for today's Top 10.
  • Chad Pipkens was 42nd coming in and jumped to 36th with his 18th-place finish here.
  • Hank Cherry was 43rd coming in and became a double-qualifier with his 29th place finish at Fork. He's now 38th in AOY points.
  • Shane LeHew was 38th coming in and is now in the 42nd and last qualifying spot after finishing 57th here.

With two more Bassmaster Basspro.com Opens remaining on the schedule, there's still a chance that the Elite Series AOY Classic qualifiers list extends one or two more places. But there's no guarantee it does so. The first man out of the Classic cut now — in 43rd place — is Keith Combs.

Patrick Walters: Mission accomplished - and more

It took him all day to put the icing on the cake, but Patrick Walters completed his first Bassmaster Elite Series victory in historic fashion. After starting Day 4 with a 25-pound lead, it was a given Walters would win. The only question was could he top the 100-pound mark in doing so.

In the final hour Walters added a 6-pound, 5-ounce bass and a 4-3 to vault over the century mark. He finished with 22-10 for the day and 104-12 for the tournament. He obliterated the previous mark for the largest winning margin in an Elite Series win, which was Mike McClelland's 15 1/2-pound edge over second place at Grand Lake in 2006. Keith Combs finished second to Walters with 75-2, a winning margin of 29-10.

Whatley has recovered from disaster

Brad Whatley is on the verge of the best Elite Series finish in his two seasons on the tour. It would be a fitting capper to his near disaster of a year. The 40-year-old angler from Bivins, Texas, was having a good year until Lake Champlain. He was coming off his first-ever Elite Series Top-10 finish — ninth at the St. Lawrence River. Then took a 75th-place nosedive at Champlain.

Then the real disaster hit. After driving 15 hours to Detroit for the Lake St. Clair tournament, Whatley was minutes from his hotel when another driver fell asleep at the wheel, hit his truck in the rear bumper and slid down his boat and trailer. Whatley's truck flipped.

"I can't use that as an excuse," Whatley said. "I had so many people come to my rescue. Maybe half the field called or texted. People I don't even have a relationship with were asking what I needed. And Phoenix boats came through in a big way. They brought me a trailer and a tow vehicle."

Whatley finished 60th at St. Clair, then 51st at Lake Guntersville. And he was well outside the Classic cut. Then he began the slow climb back — 39th at Santee Cooper and 20th at Chickamauga. Entering Lake Fork, Whatley was right on the bubble for Classic qualification — 39th in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings.

"I knew my back was against the wall when I came here," Whatley said. "I knew I had to catch 'em."

That he has done. Whatley entered today's final in sixth place. At 1:45 p.m., he'd moved up a spot to fifth. And he's currently 29th in AOY points, well within the cut for the Classic, which will be held at Lake Ray Roberts in his home state of Texas. It will be his second Classic. Whatley finished 56th in AOY points during his 2019 rookie season.

"I am excited about that Classic," said Whatley, after his comeback from a near-disaster of a season was complete this week.

Where's the sun?

I just checked the future satellite and radar and if it holds true, the guys wanting the sun to fire the bite might not have to wait much longer. Reason I checked it out was that some very outer feeder rain bands from Tropical Storm Zeta are spinning across northeast Louisiana. The area is blanketed in clouds, as you can see. On the map, Lake Fork is between the cities of Tyler and Sulphur Springs. 

Feider's 9-9 takes Toyota Tundra Award

When Seth Feider took big bass honors on Day 1, he didn't think it would hold up as the big bass over the next three days of the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks & Wildlife.

"I'd feel a lot better if it was 11 pounds," said Feider, noting the double-digit bass reputation of Lake Fork.

And Feider was a little upset about having to come south from his home state of Minnesota where duck season was open. But he definitely made this week worth his time. Feider finished 11th in the tournament AND won a new Toyota Tundra pickup truck in taking the Toyota Tundra Big Bass Award. So was it worth missing a week of duck hunting in Minnesota?

"Absolutely," Feider said. "But only because the weather was not right for killing ducks. If it was 20 degrees back home, I probably wouldn't have caught that fish. I'd have been thinking about ducks too much."

Palaniuk: Fish for second place, win a truck

Brandon Palaniuk (8th, 12 - 2)

With Patrick Walters holding a 25-pound lead, or more, over the other nine finalists today, Brandon Palaniuk summed up the goals for him and the other eight "also-rans," saying, "Fish for second place, win a truck."

The Toyota Tundra Big Bass Award - a new Toyota Tundra pickup - goes to the angler who catches the biggest bass in this four-day event. Seth Feider's 9-9 on Day 1 leads. When asked if he thought that would be the winner, Feider said, "I'd feel a whole lot better if it was an 11-pounder."

As Lake Fork's history has proven, there are a bunch of double-digit largemouth bass in this 27,700-acre lake. Palaniuk, who began the day in 4th place with 53-10, believes he hooked one that size the first day on a 7 1/2-inch Storm Arashi Glide Bait. Palaniuk said he's caught a 9 1/2-pounder on that lure.

"I think this one was bigger," he said. "I've never hooked one and not been able to turn it. It's not like you're throwing it on a small rod. It's a 7-9 extra heavy. You don't set the hook and it stop. This one, I set the hook and it just stopped. It loaded the rod to its max. It just thrashed around, and then it came off."

Palaniuk plans to swing for the fence with that glide bait today more than he has the previous three days, if the weather is right.

"I need sun and wind," he said. "Sun will help position the fish, and wind breaks up the surface where they'll feed a little better."

Livesay on the board early

So this morning started off very interesting. Right off the bat, we lost Keith Combs in the dense fog. Lake Fork is right now down about 2 1/2 feet.   A large amount of the standing timber is now visible and also easy to run up on, which we did early this morning. After me and my boat driver, Todd Fleuscher, did a dance on the bow we were able to get off of the stump finally. One great thing that came out of our crazy morning is we stumbled upon Lee Livesay.  I got a couple of great shots through the fog as we idled by.   He already has a 6 1/2 pounder.

The fog has rolled in big-time

The top 10, Day 4 anglers took off as scheduled at 6:40 a.m. today. There was no fog delay. But the wind has blown in a thick cloud of fog, at least where Patrick Walters is fishing now.

Steve Bowman, who is following Walters, said he could see all the way across the lake earlier, but this photo shows what it looks like now. Bowman also said the wind is blowing harder than he has noticed all week. So maybe it will blow out the fog as quickly as it has blown it in.

Walters plans to "stomp on 'em"

Patrick Walters

Patrick Walters has his sights set on the century mark, and one of those gaudy, highly-treasured belts B.A.S.S. awards to anyone topping 100 pounds in a tournament. It doesn't happen often, and absolutely no one thought it would happen this week. After consecutive days of 25-14, 26-14 and 29-6, Walters begins today needing only 17-14 to hit the 100-pound mark.

"I can promise you, I'm going to do everything in my power," the 26-year-old, Summerville, S.C., pro said. "I'm going to stomp on 'em as hard as I can. That's a bucket (list) I want to check."

Walters will know early if his pattern of throwing jerkbaits around suspended fish in standing timber will continue for a fourth day in a row. There's an early bite, a lull from about 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then the fish start feeding again. Walters' 29-6 total Saturday began with a 9-pound, 1-ounce bass in the first 30 minutes. It was the big bass of the day for the tournament.

Wendlandt experienced the longest day

Clark Wendlandt had looked at the standings Friday night and figured if he caught at least 7 pounds, he'd win the Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. What he didn't know is that it would take him all day long to catch 7 pounds Saturday.

"If I have experienced a longer day, I can't remember it," said Wendlandt, AOY trophy in hand, after Saturday's weigh-in. "That seemed like the longest. Gosh, I was so intense. I did everything I could do. Without about two hours left, I just felt a peace fall over me. I said, 'If I don't win, it's just not meant to be.'"

It was meant to be. Wendlandt caught 7 pounds, 4 ounces, and finished in 28th place in the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefitting Texas Parks & Wildlife. He won the AOY title by three points over David Mullins, who missed the top 40 Day 2 cut by less than 1 1/2 pounds.

Wendlandt had led the AOY race since Lake St. Clair in August, before stumbling to 81st place at Lake Chickamauga last month. He came into this event in third place. But Wendlandt pointed to that event at Chickamauga as a key moment in his season. He caught only one bass - on Day 1 - in two days there. But that one fish was worth 20 points. Without it, he would have earned no points there.

"Without that one fish at Chickamauga, I wouldn't have won AOY," Wendlandt said. "Maybe Chickamauga was a blessing in disguise. If I'd have come in here with a 40-point lead, I may not have fished the same way. I fished really free, really well, the first two days especially."

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