Ito leaves 'em laughing, crying

Japanese angler Taku Ito’s infectious personality left a big crowd both laughing and crying Sunday on the final day of the Farmers Insurance Bassmaster Elite at the St. Lawrence River.

Ito did so in weighing the biggest five-bass limit of the four-day tournament and winning the $100,000 check and the big blue trophy, which the diminutive Ito struggled to lift over his head.

“You have such a big smile on your face because he exudes so much positivity,” said Brandon Palaniuk, who first met Ito in Japan in 2018. “You have to laugh because you’ve already smiled to the max.”

And when the 34-year-old Ito broke into tears upon being declared the winner, tears flowed among the spectators as well. Taku Ito burst upon the bass fishing scene last July when he finished 6th in the Elite Series tournament at the St. Lawrence River. But that tournament was held under Covid-19 restrictions, when no spectators were allowed. After Sunday’s tournament, dozens and dozens of spectators stayed to have their picture made with the hottest star in the bass fishing world.

“He’s such a positive influence on the sport,” said Palaniuk, who finished 6th Sunday. “He’s the type of people we need. He’s super respectful, on and off the water. He’s got an amazing personality, warm, fun to be around, and he carries himself with a lot of honor. He’s very competitive, but he remains a good person at the same time. That’s hard to find these days.”

And he’s one heckuva fisherman. Ito finished in 38th place on Day 1 with 17 pounds, 15 ounces. Then he moved up the standings with a bigger limit each day – 11th on Day 2 with 22-14, 7th on Day 3 with 23-3 and 1st on Day 4 with 26-0 for a total of 90-0.

Ito finished 23rd in Angler of the Year points a year ago. He finished 16th this season. And Taku Ito’s rise to stardom on the Elite Series has just begun.

Down to the wire — again

Just like last week at Lake Champlain, when Bryan Schmitt won by 8 ounces and four anglers finished within 2 pounds of the lead, this one is going down to the wire. BassTrakk isn’t the final word, it’s simply a clue, an estimate of the actual weights. So this one is too close to call between Justin Atkins, Taku Ito, Cory Johnston and Clark Wendlandt.

Last week, Schmitt caught the fish that put him over the top in the final 30 minutes, when he stopped on a channel marker buoy just outside the check-in area at Plattsburgh. The leaders are all on their way back Waddington after fishing either in Lake Ontario itself or not far from it. A last minute difference-making catch near Whittaker Park isn’t out of the question today.

Chris Johnston gambling today

Chris Johnston has ventured further out into Lake Ontario than any other angler in the top 10 today. As you can see in this photo by Shane Durrance, Johnston’s boat is rising and falling in the heavy swells. Johnston left the spots in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River to his brother Cory. He chose the high-risk, high-reward route into Lake Ontario.

“We took a gamble coming to this spot,” said Johnston of the area near Galloo Island. “I don’t know if we’ll get five, but we’ll try. We’re going to have to work for them today.”

Johnston’s got five, but they’re not the quality he needs, totaling only 15-13. He knows, however, that he’s in the land of the giants.

Taku time: “Wow, wow, wow!”

It was just less than a year ago, July 23-26, in fact, that Japanese rookie Elite Series angler Taku Ito burst on the scene. After a long delay in the tournament schedule due to Covid-19, Ito became must-see-TV, both with his fish-catching ability and his irresistible personality. Ito finished 6th at the St. Lawrence River, the first of three straight top 10 finishes on smallmouth bass-dominated fisheries. Ito claimed to have no previous experience catching smallmouth.

It’s Taku time again on the St. Lawrence River. Ito enjoys talking to the fish on the end of this line, trying to verbally encourage them into his hands. After he landed a 5-pound, 8-ounce smallmouth this morning, Ito said, “Wow, wow, wow! It’s a giant!”

He landed a, in his word, “cute” 3-pounder at 10:13 to give him a limit weighing 21-0 and move him to the top of the BassTrakk leaderboard. Ito totaled 23-3 yesterday to move him from 11th place to 7th for today’s top 10 final.

Wendlandt likes weather today

Clark Wendlandt caught a 4-pound, 4-ounce smallmouth on his second cast at Lake Ontario this morning. As you can see in the photo above by Shane Durrance, the lake is a little choppy. Wendlandt thinks that will make fishing better than it was yesterday, when he caught his lightest bag of the tournament, 20 pounds, 10 ounces. He weighed 21-12 on Day 1 and 23-3 on Day 2.

Wendlandt stayed on Lake Ontario all four days last year when he finished 8th on the way to his Elite Series Angler of the Year title. He started today in 4th place, 3-1 out of first. He’s got two keepers at 9:15 totaling 6-12.

Atkins after ’em early

Moments after arriving to the lake, Elite Series newcomer Justin Atkins landed a solid keeper to start the day followed by a four pounder.

The conditions today are significantly different then they were yesterday. There’s a steady northeast wind blowing directly into the Alabama pro’s starting location, forcing him to change up the way he’s fishing.

Yesterday a good number of Atkins’ fish were caught on a hair jig given the lack of wind but today a drop shot appears to be his weapon of choice.

Ultimately, the hair jig is too light of a lure to cast into the strong wind which is why Atkins is utilizing a heavier bait such as a drop shot.

If Atkins can find another group of fish today like he did on Semifinal Saturday, it could go down in a hurry this morning.

Schultz leading again - early

Bernie Schultz led this tournament the first two days before falling to 5th place yesterday. He started today 3 pounds, 13 ounces behind leader Cory Johnston. The 66-year-old Florida native is back in the lead early this morning with 3 keepers totaling 9-4.

Schultz has enjoyed a successful 35-year tournament fishing career, but he has never won a B.A.S.S. tournament. Earlier this week, when asked what a win here would mean to him, Schultz said, “I’d like it for my family more than anything. There are so many sacrifices over 35 years of doing this. I’ve missed weddings, births, birthdays."

Photo by Andy Crawford

Atkins’ strategy makes “scents”

Alabama’s Justin Atkins started Championship Sunday in second place and it’s a safe bet that he’ll be utilizing a bait strategy that helped put him in contention for his first Elite victory.

Spending most of his time in Lake Ontario, Atkins has been leveraging the fish-tempting appeal of Berkley’s PowerBait MaxScent, which utilizes a proprietary material to interact with water for intense dispersion of a scent infusion meticulously formulated to emulate the smell and taste of natural forage.

Atkins caught some of his fish on a dropshot with the MaxScent Flatworm, but when the fish weren’t responding as well as he needed them to, he switched to a light marabou jig and bolstered this presentation with a MaxScent upgrade.

“I take a Berkley MaxScent The General (soft stick worm), cut it down and put it on the jig,” Atkins said. “I put it on the shank and that helps (add bulk and increase the marabou profile).

“I cut it long enough so the MaxScent bait is even with the end to the feathers. The fish get the worm and the marabou at the same time.”

Atkins does this for two reasons: First, he said he’s experienced a lot of short strikes, where fish nip at the bait without committing. The wafting aroma of a MaxScent bait helps close the deal. Also, when fish bite, the bait tastes like familiar forage, so they’re less likely to let go.

“I think that little bit of MaxScent on that jig helps them get it,” he said. “I’m not losing any on this bait.”

Cory Johnston seeking redemption

Last year on the St. Lawrence River, Chris Johnston became the first Canadian to win an Elite Series tournament. That honor probably should have gone to his older brother Cory two years ago. And Cory undoubtedly should be the first Canadian to win a Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year title.

Here’s what happened on August 15, 2019, on the St. Lawrence River: Despite a long day of mechanical failures that ended with him fishing in a boat borrowed from a local friend, Johnston caught a five-bass limit weighing 22 pounds, 5 ounces. He had plenty of time to make his check-in time. What he didn’t realize was the electronics on the borrowed boat hadn’t been reset for Daylight Savings Time. When he did recognize it, he frantically scrambled, but arrived 7 minutes late. The late penalty is one pound per minute. His official weight that day was 15-5, which left him in 60th place.

The Day 2 cut that season was to the top 35 anglers. Johnston weighed 21-7 the next day and missed the cut by two ounces. Instead of being in 9th place with 43-12 and two days left to fish the St. Lawrence River, Johnston was in 36th place and done. There were only three tournaments left in the season. Johnston placed 7th, 3rd and 8th and finished 8 points behind Scott Canterbury for the 2019 Angler of the Year title.

“That cost me Angler of the Year, and there’s an extremely good chance I would have won that tournament,” Johnston said. “I was on really good fish. Maybe we’ll get a little redemption this week. We’ll see.”

Stracner surprised with ROY title

After a 54th-place finish at Lake Champlain, the furthest thing from Josh Stracner’s mind was the Elite Series Rookie of the Year title. He was fifth in ROY points, 55 behind leader KJ Queen coming into the final event of the season at the St. Lawrence River.

 

“The only pressure I had on me at this event was making the Classic,” Stracner said. “I was in 35th place (in Angler of the Year points) coming into this tournament. I practiced just to find something consistent. I wasn’t worried about trying to win the tournament. I found about a 500-yard stretch of bank that had some shallow rock piles on it, and I stayed on that all three days.” 

The top three anglers in the ROY race coming into this event failed to make the Day 2 cut. Stracner was in 17th place entering Day 3. Justin Hamner, who led Stracner by 12 points after Champlain, made the Day 2 cut in 31st place, but fell to 45th Saturday. Stracner finished 22nd and won the Rookie of the Year title by 11 points. The 37-year-old Vandiver, Ala., resident also clinched a Bassmaster Classic berth with a 27th-place finish in the Angler of the Year standings. 

Stracner credited his father, Jerry, with getting him involved in bass tournament fishing at an early age and helping settle him down after a bad day on the water this season. 

“My dad was fishing bass tournaments back in the early ‘70s,” Stracner said. “He actually had me in the boat with him when he was fishing big team tournaments. He started me out really young.”

Stracner’s best finish this season was 16th at Lake Fork. He was 18th in the first Elite Series tournament of the year at the St. Johns River. He said he caught all his bass this week on two lures – Reaction Innovations Shiver Shots (magic craw swirl and white colors) on a drop shot and an Evergreen CR-6 crankbait in ayu color.

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