DECATUR, Ala. — After two days of practice at Wheeler Lake, Paul Elias thought he was going to win the Bassmaster Elite Series Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts. Elias caught enough bass to have 20-pound-plus stringers on both Monday and Tuesday this week.
Instead, Elias finished well out of the money in 87th place Friday.
"I'm making good decisions." That's the statement you hear over and over when a professional bass angler is performing well. And you often hear just the opposite when a pro has a bad day. Elias had an awful opening day of the Southern Challenge.
"I made a real bad decision," said the 57-year-old Laurel, Miss., resident. "I had located three wads of fish (in practice). I was in the first flight (Thursday). Everything was all set up."
When Elias left the Ingalls Harbor launch site on opening day, he ran right past the area where he'd caught an 8-pounder and a 3-pounder in practice in favor of a spot where he caught three 5-pounders in practice.
"When you make two casts and catch a 3 and an 8, there's no telling what's there," Elias said. "I was stupid.
"But I had a feeling that the other place had been found by more people."
Elias felt pretty good about his choice when he caught "the quickest limit I've ever caught in my life" Thursday morning. On his third cast, he caught a keeper on a crankbait. On his next two casts, he caught two keepers on the crankbait each time.
"I had back-to-back doubles," Elias said.
But when he couldn't get a big bite there, he ran back to the spot near the launch site where he'd caught the 3 and the 8 in practice. And there sat Todd Faircloth. When Faircloth weighed the second-biggest five-bass limit of 20 pounds, 9 ounces on Day One, Elias knew one bad decision had totally ruined his tournament.
Faircloth was boat No. 100 of 107 in the launch order Thursday.
"I told myself as I was going out that I was going to start on the first spot I'd found in practice that didn't have a boat on it." Faircloth said. "It just so happened it was right across from the check out area here. I just knew there would be a boat on it."
Elias made plenty of good decisions April 3-6 when he won the $100,000 first prize at Texas' Falcon Lake and set a new BASS four-day heavyweight record of 132 pounds, 8 ounces in the process.
But he hasn't made as many good decisions this season as Faircloth, who was second in Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points entering this tournament.
Sure enough, when asked Friday morning why he was having such a good season, Faircloth said, "I'm fishing real confidently out there. I'm not getting in a hurry. I feel good about a decision when I make it."
Faircloth made a good one Thursday, and Elias made a bad one.
Then there were four
The number of Elite Series anglers who have made the top 50 cut and thus earned at least a $10,000 check in every tournament this season dropped from six to four at Wheeler Lake, the seventh stop on the 11-event trail.
Alton Jones (63rd) and Dean Rojas (58th) saw their streaks end this week. The remaining four are Todd Faircloth, Bryan Hudgins, Mike McClelland and Skeet Reese.
Rojas seemed especially distraught about missing the cut here this week. He entered the tournament fifth in TTBAOY points and had hopes of adding that title to his accomplishments this year.
But there's plenty of proof that one bad tournament doesn't knock you out of the Angler of the Year race. Kevin VanDam is fourth in the points race, and he has missed a cut this season. Reese, the defending champion, missed the cut at Grand Lake last year.
"There's room for error," Reese said. "You can have one bad tournament. But you've got to get a couple of top fives to replace it.
"Last season I bombed at Grand Lake with a 60-something finish. I thought I took myself out of the equation then. But I rallied back with a second and a first.
"So you can have one bad one. But, brother, you've got to kick it up a notch with a couple of really strong finishes to put yourself back in contention."
The bread-winner in the family
Alton Jones has already had a dream year on the Bassmaster Elite Series. It began with that $500,000 victory in the Bassmaster Classic back in February. It continued through the first six tournaments of the 2008 season, as the 44-year-old Waco, Texas, resident made the top 50 cut and earned at least a $10,000 check in each event.
However, as previously mentioned, that streak came to an end Friday when Jones finished 63rd in the Southern Challenge.
Jones' son, Alton Jones Jr., reached the minimum age limit and has been fishing the co-angler side of the Elite Series events since the Pride of Georgia tournament at Clarks Hill Lake during the first week in May.
Friday, Alton Jr., assured himself a check on the co-angler side by placing in the top 50. When asked by emcee Keith Alan what he thought about earning a check in a tournament when his father didn't, Alton Jr. had the perfect reply.
"Somebody has to make some money in this family," he said.
"I caught bigger ones today; I just wish I could have done this yesterday." — Texan Kelly Jordon on his 13-9 bag on Friday
"I'm not surprised by this group anymore. One thing I always guard against is to underestimate the quality of those fishing today. This is the best group of anglers that I've ever fished against." — Four-time Bassmaster Classic champ Rick Clunn when asked if he was surprised by Wheeler's big sacks of bass
"The bad news is that I was the bubble boy yesterday, and I don't have as much today as I did then." —1991 Bassmaster Classic champ Ken Cook on missing the cut
"These young guys on the Elite Series today are too good. They learned everything that Rick Clunn and I know and then added to it." — Ken Cook on the quality of today's Elite Series' pros
"He (Elite Series pro Chris Lane) needed a good fish, so I asked the Lord to give him one and he caught it, about a 5-pounder." — Georgia co-angler Ronnie Tyson on his day from the back of the boat.
"This is a very humbling sport." — BASS fishing legend Gary Klein on dropping from 24th place Thursday to 80th place Friday.