Elite Analysis: Lake Fork – Day 4

This is a such a scary place to lead and try to win a tournament,” Brandon Palaniuk said this morning on the Live Mix. Indeed, there are numerous fish swimming in in Lake Fork who could’ve upended the leader board for just about any member of our top ten with one quick but ill-advised chomp.

Nevertheless, Trey McKinney never seemed frightened in the least.

Early today he boat flipped a big bass with two-thirds of a rod. Later, he survived furious charges by the double-digit heroics of Tyler Rivet and Justin Hamner and put his own exclamation mark on it with a 7-13 at 2:31pm. That cemented his victory, and kept those of us wanting to see history being made intrigued until the end.

He’s a hundred grand richer, etched in ink in the BASS record book, and yet there’s a spoiled child within me that’s sad he couldn’t come up with one more kicker.

Is it fair to be disappointed that no one topped the Elias record? Or Mark Tyler’s big bass benchmark? I fear that we – including myself — are so jaded as fans that we’re virtually numbed and desensitized to greatness. We’ve seen a lot of these “almosts” in recent years – situations where someone barely missed a hundred pounds, or they caught a hundred pounds of smallmouths and failed to win. No one’s crying them a river over what are truly first-world problems, but we’re increasingly learning to expect things that were previously hard to conceive.

McKinney’s bizarro-world lament will be that he “only” caught an even 30 pounds on Day Three. Do you know how many pros in this tournament would’ve killed for a 30 pound bag? Or how many weekend anglers will never catch one in their lifetime?

We’re having to recalibrate what all of this means. It’ll take some brain power. I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to climb that mountain, but in the meantime here’s what I saw, thought, felt and surmised as this historic event drew to a close:

Excitement = Bad – When Justin Hamner (3rd, 124-10) caught an 11-7 slaunch a little bit before 1:30pm, it was one of the most uneventful landings in Elite Series history. The fish came to the boat after a cautious fight, then pretty much laid on its side and submitted to Hamner’s reach. That’s what you want with a fish like that, or any fish for that matter: no big jumps, no boatside spasms, no jerkbait hooks in the pinky finger. Hamner was shaking as he signed his scorecard, but it could’ve been a lot more debilitating. As it was, he took a few deep breaths, described the catch and got back to fishing. Not only was it his PB, it was his first double-digit. Really good timing for the young rising star.

Lesser-Known Veterans – Thirty-six year old Stetson Blaylock (6th, 117-11) is a quiet, workmanlike pro who consistently gets the job done. He’s won an Elite event, will compete in his fifth Classic later this month, won at FLW as both a co-angler as a pro, and likewise fished in a combined 11 Forrest Wood Cups. With that resume, he’s a title or a few more wins away from becoming a superstar, and yet few of us – even those of us who follow the sport intimately – know much about him. Despite the proliferation of coverage of professional fishing, there’s still an opportunity to dive deep into his story, as well as several of those like him. That’s primarily incumbent upon those of us in the media, but as new flights of dynamic young anglers enter the Elites, the older pros also need to work on helping the fans invest in their personas.

No Price Too High – Twenty years ago, the idea of spending a $20 to $25 on a jerkbait was seen as heresy among some old-timers. Then the Megabass Vision 110 blew up as one of the “secret baits of the pros” and suddenly a small group of people were willing to pay $100 a pop to get the “right” color and almost no one blinked at $25. Now, the number of serious anglers who resist the temptation of these pricey baits (at retail prices) is far smaller. We saw several different jerkbaits employed this week, but it seemed like two did the most damage – the Vision 110 and the larger, lesser-known Megabass Kanata.

We Don’t Know Failure – Here’s a BassFan quote from 2010, former Elite pro Scott Rook talking about Kevin VanDam: “He goes out every day knowing that he’s going to catch them, not thinking that he’s going to. That’s what sets him apart.” I think the same could be said for some of the members of these exceptional rookie and sophomore classes – they’ve never struggled. They’ve never failed. They don’t default to that side of the record when things are going south. Instead they go back to their greatest hits. That’s a deadly combination on a lake like Fork, where there’s not necessarily a double-digit behind every tree, but there’s rarely a time when you’re far from one. They expect that big bite to come and that’s a recipe for success when you have the skills to back it up. At some point they’re all going to struggle with 70th, 80th or even 90th place finishes, but their early muscle memory will default to the big fish thoughts, not the failures. Indeed, it’s all about the attitude.

First Great Mercerism of 2024 — Chunky Kenny Powers. “He’s the only person I gave a nickname to before he even arrived,” Dave said of Tyler Williams. “I think he earned it.”

A Different Strain of Fish – Tyler Rivet’s (2nd, 125-9) 10-12 Day Four monster looked like it had swallowed a basketball. It was so big that I’m surprised it had the agility or the incentive to chase down Rivet’s jerkbait. One of my least-favorite cliches in the world of fishing is “on steroids” – as in “a redfish is a bass on steroids.” Nevertheless, in more than a few cases this week, it might’ve been justified to test a few specimens for chemical enhancements. They don’t resemble the build of any largemouths I’ve ever caught.

Silly Season Update –Rick Pierce of Bass Cat Boats added both Trey McKinney and Ben Milliken to the company’s pro staff this past offseason. Timing and talent-spotting are a winning combination.

McKinney’s Age – Trey McKinney was born in 2005. That’s after the launch of The Facebook, but two months before the first YouTube video was uploaded. Other things which didn’t exist on the day of his birth: the iPhone, Tinder, Cubs World Series Champions t-shirts, and hashtags (we just called them pound signs).

Help a Brother Out – When reminded that champion Trey McKinney isn’t yet of legal age, runner-up Tyler Rivet offered up a helping hand: “I’ll drink for him tonight.”

Hitting the Number — Before the tournament, I predicted that we’d see four double-digit bass caught during this tournament. After two showed up on Day One, I figured that the field would eclipse that mark. Then we went two days without a DD. Tyler Rivet added another giant today, bringing the total to three, and Justin Hamner’s 11-7 made me look like a genius. Well, maybe not a genius, but at least prescient in that one respect.

Welcome to the Show – Kyle Patrick’s tremendous start to his pro career – which includes an Open win, a 21st place finish at Toledo Bend, a top ten this week, and a Century Belt, has been somewhat overshadowed by the other members of his rookie class, but he’s clearly one to watch. But if you want to know how tough this group is, you only need to look at the fact that he caught 21-9 today and fell three places.

What Could Have Been for Combs – Keith Combs won the 2014 TTBC with 110 pounds over 3 days, an average of over 37 pounds a day. I bet he went home from both that tournament and this week’s tournament wishing he’d had a fourth day back then, to have the opportunity to add another line on his already-superlative resume.

Biggest 12 Pound Bag of the Year – After a tough day, Cooper Gallant (10th, 100-7) did his duty with a “clutch fish at the end” to make it a clean Century Club sweep for the top ten.

Points and Pounds – We all love the big weight tournaments, but remember: A win with 44 pounds on the Sabine is worth exactly as many points as a win with 132 pounds on Falcon.

Ben Milliken — “She’s got a nice booty. Her mouth’s a little bit messed up but I’ll take her.”

Gas Station Delicacy – Milliken’s pickled quail eggs with a brine chaser made another appearance.

Lee Livesay (laughing) — “We call them the most-hated rookie class of all time.”