Elite Analysis: Toledo Bend – Day 1

Early on the first day of the first event of the 2024 Elite Series season, fans were treated to a graphic showing 2014 Angler of the Year Greg Hackney and vaunted rookie Ben Milliken fishing in the same tributary of Toledo Bend Reservoir. By itself, the juxtaposition was innocuous, but a deeper dive showed that it was representative of everything going on in the bass world right now.

Hackney, who now sits in 83rd place with 12th, was flipping thick cover in the back of the creek, the quintessential definition of old school fishing. Meanwhile, Milliken (9th,22-9) video gamed bass from the front of it. Mark Zona called the latter “one of the most highly anticipated rookie debuts” in the history of the sport. In this case, “anticipated” is neither good nor bad, but signals that everyone’s primed for a dopamine rush.

In this hyper-polarized world, we’ve been sold on the idea that there’s no choice but to root for or root against Milliken, no room for indifference or middle ground. His half million YouTube subscribers no doubt want to see him conquer the world, while those who see the changing face of bass fishing as an affront to its history hope he falls flat on his face.

Adding to this collage of emotions, sophomore and past Elite winner Kyoya Fujita quickly grabbed the lead and held it for the duration of the day, gradually working up to 31 pounds 3 ounces. If you thought that his light line excellence only applied to smallmouth country, you were clearly wrong. But again, his lead is a Rorschach Test for your views on bass fishing writ large – is his electronics store of a boat just the next evolution of the sport, or does it represent the game’s downfall? Indeed, Clark Wendlandt laid down the fault lines when he said: “I’m not scoping, I’m fishing.” Welcome to the Either/Or Elite Series.

Everyone seems to have firmly entrenched views on all of these hot button issues – as they do with cats vs. dogs, Coke vs. Pepsi and Mary Ann vs. Ginger – so I’m probably not going to change your mind in the short space of this column. I go back and forth on these issues day by day myself. What I can do, however, is provide a bit of backstory, color and perspective on what went down on the water. Here’s what stuck out to me today:

Has the paradigm changed? – Hackney and 2022 Classic champion Jason Christie were the two anglers we watched on camera who “just went fishing” today. They caught 12-9 and 15-4, respectively.

Super sophs vs. fab freshmen – This freshman class has been repeatedly hyped as “the best ever,” a bunch of on-the-water killers who don’t yet have to shave. That may prove to be true, or it might end up being pure hyperbole. One day is just too soon to tell. Nevertheless, three of them are in the top 10, five are in the top 15, and a remarkable nine out of 10 are in the top 39. Meanwhile, amongst last year’s rookie class, after Fujita in the lead, Alex Wetherell is in 13th, Kyle Norsetter is in 16th, and Cooper Gallant is barely inside the cut in 45th. The other six are outside looking in.

Rolling on 20s – Twenty-four anglers, nearly a quarter of the field, weighed in over 20 pounds today. It took 22-8 to make the top 10.

Century Club – Four anglers, led by Fujita but also including Robert Gee, Pat Schlapper and Luke Palmer, are on pace to catch 100 or more pounds this week.

What does Kyoya need? – Fujita needs to average just under 23 pounds a day to hit the Century mark. If he does that, he’ll join the ultra-elite club of anglers who’ve done it on both largemouths and smallmouths, the lone current member being Patrick Walters, who did it with green fish at Lake Fork in 2020 and 2021, and then with brown fish last year on the St. Lawrence River. Walters had 19-11 today and will need to average over 26 pounds a day for the next three days to make it two of each.

Spinning rod revolution – During a 2001 Bassmaster event on Toledo Bend, the commentators marveled at the fact that Ben Matsubu made the top ten with a newfangled dropshot rig and 6-pound line. A generation later, most of the boats we saw today had multiple spinning rods on the deck, maybe not with line that light, but with non-bubbafied tackle nonetheless. That’s not just the influence of forward-facing sonar, but also of Japanese and West Coast influences, along with a major jump forward in the overall quality of tackle, with premium lines in particular making a quantum leap.

Home state advantage? – Number of pros from Louisiana and Texas, respectively, in the top ten after today: One, if you count transplant Ben Milliken. Zero if you don’t. Caleb Sumrall of Louisiana was the top “home state” finisher, in 20th.

Where are the bigs? – There were multiple 9-plus-pound bass weighed in, topped by Bryan New’s 9-08, but no one hit double digits. I’ll be greatly surprised if that doesn’t change by the end of the event, and that one bite could be a difference-maker. It seemed like the majority of the biggest fish today came late in the weigh-in.

Forget everything – “The quicker you forgot about practice, the better you did.” Chris Zaldain reported that his best areas had 2-3 foot waves, so he moved and landed 19-0, which has him in 31st.

Fashion highlight – Palaniuk’s Cut Day Ice Cream themed hat.

When last we saw Matty Wong – He was talking about spicy brown meatballs. Today he had 19-10 of mild green goodness.

Cut weight – This is the first what will likely be many reminders that typically you double the first day’s cut weight and add a pound to get to the predicted Day Two cut. It’s not perfect, but over the course of the season it’s fairly useful as a predictive tool. Today 50th place had 16-7, which means anglers should expect it to take a two-day total of 33-14 to fish on Saturday. With a 30 pound bag clearly possible, anyone is still in it. The difference between 25th and 75th is just over 6 pounds, which amounts to a single bite on Toledo Bend.