Elite Analysis: Toledo Bend – Day 3

Is a hundred going to happen, and if so, how many times?

More importantly, are the fish moving to the bank so quickly that someone can win tomorrow primarily by using their actual, physical eyes, instead of their electronic ones?

Besides who’s going to win, those are the questions on my mind.

The first might be most pressing, and directly related to the second. Somewhere in Toledo Bend there’s a 40-pound bag available. It’s not likely, but mathematically possible that 50 could show up. More realistically, though, a catch one notch below that – the Dirty Thirty – can play spoiler or final nail in the coffin. Pat Schlapper’s 6-pound lead is big, but if he stumbles even a bit, anyone down to about sixth place seemingly has a reasonable chance to grab the hot seat – and any one of those guys down the leaderboard can change their fortunes in the span of two late-day casts.

I watched a lot of fishing and especially a lot of scoping today, and while my eyes are tired, here’s what stood out as the 2024 Elite Series opener hits the home stretch:

Fujita’s Drop – Kyoya Fujita (2nd, 72-0) started the tournament with the best catch of the event so far, 31-3 on Day One, but he’s gone down substantially each day – by a margin of exactly 7 pounds from Day One to Day Two, and then almost 7 ½ pounds from Day Two to Day Three.

Newbies — Schlapper’s best Elite finish before this was a 4th at Seminole last year, and this will be just his third Day Four appearances in a little over three years on tour. Of course, on a sliding scale that puts him smack dab in the middle of a top ten where two anglers have none (they’re both rookies) and two are working on their second.

Big Fish Mojo – We’ve had plenty of self-proclaimed and pundit-anointed “Big Bass Specialists” over the years, and invariably they’re guys who go all-in on big bait techniques and who tend to be from locales that produce tons of big fish. I include in this group not only anglers like Ish Monroe and Denny Brauer, but also former Bassmaster competitors Kelly Jordon and Chet Douthit, who always seemed to produce a disproportionate number of big bass awards. Now fourth-year Elite Pat Schlapper seems poised to enter that pantheon, and he’s from Wisconsin, fishing in an era when spinning gear has unprecedented popularity. I do believe it’s possible for good anglers to target larger specimens, and by definition, the best tournament anglers tend to be around the most and the biggest bass, but there’s also something more inexplicable about the ones who produce a lot of giants. As a friend of mine often says, “Brauer could go down a row of docks and he’ll catch a limit of 4-pounders. I could go down that same row of docks, with the same bait, and I’d catch a limit of 2-pounders.” I agree, and also understand that even Brauer himself might not know why. The best giant tamers do something a little different that appeals to big fish. Unfortunately (or, for them, fortunately) they might not know precisely what that “something different” might be. It’s a learnable skill, but only up to a point, and Pat Schlapper seems to be harnessing his innate gifts at the right time.

Doubling Up – It now appears unlikely as he’s trailing by over 11 pounds, but if Day Two leader Patrick Walters (6th, 66-15) goes on to win this week, he’ll have back-to-back regular season Elite Series victories, albeit spanning two seasons. While numerous anglers have won two in a single year, the last to conquer two in a row was Edwin Evers. In 2015, he won on largemouth at Kentucky Lake, then followed with smallmouth on the St. Lawrence. The following year Kevin VanDam won here at Toledo Bend and then two events later at Cayuga Lake. Immediately after Cayuga he won the Bassmaster Classic Bracket tournament in Buffalo, but that was not a regular season tournament. In 2019, Brandon Cobb had two Elite wins with a 61st place finish in between them and the following season Jamie Hartman had two with a 20th place finish in between. Last year Joey Cifuentes won at Seminole and later at St. Clair, with four intervening Elite tournaments. Even if he doesn’t win, this will be the third top ten in a row for Walters. He had four total last season.

Bass Truths Disproven – One of the long-held “truths” in bass fishing is that the guy you should be most afraid of is the one with a single flipping stick on the deck – old “One Rod Todd.” Looking at the array of rods Patrick Walters had on the front deck of his Falcon, however, clearly that’s not always the case. He never seems to have fewer than a dozen, and the competition needs to be plenty afraid of him. Onstage, Bryan New (16th place, 57-10) reported having nine spinning rods on his deck on one of the best big fish lakes in the country.

Bass Truths Disproven, Numero Dos – I was always told to set up my Carolina Rig (does anyone remember those?) with a heavier main line and a slightly lighter leader – for example 17-pound test tied to a short length of 12. That way, not only would the fish be less likely to see the line close to the lure, but also when hung up the shorter length would break and you’d preserve the rest of the multi-component setup. I suppose that too is an historical anomaly. Walters stated that he’s relying on a main line of 6-pound test braid to a leader of 10-pound test fluorocarbon.

Getting Better? – Ben Milliken (5th, 67-6) had the biggest bag of the day, five fish that totaled 26-13. That puts him over 11 pounds out of the lead, but he said onstage that he switched things up to make that happen and “They’re coming to me.”  On a day when six of the remaining top ten produced their worst catch of the tournament so far, he seems confident that he’s ready to make a move. No one will be surprised because he’s already won an Open at Toledo, but a few heads may spin if it happens. Cooper Gallant (9th, 60-14) is the only other member of the top ten who had his best catch of the first three days on Day Three.

How About a Zwolle Tamale? – While most of his counterparts offered the bass a bite of boudin, Alabama pro Justin Hamner’s (14th, 58-9) lure more resembled a Natchitoches Meat Pie – a big old mop jig on heavy string. “Straight crackin’ em on the jig,” he told the audience. “Davy Hite, that one’s for you.” I’m not sure which was more audacious, bucking the dominant tackle trend or nominating himself for Power Pole Replay of the Day.

That’s Why He’s Rick Clunn – “I wish I had 20 more years to learn it,” Rick Clunn told Steve Bowman on Live Mix, referring to forward-facing sonar. He made clear that he didn’t regret his 50 years of (often) shallow water success, but recognized that regardless of what you think of FFS, it provides a new window into what we know about our target species. He also repeatedly used the word “aesthetics” in his discourse, a term I can’t imagine any of his hundred or so counterparts using in that context. While I haven’t had as many interactions with him over the years as I would have liked, this just hammered home to me that while he’s played the game as well as anyone, he sees it as more than just a game – but more as a discipline, an art, and an unquenchable quest all in one.

Twenty Times Three – Schlapper and Luke Palmer (4th, 68-2) are the only anglers who’ve topped the 20-pound mark all three days.

Start Strong — “They say if you’re going to suck, it’s better to suck on Saturday,” said Matt Arey, who caught 18-2 on Thursday, 22-12 on Friday and 10-3 on Saturday. He fell from 13th to 35th.

No Harm, No Foul – “It was a kick in the yoo hoos,” said Matty Wong of his Day Three experience. His catches went from 19-10 to 13-10 to 12-6. He entered the day in 47th and dropped only a single place.

Tapering Off – Kenta Kimura reported drinking seven Red Bulls today, down from “probably eight or nine” yesterday. He finished 42nd.

Slapped – No one responded positively to my “Schlappin’ Da Bass” title in 2022, so I won’t go there again, but if anyone’s looking for a punny headline option for our Day Three leader, I offer up the following:

  • Schlapp Ya Mama
  • Schlapp in the Face
  • Schlapp on the Wrist
  • Schlapp Happy

Come and Take It – Our Top Ten in this event includes a total of one angler from bordering states Texas and Louisiana – Nebraska-to-Texas-transplant Ben Milliken – but two from Canada, one from Wisconsin, one from Japan and one from Connecticut. The top ten includes one past Classic winner (returning two-time champ Jordan Lee) and zero past AOYs, but two rookies and three sophomores.