Elite Analysis: Toledo Bend – Day 4

Patrick Walters

Last year, the season opener was horrific for Kyoya Fujita as he finished a disappointing 79th at Okeechobee. He might’ve thought it couldn’t get any worse, but three events later he finished 100th. Since then, it’s been pretty smooth sailing on the Elite side of things, with six straight money finishes, the last four in the top ten.

He hasn’t finished worse than third on the Elite level since last July.

We’ve seen these types of streaks before, usually from Hall of Famers like Rick Clunn or Roland Martin or Kevin VanDam, and there’s no guarantee Fujita’s will continue. I’m excited to watch what he becomes and how the sport evolves around him and potentially in response to him.

At the same time, he’s pretty much an unknown. Part of that is the language barrier and part of it is how new he is on tour. The most interesting aspect of the sport, from a fan’s perspective, is the personality side of the competitors. People cheer for a Mike Iaconelli or a Taku Ito or a Seth Feider or even a Ben Milliken because we see a bit of ourselves – or the people we want to be – in them. The fun part will be figuring out exactly what makes Fujita tick.

Until that opportunity comes along, we can all just take heed and pick him in Fantasy Fishing Bucket A. In the meantime, here’s what I saw during Day Four of his dominant performance at Toledo Bend.

A Hall of Fame Start? – Obviously, it’s too way too soon to understand how Fujita’s long-term tournament career will play out. There have been plenty of pros who started strong and then tailed off. For example, Derek Remitz won his first Elite Series tournament, came in second in the next one, and then never won again. Nevertheless, it’s fun to speculate around Fujita’s torrid start. He’s won twice in his first 17 B.A.S.S. events. By comparison, Kevin VanDam, the GOAT, won for the first time in his 16th tournament and didn’t win his second until number 62. Of course, he went on to win 28 of them over his career with Bassmaster, but it took over 300 tournaments to hit that mark. Even if Fujita keeps up his pace, assuming he only fishes an nine-tournament Elite Series slate plus the Classic every year, it’ll still take him nearly 14 years to match KVD’s win total.

Not-So-Sweet Sixteens – Fujita and Patrick Walters (2nd, 95-15) caught four of the best five limits of the week, with rookie Robert Gee (4th, 90-5) being the only intervening angler in their lowercase-e-elite club. On their worst days, Fujita and Walters turned in 16-10 and 16-15, respectively. Walters fell to second partially because he also had another day in the teens – 19-11 on Day One that had him in 27th. Fujita, on the other hand, otherwise bottomed out at 24-3. It’s the rare tournament where a nearly 20-pound bag is an albatross, but this was one of those times.

The Falcon Record – If you eliminate Fujita’s subpar (for him) 16-10 Day Three catch, he averaged 28-01 on the other three days. Extrapolated out over four days, that would be come out to 112-3, an exceptional catch by any record. Nevertheless, when Paul Elias won at Falcon in 2008, he set a still-standing record of 132-08, 20 pounds more. The top 11 finishers that week all had over 112 pounds.

What Century? – Fujita joins Walters in the uber-exclusive fraternity of anglers with Century Belts on both largemouths and smallmouths. The Japanese sophomore has done it in two consecutive tournaments. Clearly, his “batting average” is the highest in Bassmaster Elite Series history – two hundred-pound-plus catches in nine Elite events.

No First Timers – Last year’s Elite Series season featured five first-time Elite winners in nine events, and it might have been six had Joey Cifuentes not double-dipped. We’ll have to wait at least another week for this year’s rookies to start their winning legacy.

Double Digits – All week long I’ve waited for a 10-pound or larger bass to show up on the weigh-in stage and while the tournament was great, that particular wish wasn’t met. If I were a bettor, I’d guess that we’ll average one per day at Fork.

Bubba Bassing – As multiple anglers moved toward the bank today and started chasing bedding fish, they had to dig into the rod locker and pull out some different rods. “That’s a little better, catching one on a baitcaster,” Chris Johnston (7th, 79-14) said after swinging a bass into the boat shortly before noon.

Old Timers’ Day – Commenting on the occasion of Trey McKinney’s 19th birthday, Mark Zona said that “I was in a Tecmo Bowl tournament when I was 19.” I hope he picked the Raiders with Bo Jackson. McKinney finished 12th this same week that Zona was told he’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame later this year.

Old Timers’ Day, Part Deux – Sometime during the mid-morning period, Ben Milliken (5th, 89-11) showed off his secret weapon: Pickled quail eggs. He ate one and drank the brine. “You can eat eight or ten of these and it has no effect on you at all,” he said, while also demonstrating a distinctly disturbing facial tic. It reminded me of my good friend James Overstreet, who is going through a tough time right now. J.O. is also a fan of the gas station delicacy. During the 2014 Classic on Lake Guntersville, we shared a boat but he refused to share his eggs. After he consumed three or four, I didn’t want to share his air space, and endeavored to stay upwind of him as much as possible.

Bait Name of the Week – Crock-O-Gator Slide Shad.

JDM Baits You Should Know – Jackall Drift Fry and Deps Sakamata Shad.

It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish – Last year, Logan Latuso was the only rookie who made the Day Four cut in the season opener, eventually finishing 4th at Okeechobee. He went on to finish 8th in the ROY contest. Joey Cifuentes finished 19th that week, fourth best among the first years, but ultimately won the ROY race.

Hit or Miss – While second years Fujita, Cooper Gallant and Alex Weatherell won and finished 8th and 10th, respectively, most of last year’s exceptional rookie class struggled in the first shot at their second year. John Soukup (38th) and Kyle Norsetter (41st) earned checks, but even with those two boosts, the eight who didn’t fish on Sunday averaged a 69th place finish.

Fashion Unveiling – Today was the first annual sighting of Patrick Walters in his short shorts. It’s bass fishing’s version of Punxsutawney Phil, indicating at least two more weeks of shallow southern bass.

Fact Every Angler Should Remember – In his first AOY season of 2017, Brandon Palaniuk finished 105th at Lake Okeechobee in the season opener. It wasn’t dead last, but he could see it from there. One tournament is not destiny for a full season or career. Of course, a good finish makes things easier and a bad one complicates a chase for the AOY title or a Classic berth, but there are still lots of casts left to go.

Understatement of the Year (so far) — Alex Wetherell: “It was all just using a minnow and a jighead.” His minnow happened to come from France, which may be a first for an Elite Series top ten.

Most Internally Inconsistent Statement — Chris Johnston (7th, 79-14), who spent an hour and a half on a bed fish: “Hindsight’s 20/20.” He may be looking back now, but the rest of the time he was forward-facing.

First World Problems – Patrick Walters weighed in 29 pounds today, his second-best bag of the tournament. “I should’ve had 35-plus pounds today,” he said after weighing in near-twin 8-pounders. Those additional 6 pounds would’ve earned him the win. Fujita beat him by 4-14.

No Regrets – “I probably left close to 40 out there today,” said Ben Milliken, who took a risk and chased a new pattern and caught 22-5 on Day Four. “I’m willing to get 7th place trying to get first place.” He ended up 5th. He starts his Elite career with a bang, albeit in 2nd place in the ROY race, one place behind Robert Gee. Could we see a mirror image of last year’s theatrics between Cifuentes and Fujita, with the race running nearly to the wire?

Salesman of the Year – Davy Hite on Scott Martin’s extensive range of partner products, which includes mattresses: “When your dad sold the Helicopter Lure, you can sell a mattress if you want to.”