Monster bag puts Prince in prime position at Wheeler

With a three-day total of 65 pounds, 13 ounces, Cliff Prince holds the lead at the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Wheeler Lake.

DECATUR, Ala. — For each of the first two days of the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Wheeler Lake, Florida pro Cliff Prince secured heavy limits within the opening hours of competition. On Semifinal Saturday, “The Prince of Palatka” enjoyed his best morning yet.

By taking the lead for Rapala CrushCity Monster Bag of the tournament on Day 3 with a 26-pound, 2-ounce limit of largemouth, Prince increased his lead at Wheeler with a three-day total of 65-13. He now holds a 12-2 advantage over second-place Ray Hanselman Jr. (53-11) heading into Championship Sunday.

We are going to go catch five tomorrow and let the chips fall where they may,” said Prince, a three-time qualifier for the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors. “It is everybody’s dream to beat these guys. This is the toughest crowd I’ve ever fished against and to beat them, you’ve done something.”

Not only did Prince catch the biggest bag caught this week at Wheeler Lake on Saturday, he anchored that bag with a 7-9 largemouth, tying Greg Hackney for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Tournament.

Prince has been close to victory before, notably finishing third at Lake Okeechobee in 2017 and notching several top finishes on the St. Johns River where he calls home. With a substantial lead heading into the final day at Wheeler, Prince knows simply catching a limit will be crucial in achieving a victory.

Most of his weight so far has been caught off one hard spot near the takeoff spot at Ingalls Park. That hard spot is surrounded by grass, and Prince has had to work his baits through that grass to get to it.

For the most part, Prince has kept his depthfinders turned off. During the afternoon hours of Day 3, however, he powered them on just long enough to see a plethora of baitfish in his area, including gizzard shad.

“I don’t know if it is shell or if it is rock, but it is hard and they are relating to it for whatever reason,” he said. “You can’t look down at the (Garmin) Perspective mode and not see a school of bait. That tells me why they are there.”

Prince’s special spot, which yielded bags of 19-4 and 20-7 the first two days, continued to produce early and often on Day 3. Despite losing a couple of bigger bass in the flurry, he landed a limit weighing around 18 pounds by 6:30 a.m. using a moving bait as well as a Texas-rigged Bass Assassin stickbait.

“I told myself if I catch 15, I’m still going to be in contention,” Prince said. “At about that time, I figured I had 17 or 18 pounds. I was pretty much done, but the locals were coming in and I decided to circle around. I got a different angle on the spot. Then I caught a giant.”

He said the beast was a gift, considering it came after he had almost decided to let the spot rest.

“I casted up to the juice and I got four bites in one cast,” he explained. “The one that finally ate it was that 7-plus. When I set the hook, I knew it was a good one, but it didn’t really pull that hard. Then when I got it up by the side of the boat, it was a giant.

“It was pretty much torture not to throw back up there when I caught that one.”

While all of his bites have come in the morning hours, mostly because he has stopped fishing, Prince is confident his bite will last all day if needed. It comes in waves, he said, and he’s seen bass school every afternoon as he is trolling around.

“I feel like there are more left there and if they do what they have been doing, we’ll be good,” Prince said. “They came up schooling a little after 1 p.m. today. And when I found them (in practice), it was after 1. If you notice on BassTrakk, I’ll catch three and then have a lull.

“So I feel like if I leave them alone for a while and then go back to the juice, I can catch a fish or two. I feel like I can catch five.”

Hanselman brought in the second-biggest bag of the day — a 20-7 sack anchored by a 6-8 largemouth — increasing his three-day total to 53-11 and jumping him into second place. It is the two-time Classic qualifier’s seventh Top 10 in Bassmaster competition.

Hailing from Del Rio, Texas, Hanselman has taken advantage of two patterns this week. On Day 1, he started by fishing stretches of eelgrass with milfoil and little patches of hydrilla mixed in before stumbling upon a shellbed in 5 feet of water that was loaded with bass. There are also isolated stumps close to the shellbed that Hanselman has caught fish around.

“I think the gizzard shad are up there spawning and that is what is holding the bass there,” he explained. “A couple of those bass have puked up 8-inch gizzard shad. There is definitely something going on down there.”

After switching from treble-hook baits to a 6th Sense Flock hair jig and a Texas-rigged 6th Sense Boosa ribbon tail worm Saturday morning, Hanselman stopped missing bites and began landing quality bass. He worked his way to 20 pounds, landing his biggest bass around 7:30 a.m.

John Cox remains in third place with a three-day total of 52-9. The DeBary, Fla., pro landed 17-12 on Day 3 to complement his first two limits of 22-2 and 12-11. Most of the week, Cox has picked apart milfoil mats with a Berkley Swamp Lord in a backwater pond. After falling a couple inches on Day 2, the water rose just enough on Day 3 to make the frog bite more effective. Some of the gizzard shad Cox saw on Day 1 also returned.

“I think it came up about 2 inches. It was just enough to loosen the mats up a little bit. Yesterday they were really packed. Today, I knew as soon as I got to the ramp I felt good. My mood changed from, ‘Okay, let’s get as many points as I can,’ to, ‘I’m going to make my first Top 10 of the year.’”

Carbondale, Ill., rookie Trey McKinney continues to lead the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 560 points. Alabama’s Justin Hamner, winner of the 2024 Classic, is second with 501 points, followed by Missouri’s Cody Huff in third with 474, Tennessee’s Jacob Foutz in fourth with 473 and Canadian Chris Johnston in fifth with 470.

McKinney also leads the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings, followed by Alabama’s Wesley Gore in second with 461 points and Tennessee’s John Garrett in third with 460.

The Top 10 remaining pros will launch from Ingalls Harbor at 6 a.m. CT Sunday and return for weigh-in at 2 p.m. The winner will earn the $100,000 top prize and a coveted blue trophy.

Bassmaster LIVE coverage begins at 9 a.m. ET Saturday on FS1 and runs through noon before moving to Fox from noon until weigh-in at 2 p.m. LIVE coverage will continue on at 2 p.m. and conclude at 3 p.m.

The tournament is being hosted by Decatur Morgan County Tourism.