Big bass of Smith Lake

TNT Fireworks event offers plenty of explosions, along with an implosion.

Compared to the first six events, the bass weren’t so big at the TNT Fireworks Bassmaster Elite at Smith Lake, but the above-average fish went a long way. The first-time Elite venue offered plenty of explosions, and an implosion of sorts. A late monster catch helped Japanese pro Takumi Ito leave the stage with a bang. Let’s look at the bigs from Smith.
Third-year pro Marc Frazier kicks off the big hit parade with a 3-pound, 15-ounce spotted bass. That fish helped build a limit of 13-5 that put him 15th and pushed him 14 spots up the Progressive Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. Only one position outside the Classic bubble, Frazier fell the next two days to finish 49th and actually left Smith a spot lower in AOY at 56th.
Despite a tough bite, 92 of the 98 anglers caught limits on Day 1 and that dipped slightly to 88 on Friday. On Day 3, it was 40 of 50 who limited, and each day the average fish was around 2-4. Although rookie Ben Milliken caught limits each day, he suffered a pound of fish-care penalties and finished 27th. That was good enough to slide up eight spots in AOY to 37th. All nine 2023 Tackle Warehouse Elite Qualifier rookies are now inside the top 40 who receive automatic berths to the 2025 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Classic presented by Jockey Outdoors.
Bryan New has an outside chance of making the Classic after climbing 18 spots to 60th in points. New had a 4-0 in his Day 1 limit of 14-3 that put him fourth. With 12-1 then 10-14, New, a two-time Bassmaster winner, finished 19th at Smith, his second-best in 2024.
Brandon Palaniuk came in ninth on Day 1 with 13-12, bolstered by a 4-4. He dropped off with 12-2 and 10-3 to finish 26th. It still helped the two-time Angler of the Year solidify his bid for a 14th Classic as he moved up 10 spots to 24th in points.
Starting 91st in points, Clifford Pirch had a huge hill to climb. Despite a 3-15 in Day 1’s 12-12, Pirch settled for 39th at Smith and has little hope of making his ninth Classic from 81st in the standings. The Payson, Ariz., pro, who joined the B.A.S.S. Millionaire’s Club with his third consecutive $10,000 check, would need two top finishes at Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River, where his most realistic Classic hopes lie with its win-and-in offering.
Up and down in his rookie season, Tyler Williams was back up again, landing a 4-0 that was almost a third of his 12-14 Day 1 weight, tying him for 18th. On Thursday, 54 anglers were in 21 ties, emphasizing the super-tight leaderboard. After 11-4, Williams made his third Top 10 of the Year with one of Semifinal Saturday’s top five bags at 13-12.
Drew Benton shows a pair of his children and his best pair of bass in Day 1’s 13-4 limit. A 4-5 loomed large for Benton, who matched his weight on Day 2 then fell to 30th with only four fish on Saturday. That finish moved Benton up four clicks to 26th in AOY as he vies for his eighth Classic.
Justin Hamner had high hopes for Smith and to become only the third angler to win the Classic and AOY in the same season. A bag of 14-1 put Hamner sixth on Day 1, shaving 24 points off his 59-point AOY deficit to Trey McKinney, who started 30th. Time would change that soon enough.
After taking dead last at Wheeler Lake, Steve Kennedy was out for redemption. He found some with a mixed bag that weighed 14-2 to put him fifth. He had a spectacular bite on Bassmaster LIVE as he moved to third with 13-8, but three fish on Saturday dropped him to 45th. He jumped up 14 spots to 74th in AOY but also would need two top finishes or a win to reach his 12th Classic.
Another angler focusing shallow versus the deeper forward-facing sonar bite was Hunter Shryock. He landed the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of Day 1, a 4-7 that helped him lead with 15-15. He remained in the Top 10 hunt with 10-4 but, like Kennedy, his bite waned. Two fish on Semifinal Saturday knocked him down the tight leaderboard to 48th, precipitating a four-spot fall to 18th in AOY, still great position for a fifth Classic bid.
After a middling 11-8, Alabama’s Wes Logan jumped up to 24th with one of the 16 bags topping 13 pounds. Logan’s 13-4 put him 24th, and he finished two notches better at 22nd, the same spot he holds in the AOY standings in his drive for a second Classic appearance.
Starting 58th in points, Oklahoma’s Luke Palmer needed to make a move toward a sixth Classic. After 12-4, he caught 13-5 to jump up to 19th then added 11-15 for 17th. The finish gave him hope as he stands 46th in AOY points and needs to make up a dozen points or so in the final two events.
Justin Atkins of Florence, Ala., gained ground with his 12-12 on Day 2 behind this above-average spot. The picture of consistency, he added 12-13 on Semifinal Saturday to finish 12th, just 3 ounces from 10th-place Tyler Williams. After three subpar seasons, Atkins is in great position to qualify for his first Classic after moving up eight spots to 21st in points.
Matching Shyrock’s Day 1 big, Caleb Kuphall’s 4-7 took Day 2’s Phoenix Boats Big Bass and propelled him from 54th to well inside the cut at 28th. Four fish on Day 3 dropped him to 46th, the wrong way if the Wisconsin pro hopes to reach his third Classic. He’s got work left at 62nd in points.
After dropping 12 AOY spots on Day 1, Seth Feider climbed back into land of the hoping behind this 4-4 on Day 2. It helped him build the day’s fourth-largest bag at 14-7, which catapulted the Minnesota pro 50 places to 35th and earned a check. Four fish on Saturday dropped him to 43rd, but he salvaged major points. The 2021 AOY winner is 65th in points yet remains hopeful with two northern fisheries left.
Todd Auten put his name in for Rapala CrushCity Monster Bag on Day 2 with his 16-0 limit. His best, a 4-6, was 2 ounces shy of the Phoenix Boats Big Bass Bonus, but it was worth at least $10,000 as he climbed from 62nd to 10th. Only two fish on Saturday saw Auten plummet to 47th in the event and 76th in points. With 10th-place points, Auten would have been within reach of the Classic in 61st.
Jay Przekurat continued to show he’s a well-rounded angler. With a 3-15, the Stephens Point, Wis., pro, who turned 25 on June 21, weighed 14-8 to take second place. He opened with 13-11 then made his third consecutive Top 10 with 13-3 on Semifinal Saturday. In contention for his second Elite title, Przekurat weighed 12-8 to hold third, which puts him in the AOY hunt at seventh (46 points from the lead). After Champlain, the Elites return to St. Lawrence where Przekurat became the then-youngest Elite winner at 23 in 2022.
Missouri’s Cody Huff weighed Friday’s second biggest bag at 15-4. Combined with his Day 1 13-13, Huff held the two-day lead with 29-1. A month ago, Huff said, he was on the verge of winning — that he hasn’t managed four consecutive good days. He couldn’t at Smith, dropping to fifth with 11-4 on Day 3 then adding 9-8 to total 49-13 and finish ninth. Huff suffered six dead fish in the event, reducing his weight by 1-8 but that only equated to one lost spot. However, his fall could haunt Huff as he pursues the AOY title, standing third 26 points off the lead.
The penalties Huff suffered were inconsequential compared to rookie Trey McKinney, whose youth might be an excuse for his implosion. After starting 30th with 12-2, McKinney was having a great Day 2. With a 4-8, the 19-year-old’s five fish weighed 16-4, which would have put him second in the event. However, he was seven minutes late to check in. At a pound a minute, he was recorded for 9-4, dropping to 63rd. He would still have been leading Hamner in AOY by four points. Offstage, McKinney self-reported that he received a phone call from a family member pertaining to his tardiness, which violated rule C3 xiv and disqualified his Day 2 weight. With a zero, McKinney fell to 93rd and third in AOY. His 59-point advantage was now a 26-point deficit to Hamner, and he was six back of event leader Huff. McKinney regained some ground when Hamner and Huff fell to 10th and ninth, respectively, so he heads to New York second in AOY, 24 points back of Hamner and two ahead of Huff. Chris Johnston and Jacob Foutz, both 15 points behind McKinney, are among pursuers in what should be a fantastic finish.
Carl Jocumsen is among those with an outside chance to make the Classic. The Australian started 55th, moved to 45th just 3 ounces inside the cut, then busted 13-0 to finish 24th at Smith. That gained the popular pro 16 spots to 63rd in AOY.
Canada’s Cory Johnston was in the hunt from the get-go, starting second with 14-12. Adding 12-10, 13-5 and 12-6, the oldest in the Top 10 at 39 posted a fourth-place finish. Winning his first Elite at the St. Johns River in April, Cory hoped to be within striking distance when the tour went north. An 88th at Wheeler diminished his AOY chances as that pushed him from 63 points back to 129 back (fourth to 13th). Yet his Smith finish got him to ninth, 64 points behind Hamner.
Matt Arey of Shelby, N.C., was super consistent, posting three bags topping 12 pounds. His 4-4 on Day 3 helped him finish 16th, improving his AOY only two places to 19th. He should easily make his sixth Classic and return to Lake Ray Roberts, where he was runner-up to Hank Cherry in the 2021 championship.
Japanese pro Kyoya Fujita, who won at Champlain last year as a rookie, started 2024 with a victory at Toledo Bend but then experienced somewhat of a sophomore slump — well, for him. He was 54th in points coming into Smith and narrowly made the cut at 48th. This 4-9, the Phoenix Boat Big Bass of Day 3, helped him to the day’s biggest bag of 14-10, skyrocketing up the leaderboard. By finishing 13th, Fujita has 385 points to stand as last man into the Classic at 40th. And he’s heading to the site of his first win.
Rookie Kyle Patrick of Cooperstown, N.Y., is also heading home after a great result at Smith just a day before his 27th birthday. Topping 13 pounds the first three days, Patrick reached his third Top 10 of the year, including the Classic. His seventh-place finish bumped him up five spots in AOY to 14th. A great first year, but he’s looking up at five fellow rookies in the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year race.
Japanese pro Takumi Ito, 38, was competitive from the start on his “favorite lake” in the United States. He finessed 13-10 to land 10th on Day 1. Besting that by an ounce, he moved to sixth then jumped up to second with 14-2 on Semifinal Saturday, just 2 ounces out of the lead.
Rookie Robert Gee held the lead heading into Championship Sunday. The 25-year-old from Knoxville, Tenn., started 13th with 13-7 then, despite losing 12 ounces in fish-care penalties, moved to fourth with 14-0. Using forward-facing sonar on spotted bass feeding deep with stripers near the dam, Gee took over the top spot at 7:11 a.m. on Semifinal Saturday and culled to 14-2 to lead with 41-9. In a three-way battle on Day 4, Gee managed 12-6 for a second-place total of 53-15. It was his best B.A.S.S. finish and bumped him up six spots to 16th in AOY, giving him a bead on his first Classic.
Despite posting a big on Day 4, Hamner brought in 11-5 to drop to 10th. Coming into the event, the Classic champ said was it unexplainable how he was closer than he ever imagined to pulling off the Classic-AOY double in the same season, which has only been done twice. He heads north with 595 points, 24 ahead of McKinney, who is unfamiliar with the fisheries while Hamner took 21 last year at Champlain then eighth at St. Lawrence.
JT Thompkins of Myrtle Beach, S.C., was among the four rookies in the Top 10 after climbing from 23rd with 13-15 on Day 2 before 11-14. The 22-year-old caught a 3-15 on Championship Sunday, when his 12-0 limit kept him eighth. The 2023 Tackle Warehouse EQ angler of the year, who was second at Harris Chain and third at Murray, moved up a notch to eighth in AOY and is a virtual lock for his second Classic.
Cooper Gallant also has the next two on his radar, being so close to his Canadian home. Gallant finished sixth at Smith, posting 14-4 on Day 2 and 13-1 in the final round for 51-15. Gallant moved up five clicks in AOY to 13th, so the 26-year-old should be a lock for his third Classic.
Starting 10th, Tyler Williams of Belgrade, Maine, made the biggest jump on Day 4. The 22-year-old shows a pair of dandies that helped him weigh 14-10 to take fifth. With fourths at Lake Fork and the Harris Chain, Williams is 12th in AOY after starting the week 16th.
Trading leads, Ito, Gee and Przekurat were within ounces most all of Championship Sunday. Ito held a slim lead when a pop-up storm rolled through his area, igniting his bite. After losing a 3-pounder, Ito provided a big finale when he landed this “6-pounder.” Game over.
At the scales, the huge spot weighed 5-12, giving him the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day and event. It also helped him cull to the Rapala CrushCity Monster bag of 16-9. Ito’s total of 58-0 gave him a 4-1 edge on Gee.
With TNT Fireworks poppers shooting Classic-like confetti, Ito hoisted his second Elite trophy. The 103 points for the win also precipitated a 21-place jump in AOY to 39th, giving him a line on his fifth Classic. “That 5-12 was so awesome,” Ito said. “Smith Lake always is 100% my favorite lake.”