Hartman and Zaldain gave us a thrill

I’ve covered a lot of tournaments and seen a lot of drama and nail-biting finishes. That said, nothing compares to what we saw the last day of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite Series at Guntersville in June.

When we headed to the studio before takeoff that morning, Matt Arey was leading and doing well, but I thought Chris Zaldain might be on the fish to win. Chris had a school of bass all to himself and was doing something entirely different than the rest of the field.

And, man, when fishing a tournament at Guntersville, that’s rare. You either have locals or other contestants all around you.

He had an inside ledge in 9 to 12 feet of water and was catching good fish with no one around.

It was the perfect scenario to win on a lake like Guntersville.

But when I settled in front of the live monitors early that last day and saw Jamie Hartman catching big bass after big bass that first hour, I was blown away. Here’s a guy in 10th place that none of us saw being in play.

But he was.

Arey and Brandon Lester were struggling and Zaldain wasn’t catching much throughout the day.

It was apparent that, if Jamie makes one more cull, he will do something incredible.

With an hour to go, Hartman makes a 1/2-pound cull that proved to be the most important of the day, if not his career.

But wait, this thing wasn’t over. Zaldain’s school began to fire at the most inopportune time — with 13 minutes to go. He caught one then lost two, and they were biting.

The problem was that he was getting bit by big bass on jigging spoons the size of a rearview mirror. Those are high risk, high reward type lures but those bass wanted that bait. He was on the winning fish and knew it but the clock was ticking down.

He caught another five but lost another. He was pushing the clock, but the fish were biting and he knew he needed one more with no time to spare. By the time he jumped in driver’s seat, I figured he was going to be penalized for being late.

Remarkably, he made it on time but still came up 6 ounces short at the scale. You could see in his posture and demeanor that he knew he needed one more cull to win, but his calculator collided with the stopwatch.

Had his school fired a minute and half sooner — or one of those spoon-fed fish stayed buttoned to the treble — the outcome may have been different.

That will haunt him the rest of his career.

Don’t get me wrong … Zaldain’s crazy flurry does not diminish what Hartman accomplished. His wise decision to throw a topwater the last morning rewarded him with 21 pounds or so before 7:30 a.m. and catapulted him to victory with a limit that was 4 1/2 pounds heavier than anyone else that day. Jamie is a good dude who has worked hard and deserved this moment in the spotlight.

But man, the combination of Hartman’s incredible rally and Zaldain’s misadventure provided the most unique final day I’ve ever covered.

I’ve never seen a tournament come down to literally the last cast like that one did.

It’s another example of why this Elite Series season is one of the most — if not most — enjoyable one I’ve followed.

And we’ve still got a ways to go!

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