BUFFALO — Heading into the final day of the Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors, Edwin Evers, Kevin Wirth and Paul Hirosky are within a hairsbreadth — and a bass' breath — of one another.
In a tournament shortened by high winds, that trio led the cut after the postponed Day Two, when the field of 108 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers was cut to 12. In contrast to last week's tour event at Lake Champlain, when Timmy Horton blew out the field, the Empire Chase remains anyone's tournament, what with only 3 pounds, 9 ounces separating 12th place Terry Butcher from his brother-in-law and tournament leader Evers.
"It's going to come down to whoever catches a 22-pound bag," said Jami Fralick (t-5th, 40-0).
But it may also come down to who can keep their fish alive. Evers (41-13) has yet to lose a fish in his two days of fishing. Wirth (2nd, 41-10) has lost one each day, for 8 ounces in penalties. Hirosky (3rd, 41-9) sits 4 ounces off the lead after suffering 36 ounces in penalties for bringing three dead fish across the scales on Thursday and on Saturday.
The penalty for a single dead fish each day is 4 ounces. Each subsequent dead fish incurs a penalty 2 ounces larger than the previous.
"That's huge," Evers said. "I'm really trying to take care of them."
The rest of the field fishing Sunday includes John Murray (4th, 40-13); Greg Hackney (t-5th, 40-0); Aaron Martens (7th, 39-8); Rick Morris (8th, 39-7); Kotaro Kiriyama (9th, 39-4); Boyd Duckett (39-0); and Elton Luce Jr. (11th, 38-14).
Curiously, none of the 12 remaining finished higher than 20th place last week at Champlain.
It's a rarity to see more than a couple of fish killed in the course of an Elite Series event, but anglers have had to play marine paramedics constantly on Lake Erie. The smallmouth bite has been best at depths of 25 to 45 feet, they say, and when the fish rise rapidly from the chilly depths of the Great Lake, they can die from the change in climate, quickly inflating gas bladders and from the trauma of riding in a livewell on a lake with gigantic waves.
"When you hook 'em," said angler Kevin Short (39th, 33-13), "the first thing they do is come straight up."
For Evers, keeping his fish alive was merely the capper to a day much smoother than Day One, when his boat conked out almost as soon as he left the marina. He was able to use one of the BASS spares, but missed using the bigger screen on his own depthfinder. On Day Two, lower winds meant he was able to maintain position on his spots better and sack 21-0, mostly from about 36 to 42 feet deep.
His best Elite Series finish was second last year at Table Rock Lake. "There's still a lot left to go," he said.
Wirth said he's traveling "not far" for the smallmouth he's catching in 38 to 44 feet of water. He rued that a couple of his fish have died, but when asked whether he was bringing them up slowly, acknowledged the difficulty: "I bring 'em in how they let me bring 'em in." He caught only six fish on Day Two, but they were big enough to provide the ninth-biggest bag of the day.
Hirosky was one surviving fish away from maintaining his Day One lead, but at midday found himself hoping just to make a top-50 check. As soon as he put down the trolling motor on Saturday, three bolts popped off of it. He tried to remount it, then 30 seconds later, the cable on the motor broke.
He ran back to get the motor serviced and was out on the water by 9 a.m., missing the morning bite. "I knew I was playing catch-up all day, but you can't let that get to your mind," he said. "You have to hurry up and slow down, you know?"
To calm himself, he decided his first order of business was to add four fish to the 4-pounder he had already caught, just to fill his limit. Within 45 minutes he had gathered up about a 13-pound sack, then set about upgrading it, along the way losing a couple of fish that tangled and snapped his line.
"If you're going to win one of these tournaments, you can't be losing fish like that," he said. "You can't be killing fish. I have six dead fish now, I lost two good ones today, and I had those trolling motor problems.
"I'm doing everything I can to try to lose this tournament," he said, laughing, "despite being on some good stuff."