GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — For Chris Zaldain, this week has been an exercise in extreme patience.
The California native, who is fishing his eighth season on the Bassmaster Elite Series, said many of his casts have been taking an excruciating five minutes from start to finish as he targets spotted bass suspended in 40 to 60 feet of water.
But his patience has paid off, as he’s built a three-day total of 51 pounds, 9 ounces, including a Saturday catch of 18-4 that lifted him into first place at the Toyota Bassmaster Elite at Lake Lanier.
Zaldain will lead the Top 10 remaining pros into Championship Sunday, with a $100,000 first-place paycheck on the line.
“From the time I cast my bait, let it sink and reel it all the way back to my rod tip, it’s literally taking me up to five minutes,” said Zaldain, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas. “You have to do that simply because the fish are really picky. You can’t fish fast at all, or you won’t get a bite.”
Zaldain is fishing near Buford Dam on the lower end of Lake Lanier in water that he said is only 47 degrees. Having fished ultradeep, ultraclear water in California, he knew coming into the week that’s where the lake’s biggest spotted bass would be.
“I’m fishing deeper than most everybody else,” Zaldain said. “I truly believe that’s where the biggest spots live because it’s the deepest, bluest, clearest water on the lake.
“They suspend out in those deep trees — and when they begin feeding to get ready for the spawn, they pull up to the depth zone I’m targeting.”
Zaldain’s catch of 18-4 was his biggest of the week. But he doesn’t think duplicating that catch on Sunday will be enough to help him win.
He believes a 20-pound catch is “more than doable” on the lake — and he says the conditions could be shaping up perfectly for it to happen. The Sunday forecast calls for a high of 49 degrees with a 90-percent chance of rain.
“That’s exactly how it was when I had my best day in practice,” Zaldain said. “I keep checking those spots where I caught them really good in practice, and they haven’t been there.
“Maybe it ends up being one of those magical weeks where they start showing up on my best stuff on the last day.”
Zaldain can’t afford to stumble, with veteran pros like David Mullins of Tennessee (51-4), Paul Mueller of Connecticut (50-8) and Keith Combs of Texas (49-10) all within easy striking distance.
After catching 17-12 and 19-6 the first two days, Mullins slipped a bit Saturday. But even as his game plan cooled, he still managed to catch 14-2.
“I actually caught as many today as I did yesterday,” Mulllins said. “But every fish I ‘laid back on’ was a lot smaller.”
Like many other anglers in the field, Mullins admitted the Lake Lanier bass are nearly impossible to predict from one day to the next.
“The fish weren’t as bunched up today as they were yesterday,” Mullins said. “It’s one of those things where you wonder, ‘Is it a cloud deal? Is it a rain deal?’ If that’s case, tomorrow I’m going to bust them. If it’s because the fish are moving out and going somewhere else, then we’re going to have to relocate them somewhere.”
Mueller, who has a wealth of experience fishing in similar fisheries and weather conditions in northern climates, said the weather played a major role in what happened Saturday.
“When I felt that air temperature get colder today, I kind of knew something was different about the fishing,” Mueller said. “After that, they would peck at it. They would follow the bait. But it was really hard getting a hook in them.”
Combs is one of the few anglers who has relied heavily on a shallower bite this week, and it’s paid off with consistent catches of 16-6, 16-15 and 16-5.
“It’s definitely not easy,” Combs said. “When we had the wind and the clouds this morning, I thought my patterns would really work. But I tried everything I had, and I had only caught one fish before 11:30.
“I only had six keepers for the day.”
Indiana pro Bill Lowen caught 14-8 Saturday and failed to qualify for Championship Sunday. But he maintained his lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the week with the 6-14 largemouth he caught Thursday.
The tournament will conclude Sunday, with the Top 10 remaining anglers taking off from Laurel Park at 6:45 a.m. ET. The final weigh-in will take place at Coolray Field at 4 p.m.
During the day Sunday at Coolray Field, the Elite Series Expo at Coolray Field offers fishing fans an opportunity to check out the latest tackle and visit family-friendly activities such as Get Hooked on Fishing presented by Toyota and Shakespeare, from noon to 2 p.m. Get Hooked on Fishing includes casting lessons, a kids’ fishing pond and chances to meet the Elite pros.