LAKE WALES, Fla. — It isn't unusual to find optimistic anglers on the final day of a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament. If an angler is fishing Sunday, there's at least a chance to take home the $100,000 winner's prize, and it sure beats watching from the dock or a long drive home.But the outlook of the 12 finalists in the Citrus Slam, presented by Longhorn, seems to go beyond typical optimism.Just before take-off Sunday morning on the Kissimmee Chain, the collective point of view was just short of ecstatic."This is as good an opportunity as any of us will have all week to really knock out a big sack," said Oklahoma pro Kenyon Hill. "Today is the day."Indeed, today's conditions appear to be much more conducive to an angler — or several of them — putting up big numbers. The strong winds that wreaked havoc Saturday have decreased, and overnight temperatures stayed near 70 degrees, instead of dropping into the 50s and low 60s."It should be the best fishing day we've had all week," said Michigan pro and two-time Bassmaster Classic winner Kevin VanDam, who leads the Citrus Slam with 49 pounds, 1 ounce. "We're finally in Florida and don't have a cold front on the final day."Shortly before Sunday's 8 a.m. take-off, water temperature was 70.3 degrees in the canal off Camp Mack's River Resort. The water has been around 64 degrees at take-off time the first three days.
"Normally it takes until 1 in the afternoon to hit 70 degrees," said Hill (seventh place, 43 pounds). "It could be a slugfest starting out of the gate."
It's not just the favorable conditions that have the finalists fired up. With just more than 8 pounds separating VanDam and Oklahoma pro Jeff Reynolds (12th, 40-13), it's anybody's tournament. Several bass above 8 pounds have hit the scale this week, and 7-pounders have been fairly common.
There's 10-pounders out there, and that's a great equalizer," said Hill, who took Day Two's Purolator Big Bass honors with a 10-3 fish. "That changes everything."
Most finalists said they'll deviate very little from the techniques that landed them in the final round. VanDam plans to continue to work over offshore vegetation, while Arkansas pro Scott Rook (second, 47 pounds) will make long casts with a junebug worm and swim it back through holes and gaps in the hydrilla, lily pads, hyacinth and Kissimmee grass.
"You have to be patient and fish real slow," Rook said. "You have to wait 'em out. To me, these Florida bass are lazy. If you put it right in front of their face, they'll eat it. But if you miss by a couple of inches, forget it.
"All you can ask is to be in position to win. Anything's possible."
South Carolina pro Ray Sedgwick will look to pick up where he left off Saturday, making another move like the one that pushed him up 17 spots in the standings (third, 46-4)."My area has held fish for three days," Sedgwick said. "I'm going to stick it out and try to get that big bite."
Ohio pro Bill Lowen (fourth, 44-12) hopes to close better than he did in last week's event up the road on the Harris Chain. Lowen came out of the gate hot last week, but dropped to 15th and missed the final cut.
Today, Lowen hopes to finish strong by swimming a jig in open lanes behind lily pads.
"Hopefully, they'll open their mouth and eat it," Lowen said as he tied jigs on three rods Sunday morning. "If I can just keep 'em buttoned, I'll be OK. You get one of these fish on back up in that thick stuff, and it's a battle. They're pre-spawn fish, so they're full bore when they eat it. They're wild."
Texas pro Kelly Jordon will look to prevent a repeat of his Day Three collapse. Leading the tournament by 8 pounds after two days, Jordon blanked on Saturday. But he hasn't given up on the area that produced consecutive 22-pound stringers. Even though it failed him Saturday, he's returning to the area, where he'll look to pick off any new bedding bass and then start throwing a frog bait.
"I'm going to the big ones and not turning around," said Jordon (fifth, 44-3). I'm going there, and it will either happen there or it won't. It's all or nothing, baby."
Florida pro Bryan Hudgins couldn't wait to blast off Sunday morning. Hudgins, who lives in nearby Orange Park, found an area late Saturday that yielded the day's only 20-pound stringer, propelling him from 34th to sixth (43-7).
Every fish I hooked there was just a stud," said Hudgins, describing the area as a mixture of alligator grass and hydrilla in 4 feet of water. "I think it's a sort of highway for post-spawn fish. It's the first place they can squat down, rest up and get something to eat. It's a spot where I think there's a good chance to catch 20 to 25 pounds."
Sunday's final also includes Virginia pro Rick Morris (eighth, 42-15) and 2008 Classic champion Alton Jones (ninth, 41-9).Just behind Jones are a pair of Florida pros who were among the pre-tournament favorites, Bobby Lane (10th, 41-7) and Terry Scroggins (11th, 41-5).With favorable fishing conditions, a bunched field and the Kissimmee Chain's big bass potential, today's final figures to go down to the final moments of fishing before the 4:10 p.m. weigh-in.
"You don't get in this situation often," Sedgwick said. "It's not a matter of survival now. It's a matter of winning."
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Citrus Slam on the Kissimmee Chain, from Lake Wales, Fla., March 13th–16th, 2008. Daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 4 p.m. ET. "Hooked Up" will air Sunday at 10 a.m., noon and 3:30 p.m. ET.