WADDINGTON, N.Y. — Skeet Reese was Edwin Evers' closest competition in the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year race going into this event. After two days, he's long gone, as is Alton Jones, who was in fifth place.
The Bassmaster Elite Series Evan Williams Bourbon St. Lawrence River Showdown has been just that – a showdown. Reese and Jones had mixed suits with a deuce and a trey when they had to put their hole cards on the table.
Kevin VanDam and Aaron Martens have survived to be dealt another hand in bass fishing's version of Texas Hold 'Em.
Theoretically, since points aren't official until the final standings, VanDam and Martens have shaved their AOY deficits to Evers from 50 points to 28 and 29 points, respectively.
"It puts me in the thick of things," said Martens. "If I make the 12 cut, it will be really interesting."
Evers is in 25th place going into Saturday, when the field will be cut to the top 12 for Sunday's final. He's got to be considered a long-shot to make that cut, with a two-day total of 37-1. VanDam (third with 42-10) and Martens (fourth with 42-2) appear to be shoo-ins.
If you think Evers has been playing it safe, trying to sit on his lead, you need to think again.
"I'm not ever conserving anything," Evers said. "I'm coming in with 30 seconds to spare, running 45 miles. If I was being conservative, I wouldn't be doing that crap. That's just how I fish.
"In general, that's how I live. I don't do anything conservative. Ask my wife."
Evers, as usual, wasn't emotional in his comments at Friday's weigh-in. He was just explaining his style of tournament fishing, whether he's leading an AOY race or not.
If you want to see the picture of conservatism, that would be KVD. VanDam still hasn't gone to his best spot in these waters. That would require a 140-mile run to Lake Ontario.
"I've been torn all week about whether to go to the lake," VanDam said. "The biggest fish I've seen here are in the lake. Today would have been the day to go, if you're going to go."
Saturday's weather forecast is for west winds at up to 13 miles per hour. There was barely a breeze for much of the day Friday. Winds of 20 miles per hour make the long run to Lake Ontario a real gamble. If Saturday's forecast is accurate, it makes the long boat ride a questionable decision.
Brandon Palaniuk has been taking that gamble because he needs a victory to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic. The AOY title is the tournament within this tournament. And there are now only three anglers in that event – Evers, VanDam and Martens. Reese eliminated himself with a 93rd place finish. Jones didn't make the 50 cut with his 58th place showing.
VanDam is playing this so conservatively that he spent most of Friday practice fishing after bagging 21-9 to go with his 21-1 on Thursday.
"I caught a good limit and basically spent the rest of my day searching for new water," VanDam said. "And I found some good stuff.
"You could catch a 23- or 24-pound bag (without going to Lake Ontario), but it would be hard to do more than that.
"Twenty-one or 22 pounds a day, that wins most multi-day events here."
Martens also knows the biggest smallmouth are in Lake Ontario, not the St. Lawrence River near Waddington.
"If Brandon and the other guys on the lake had more time, you'd see some 25-, 26-pound bags," Martens said. "But they're only getting a little bit of time to fish."
Martens is confident there's a 26-pound bag much closer to the Waddington launch site. He caught one during Monday's practice, which included the biggest smallmouth bass of his life. It weighed 7 ½ pounds.
"I had 26 pounds on Monday easily," he said. "The smallest one was probably 4-5, 4-6."
Martens, like VanDam, and to a lesser extent Evers, is spending most of his time fishing rather than running. He has found too much good water in the St. Lawrence River to do anything else.
"It's unbelievable," Martens said. "This whole thing has got rock. Almost every mile has good rock sites, so the fish are everywhere. That's what makes this place different (from the other Great Lakes). Like at Erie, you have isolated rock piles. Here, they're everywhere."
Like most anglers in this event, Martens is drop-shotting, concentrating on depths ranging from 10 to 45 feet. He using various colored Robo Worms – darker colors under cloudy skies and more translucent colors when the sun comes out.
Unlike most anglers, Martens is using 8-pound-test line – Sunline, to be specific. Most everyone else is using 6-pound test, and breaking off some big smallmouth bass.
"Six-pound is crazy here," Martens said. "I'd never use 6-pound unless it really slicked off and the wind didn't blow at all. It's crazy to use 6-pound."
VanDam – the man with the most experience on the Great Lakes – was asked what perfect weather conditions would be for smallmouth bass fishing this weekend.
"Ten to 15 miles an hour wind with high, bright skies," he said. "It positions the fish on structure a lot better."
Saturday's forecast is for exactly that. It should make for an interesting day, and maybe the most important day yet in determining the 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year. You can bet on that.