California youngsters vs. veterans

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It looks like accomplished California veterans vs. up-and-coming California newcomers on top of leaderboard after two days of the Sacramento Bassmaster Elite tournament.

It would make for an interesting team format on the Sacramento River and California Delta this week: 42-year-old Aaron Martens and 40-year-old Ish Monroe vs. 30-year-old Chris Zaldain and Justin Lucas, who celebrated his 29th birthday Friday.

But there will be only one winner of the $100,000 first-place prize when this tournament concludes Sunday. For Martens or Monroe this would just be more icing on top of a nicely baked cake that is their tournament bass fishing careers. They represent two of the most-marketable names in the sport.

For Zaldain or Lucas, a win here would be a boost to the next level of the sport – a giant step on the way to achieving what Martens and Monroe have already accomplished.

Exactly 6 pounds separates tournament leader Martens (51 pounds, 4 ounces) and fourth place Monroe. Zaldain is only 6 ounces behind Martens. Lucas is 3-9 out of the lead. All four men grew up in California, although Martens and Lucas now live in Alabama. All four men have local rooting sections of family and friends.

“My family is so supportive and they’re really into this,” Lucas said. “They saw me catch a 7-pounder off a dock (Thursday).”

Lucas entered Friday with a simple goal of catching 10 pounds to assure himself of a $10,000 check guaranteed to those fishing among the top 52 anglers after two days. He entered the day in a tie for 8th place after sacking 21-13 Thursday.

If that seems like setting the bar a bit low, you need to understand how finicky the bass are acting in The Delta, where a ton of fish are on spawning beds, but none have been easily picked off.

Another Californian, Skeet Reese is a prime example. Reese was in second place after catching 25-8 on Day 1. He dropped to 14th after a total of 11-6 on Day 2.

“I got a huge bonus fish early – a 6-10,” Lucas said. “I didn’t expect to catch that. Then I caught a couple of 3-pounders. I had 16 pounds so I decided to make a long run and go to some areas where I’d found bed fish 10 years ago.

“The same banks were still productive. I’m just trying to find new fish, and see some things the other guys haven’t seen.”

Zaldain was the star of the Day 1 with a 12-pounder anchoring a five-bass limit of 30 pounds, 7 ounces. By the way, that 12-pounder is the largest caught on the Elite Series this year, and Dave Mercer noted that it was the biggest bass weighed in his five years as Elite Series emcee.

Zaldain could manage only a 6-pounds-plus big bass on Day 2, but he still finished with 20-7 for the day. His game plan sounds remarkably like that of Lucas.

“I’m just trying to keep an open mind and fish different areas,” Zaldain said. “I’m not going to get locked into one certain thing or one certain area.”

While Zaldain didn’t even go back to the spot where he caught the 12-pounder Thursday, he did find himself locked into one certain thing Friday – a flipping/sight-fishing pattern.

“I had three patterns working (Thursday),” he said. “Those shrunk down to one today. They were not biting the reaction baits like they were (Thursday). It looked like an awesome topwater morning. But we’re missing the first hour of sunlight because we’re making that long run down the river.”

It’s about a 90-minute run down the Sacramento River to the Delta, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers form a vast maze of ultimate bass fishing. It has been the ultimate in frustration for most of the 112-man field. Almost every angler who didn’t catch a big bag mentioned how many 8- to 10-pound bass he’d seen, but couldn’t get to bite the past two days.

“They’re very, very hard to catch right now,” Zaldain said. “They’re not feeding. They’re just wanting to spawn.”

And the tide pattern has been almost a complete opposite of what most of these guys would prefer. There is no high tide to fish during competition hours, only a falling tide that makes the switch to rising around noon or later. It will switch another hour later Saturday, further closing the window when most of the big bass have been caught – in the two hours after it begins rising again. Check-in time for the first flight is at 3:15 p.m.

“That’s three whole hours of crappy fishing in the morning, in my opinion,” said Zaldain, “until it hits dead low and you see that incoming switch. Then the water starts to flow and the fish reposition and they become vulnerable.

“But high tide is the best. A lot of guys, me included, caught a lot of big fish during practice on a high tide. (The bass) feel more secure with a little more water over their heads.”

Lucas, like Zaldain, is flipping up some spawning bed fish later in the day. But he’s also catching fish that he can’t see on beds earlier in the day, when the tide is higher. Most are coming on a Berkley Havoc Pit Boss, he said.

“I’m just going to wing it again,” said Lucas of his plan for Day 3. “I’m going to start flipping and try to catch a limit, then go after some of those giants (on spawning beds).”

Lucas might be the only one of the top anglers who likes what the tide pattern is now.

“I think it’s good for the sight-fishing stuff,” he said. “And it might be better (Saturday) for flipping too, with it being a little big higher in the morning. It might be working in my favor.”

Lucas and Zaldain will need everything possible working in their favor if either is going to out-distance a pair of veterans like Martens and Monroe over the next two days.