Round and round they go, where they’ll finish, nobody knows.
Nobody did know who was going to win last week’s YETI Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair until the last five fish hit the scales. Bill Weidler took his first Bassmaster title after a nail-biting final day of competition, one that saw at least half the field take the lead at some point.
There have been closer finishes than Weidler’s 8-ounce victory, but it’s a rarity that all 10 competitors on Championship Sunday were a bite or two from a blue trophy. In the past two seasons, there have been three champs climb from 10th place, so even Taku Ito’s 4-pound, 9-ounce deficit Sunday was not insurmountable.
Florida’s John Cox led after each of the first three days of competition, with Oregon’s Cody Hollen and Canada’s Cory Johnston only an ounce behind going into Day 4. Clark Wendlandt (1 pound back), Shane LeHew (1-9), Jay Yelas (2-2), Chris Johnston (2-2) and Weidler (2-8) were all in the game, even on the smallmouth fishery that was yielding consistent top weights averaging around 21 pounds.
Jake Whitaker, starting ninth and 3-11 back, was the first to supplant Cox, taking the lead minutes after takeoff. Cox’s first fish regained the lead, but Wendlandt again quickly caught a limit and held the top spot on the unofficial BASSTrakk leaderboard for almost five hours.
Trying to become the second Canadian Elite winner after his brother broke the ice just a few weeks earlier, Cory Johnston then gained the top spot. (My money’s on the Johnstons becoming the first brothers from Canada to win in B.A.S.S.)
Just before 1 p.m., Weidler, who already had a 5-pounder, landed his second, giving him three fish among the Phoenix Boats Big Bass top 10 for the day and the unofficial lead. He remained on top, although culls tightened up the race.
BASSTrakk, an app that tracks anglers’ catches and total weight, has been the bane of anglers’ wives, family and friends. Sure, it’s understandable each pro probably underestimates a skoosh as to not give false hopes. They mostly round down, perhaps entering a 3-4 at 3 pounds, which also provides more intrigue for the weigh-ins. It’s also possible those using digital scales tell their cameraman a fish was a 4.5, which entered in pounds and ounces would be shorting them 3 ounces. It’s easy to have the weight of five fish being low by a pound or more.
At Lake St. Clair, BASSTrakk showed the top several anglers ounces apart. With the real prospect of a tie, tournament director Trip Weldon felt it necessary to announce the tiebreaker rules as the weigh-in began. If that were the case, there would be a sudden death fish-off, which has never happened in Elite competition. Those who tied — Weldon said, “two, three, four or five” — would be allowed travel time to their spots and, after a call for lines in, the first to bring a legal 14-inch bass over the gunnel would be declared the winner.
At the JM Associates studio, where the Bassmaster LIVE team produced 25 hours, executive producer Mike McKinnis called for everyone to hang around in case a historic fish-off segment was required. There were tense moments watching emcee Dave Mercer announce the weights. Analyst Davy Hite was on the edge of his seat the entire weigh-in. Talk in the studio centered on who was most accurate and who might have underestimated the most.
Whitaker took the hot seat from Ito with a 22-11 bag, over his BASSTrakk by a couple pounds, to total 85-2. Next up was Weidler, and his 22-13 gave him 86-7. Mercer revealed the weight needed to top him as each competitor handed his fish to Weldon. Weidler sweated through seven pros, answering Mercer’s query if he was nervous with a simple, “Nope.” He later admitted in a social media post with a photo showing him looking like he was biting his nails, that he might have understated that.
When Cox’s bag came up 11 ounces short, Weidler released a monster sigh of relief and lifted both arms in the air. (Read Weidler’s column on how he didn’t think it was going to happen.) As a first-time winner, the $100,000 prize almost doubled his B.A.S.S. earnings, and he’ll surely never forget it. Most everybody else will probably remember Lake St. Clair 2020 as the most hotly contested race to the top.