Day off has benefits for Top 12

Ross Barnett Reservoir has presented new challenges the previous three days. It will be different again Monday, but not as drastically altered as it might have been when Sunday’s storm postponed the final day of the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite at Ross Barnett.

The storm created tornado warnings and dangerous lightning, but left only about an inch of rain over the lake’s drainage area. Angler safety forced the postponement. The day off created some benefits as well.

“The biggest thing that gets me excited is it’s Monday and there will be only 12 Elite Series anglers on the water,” said Ish Monroe, who is in 9th place, 7 pounds, 12 ounces behind leader Dustin Connell. “The fish have had a day of rest and that opens up a lot of opportunities for everybody. It’s Dustin’s tournament to win, but nobody’s going to hand it to him.”

Equally important, the anglers got a day of rest too.

“I prayed for a day off,” said Dave Lefebre, who is 10th, 7-13 back of Connell. “I really needed it. I feel really good now. It’s a fight for second place, but I do believe first place is up for grabs too.”

Lefebre was referring to the fact that less than four pounds separates second place from 12th place after three days, while Connell has a 5-pound, 6-ounce lead over runner-up Keith Poche. Connell, the 26-year-old Elite Series rookie, has a three-day total of 51 pounds, 14 ounces.

Ross Barnett is capable of producing a big stringer, big enough to overcome any deficit faced by the 11 anglers behind Connell. Mark Menendez is in 6th place, 7-1 behind Connell. Both Sunday’s weather and a day off gave him a new sense of encouragement.

"I'm hoping that this weather system changes things because my primary fish never fired [on Saturday],” said Menendez, who weighed only 10-2 on Day 3. “I thought that I had an area that would be the absolute least effected by a weather change because of the verticality that I am fishing. The lake fell about 4 to 6 inches, I guess they were expecting a lot of water, and it really affected those fish.

“If they fire I have a chance to catch a big bag. I lost a 7-pounder the second day of the tournament. That’s not the only fish I lost this week, but it would have me in a lot closer striking distance to Dustin than I am now."

Connell is a confident young man. And he’s had a spot in the Pearl River all to himself this week. He’s increasingly fine-tuned a pattern there, but he hasn’t been catching many bass each day.

“I only caught like 12 fish all day,” Connell said Saturday. “But I’m catching some good ones. If the weather wasn’t coming in like it is, I’d say I will win. I really think I could.”

Anyone would be concerned with the “team” of Kevin VanDam and his nephew Jonathon VanDam lurking behind in third and fourth place, respectively. They’re roommates this week, and they’ve been dialing-in a game plan ever since Jonathon had a successful practice during the three days before the tournament.

“I found a couple of new areas (Saturday) that were pretty decent,” said Jonathon, who is 5-6 behind Connell. “One of the spots where I’d done well in practice is starting to clear up a little bit. But it’s changing every day. The first day I caught them doing something totally different than I have that last two days.

“I kind of figured a little something out (Friday) afternoon. I found a ton of fish. I’m catching 30 to 50 a day. There are a lot of little ones though. You’ve got to weed through them to get a couple of good bites.”

Kevin VanDam’s three-day total is 46-6, only two ounces behind Jonathon. He’d be ahead of his nephew and closer to Connell if not for a bass that died in his livewell early Saturday. It cost him a four-ounce penalty, but it was far more damaging than that.

“I had a dead one that I couldn’t cull,” Kevin said. “It cost me 2, 2 ½ pounds because I caught plenty of good ones after that. That’s a lot of weight to make up here.”

Ross Barnett’s 33,000 acres offer the opportunity to make up any deficit faced by the 11 anglers trying to catch Connell. That was evident on Day 1, where four 20-pound bags were brought to the scales, led by Brandon Card’s 22-14, and Brandon Lester set the big bass standard for this event with a 7-2.

The challenge for everyone Monday, just like it has been all week, is adapting to the constant weather changes. It’s forecast to be cooler, but sunny, with a high temperature of 75 degrees and west winds of 12 miles-per-hour. That’s different than anything these anglers have seen so far. But they are well-rested for the challenge.