Elite Series: The final push

DETROIT, Mich. — Lake St. Clair promises another big smallmouth fest for the field of 99 Bassmaster Elite Series pros at next week’s regular-season finale out of Detroit.

The Aug. 22-25 event, the Plano Championship Chase, will be the pros’ last chance to make headway in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race. They’re sprinting toward the prestigious Angler of the Year title and the $100,000 that comes with it. They’re also after qualifications for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic and the Sept. 27-29 Toyota All-Star Week and Evan Williams Bourbon Championship postseason.

Not to mention the Chase’s Elite Series first-place prize of $100,000 and an instant Classic qualification.

The Elite Series field just came off the smallmouth bass extravaganza of the Aug. 8-11 Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown at St. Lawrence River out of Waddington, N.Y. Many of the anglers hauled their boats straight from New York to the Detroit area to be on deck for three days of practice time beginning Aug. 19.

All eyes will be on the outcome of the AOY race. Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., has been the points leader after each of the past five events. But he doesn’t have the crown sewn up.

Just last week at the Showdown, Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., shaved the 50 points Evers had on him down to 30. Martens is now Evers’ biggest threat. Martens won the crown in 2005, and he’s come very close several other times. Evers must turn in a solid Chase finish. Martens will need to do very, very well himself and hope that Evers doesn’t.

Ditto for Kevin VanDam, who also inched closer to Evers at the Showdown. VanDam now sits 39 points behind him. The fishing world is waiting to see if VanDam, already a seven-time AOY, can do it again.

VanDam is in the best position of the three points leaders to do well. From Kalamazoo, Mich., he counts big, shallow Lake St. Clair as home water. He’s also an expert on the connecting fisheries. Those are the Detroit River, which hooks up Lake St. Clair southward to Lake Erie, and the St. Clair River, which links Lake Huron to the north of Lake St. Clair.

Any of those rivers and lakes is fair game. The pros will have a choice of where to fish to earn all-important points and make a run at the Chase title.

Like his uncle Kevin VanDam, Jonathon VanDam was one of the few in range to make a pit stop at home before heading to the Chase. The young pro from Kalamazoo finished the Showdown right behind winner Brandon Palaniuk of Rathdrum, Idaho.

That second-place finish was like a smallmouth refresher course for Jonathon VanDam.

“The St. Lawrence fishes a lot like the Detroit River at home and Lake St. Clair,” Jonathon VanDam said. “I would say Lake St. Clair is my home water more than any of the others (Chase fisheries). I’ve definitely had more time on the lake than most any of the other Elite pros.”

Jonathon VanDam’s success on the St. Lawrence boosted him from 39th to 24th in points.

“I was just outside of the Classic cut, so I was really needing two good tournaments,” he said. “I don’t have the Classic wrapped up, but if I can just get a check (50th place and above) at St. Clair, I should be fine. But obviously I want to win that one. It’s at home. My whole family will be there, and my friends.”

Another pro with points on his mind is Ott DeFoe of Knoxville, Tenn. He found his smallmouth footing slowly in the Evan Williams Bourbon Showdown: After ending the first round in 29th place, he climbed to finish at third place. That strong finish put DeFoe in 16th place in points heading into the Championship Chase.

His first goal at the Chase is to amass enough points to stay within the Top 29 in Elite points to secure his third consecutive Classic berth. But a postseason qualification may be out of his reach.

“I’m about 50 points out for that,” he said. “I doubt it is doable for me. I don’t see any other guys fishing badly enough to fall out. My doable goal is to stay up there and make the Classic.”

DeFoe is safer than it appears. The instant-ins that Bassmaster event champs are awarded create double qualifiers. When all Bassmaster circuits wrap up their seasons, the Classic cutoff will extend from 29th down several more places.

Like most of the field, DeFoe doesn’t have the caliber of experience on the Chase fisheries that the VanDams can claim.

“I’ve fished a handful of tournaments there — five or six — and never had a great tournament there,” DeFoe said. “Still, I’m relatively comfortable with the fisheries. I know the lay of the land fairly well.”

Hailing from Tennessee, DeFoe is a smallmouth expert. But his smallie experience is deceiving, he pointed out.

“Our smallmouth and northern smallmouth are almost like two different species. Our smallmouth in the South bite well when it’s windy and cloudy. Up North, the sunnier and the slicker, the better, at least in my experience,” DeFoe said.

He didn’t pre-practice for the Chase, but he is strategizing from shore. Like all Elite pros, he needs to narrow down his choices. With the geographical spread of the fisheries, anglers may do best if they put all their eggs in one basket.

“I have one fishery in mind, but I’m probably not going to spend my first practice day there,” DeFoe said. “I have a couple of places to check first.”

He predicted a tight spread of hefty weights. “I don’t see anybody running off with this one. I’m going to say it will take between 82 and 84 pounds to win,” he said.

Elite Series pros will launch their boats each morning from Lake St. Clair Metropark at 6:30 a.m. ET. They’ll bring their catches back to the park for a 3:15 p.m. ET weigh-in. The address of the Metropark is 31300 Metro Parkway, Harrison Township, MI 48045.

At the park on Saturday and Sunday beginning at noon, the Bassmaster Elite Series Expo will showcase sponsors’ products. Two free concerts also are on tap: The Sun Messengers, the official band of the Detroit Pistons, will take the stage Saturday. On Sunday, the band Purdy Good will perform.

Bassmaster.com will provide extensive, daily coverage of the competition.

There’s no admission to Bassmaster events. Access to online features is also free.

The local sponsors are the Detroit Sports Commission and the Lake St. Clair Metropark.

ESPN2 will air The Bassmasters coverage of the Plano Championship Chase Aug. 31, 7-8 a.m. ET. Fans can catch the same show again that day on ESPN Classic at 9-10 a.m. ET.

The show will reair Sept. 14 on ESPN2 at 6-7 a.m. ET, and Sept. 15 on ESPN Classic at 8-9 a.m. ET.