Jay Yelas claims the Classic crown

Late Friday afternoon, after he had brought in his second consecutive five bass limit from Lay Lake and extended his lead to nearly 10 pounds over runner-up David Walker, Jay Yelas calmly sat in his boat in the Birmingham-Jefferson County Civic Center parking lot, alternately tying on fresh jigs and answering cell phone congratulations.

"It isn't over yet. I haven't won," the popular Texas pro kept protesting. "If Alabama Power doesn't release any water, I may not catch a bass. I called them, but the schedule might change. … David and Aaron are really good fishermen, and they're catching 'em without the current. … I can't count on catching another big fish. …"

Even as he recited his list of potential disasters, however, Jay Yelas never truly exhibited any doubts that he would catch enough fish on the morrow and claim his first BASS Masters Classic world championship.

Weeks earlier, during the official pre-practice session on the Alabama impoundment, he had formulated a very specific plan of action, and more importantly, he had vowed to stay with it. That decision, coupled with first and second day weights of 18 pounds, 9 ounces, and 16-9, respectively, provided all the confidence he needed.

And, yes, Alabama Power Company did release water through the upstream Logan Martin Dam right on schedule Saturday, and yes, Martens and Walker did catch fish with and without the current during the final round. But Yelas also caught fish, including a 4-pound, 13-ounce beauty — his third consecutive daily big bass — and easily took the 2002 CITGO BASS Masters Classic title.

Although he only brought in four bass the last day, Yelas finished with 14 fish weighing 45 pounds, 13 ounces. California pro Aaron Martens outdueled Walker, finishing a strong but distant second with 39-9, while Walker had to settle for third with 35-13. Oklahoma pro O.T. Fears, making his fourth Classic appearance (and his first in 14 years), claimed fourth with 31-6; and perennial favorite Larry Nixon, marking his 23rd Classic appearance, took fifth with 31-3. Ken Christ, winner of the CITGO B.A.S.S. Federation Championship in April, showed he definitely knows how to fish in this elite crowd by finishing sixth with a total of 31 pounds, 1 ounce.

If anything, Christ, Nixon, and the rest of the 47 pros and five Federation qualifiers approached Lay Lake this year with a sense of caution. Not forgotten was the lesson George Cochran had taught everyone in 1996, when he won the Classic here by breaking all the rules. In that event six years earlier, Cochran fished shallow in August on a lake famous for its deep water structure.

This time around, practically everyone had checked Bully Creek, where Cochran had concentrated, and found it basically unfishable due to the vegetation. Nevertheless, most pros tried to establish both deep and shallow patterns.

Some, like Mark Davis, Gary Klein and 2002 Angler of the Year Davy Hite, enjoyed a successful early practice and found different groups of fish. Davis, in fact, reported locating six separate schools of bass in water no deeper than 8 feet. Others were less optimistic, and needed to use the Classic's one official practice day for serious bass hunting. In recent years, this practice day has largely been an exercise in boat running, as few of the pros even visited their key areas, much less fished them.

Collectively, this 32nd edition of the Classic — the ninth time it has been held on Alabama waters — boasted one of the strongest fields ever, including seven former Classic winners. Roland Martin, 62, qualified this year (his 24th time), as did 15 contestants who weren't even born when Martin competed in the very first Classic in 1971. By comparison, both Yelas and defending champion Kevin VanDam were making their 12th consecutive Classic appearances.

Yelas, despite third and seventh place finishes in previous Classics, came to Lay Lake during the late June practice determined to try something new: Instead of running all over the 12,000-acre Coosa River impoundment and pinning his chances on finding bass scattered here and there, he decided to pick one small section of the lake — the far upper end — and learn everything he possibly could about it. He had fished the upper end of Lay in 1996, when he'd finished seventh, so he already knew the area held fish.

This part of the lake, which is basically river, also receives less fishing pressure because true success there depends almost entirely on water releases from the Logan Martin Dam by the Alabama Power Co. The resulting current positions both baitfish and bass very precisely and makes them more active.

Yelas spent six days fishing different cover and structure in the first five miles below the dam, eventually keying on a 200-yard-long stretch of shoreline, where he found the heaviest concentrations of baitfish. It was the first ambush area below the dam, and though he fished the shoreline several times during the six day period, he never caught a bass on it. He did, however, catch several hybrid stripers, and he saw enough shad to believe bass would have to move into the area sometime.

When he returned to the shoreline during the official practice day, he found the bass he'd been looking for. Not only were they along the shoreline, bass were also present around several rock shoals in midriver, and these fish would bite when the current wasn't flowing. It was exactly what Yelas had hoped to find.

What he also found was competition. In what would turn out to be one of the great ironies of this Classic, Aaron Martens, David Walker and O.T. Fears had each found the same upriver shoals. Throughout the week that followed, all four pros rotated through the same water and occasionally even watched one another catch fish.

Following the official Media Day activities, in which Anheuser Busch formally announced its Busch brand's sponsorship of the 2003 CITGO BASSMASTER Tournament Trail, as well as the B.A.S.S. Angler-of-the-Year program, the actual competition unfolded as it always does, which is to say no one — not even ESPN, which had cameras in a half-dozen boats — could have scripted what was to follow.

For example, Randy Howell hooked a huge turtle while swimming a jig through the grass; Mike O'Shea caught a 10-pound catfish on a plastic worm; and O.T. Fears became so excited at seeing a school of surfacing bass, he started casting to them with his practice Spook — the one with the hooks bent down.

While his competitors were thus occupied, Yelas calmly put together what he later described as the "best day he'd ever had in a Classic," bringing in five bass weighing 18 pounds, 9 ounces, and taking the first day's lead over Aaron Martens by more than 5 pounds. Yelas caught a 4-pound spotted bass under a tree along his shoreline, then followed with the day's big fish, a 6-2 largemouth that hit his jig in the very spot where local anglers had been using live bait. All told, he'd boated nine keepers.

Four of those keepers, which only weighed a total of 6 pounds, came before 10:30 a.m., when Alabama Power began releasing water. Using a 3/8-ounce firetiger Berkley Frenzy crankbait, Yelas fished midstream rocks and structure in the calm water. During the next two hours, however, the future of this Classic became evident, as the Texas pro moved to his main river shoreline, where he changed to a 5/8-ounce Berkley Power Jig (which he helped design), and caught three more fish weighing more than 13 pounds. On the way back to Paradise Point Marina, he stopped at a boat dock and promptly caught a 3 1/2-pounder. Everything went exactly his way.

Contrary to what some may think, however, once the current began, Yelas did not catch huge numbers of bass. He could make three passes down the 200-yard-long shoreline in the two hours he had to fish it, and bass often did not start hitting until water had been flowing for an hour. It was not unusual to make a full pass without getting a single strike.

Once the current began, the water rose about 3 feet, and it remained unusually clear. The clarity forced Yelas to stay back from the shoreline cover, make long casts upstream, and then let the current wash his jig down along the bank. His biggest problem was not detecting the extremely light bites, but rather, keeping his boat under control in the moving water. This year, MotorGuide had equipped all the Classic boats with 36-volt, 109-pound-thrust trolling motors, and Yelas remarked that he needed every bit of that power.

Martens fished the same midriver structure as Yelas, but in a totally different way. He used both a 1/2-ounce hair jig as well as a small Robo Worm.

Although he also caught fish before the flow began, current was important to him, too. He would cast the jig upstream, then pop it as it washed back down. He ended the first day with five spotted bass weighing 14 pounds, 1 ounce — good enough for second place.

Walker likewise headed upriver the first day, initially stopping eight to 10 miles below the Logan Martin Dam, where he pitched a tube around the small cuts and drains near the U.S. Highway 280 bridge. After a couple of uneventful hours, he moved upriver to his favorite shoal, only to see Martens already fishing it. Walker then headed to his next favorite spot and found Yelas on it.

In the cruelest twist of fate of the entire week, Walker then motored above Yelas and fished the very same shoreline that would prove so fruitful to Yelas just an hour later — but because no water was being released through the dam then (it was 10 a.m.), the shoreline was dead. Walker turned downriver and returned to his original spot. Alternating between a small plastic worm and a topwater lure, he caught 13 bass; his five best weighed 9-9 and put him in 13th place.

Oklahoma pro O.T. Fears spent his first competition day fishing a 20-yard-long stretch of river where the 10-foot channel rose to a 2 1/2-foot ridge — one of the same spots fished by both Martens and Yelas. Fears fished the water with a Zoom Super Fluke Jr. soft jerkbait, which he weighted with a nail, then cast upstream and twitched downstream with the current. His five fish weighed 7-2, and left him tied for 28th place.

By contrast, Larry Nixon had committed himself to fishing vegetation, where he felt he could catch heavier largemouth. He didn't expect Alabama Power to be releasing water until much later each afternoon, so the Arkansas pro decided to concentrate in and near Spring Creek. He fished a black Snag Proof Pro Frog and a Texas rigged red shad 8-inch Berkley Ribbontail Power Worm in the shallow greenery, eventually bringing in five bass weighing 8-15, which put him in 16th place.

Ken Christ, also fishing downriver on the first day, had boated five bass by 9:30 a.m. Concentrating first around grassbeds near Shelby Shores with a Lucky Craft Sammy topwater lure and then moving across the lake to a submerged railroad trestle, where he inched a grape-colored Charlie Brewer Slider worm over the railroad (7 feet deep on top, falling to 18 feet on the sides). By day's end, Christ, who quickly endeared himself to both his fellow pros as well as the media for his honest, easygoing manner, had five bass weighing 12 pounds, 14 ounces, which put him in fourth place.

After this first day, most of the contestants still harbored hopes of either winning or at least placing high, but just 24 hours later, most were ready to concede this Classic to Yelas. He'd struggled again until the current began, catching four bass that weighed about 5 pounds. Once he moved to his shoreline, however, he caught two fish weighing 3 and 3 1/2 pounds with the jig, and with just 12 minutes of time left before he had to head downriver, he caught a largemouth weighing 6-4. His catch of 16 pounds, 9 ounces, gave him a two day total of 35-2 and a lead of just under 10 pounds.

Martens came to the scales with 11-2, after explaining that the entourage of 20 to 25 spectator boats following Yelas had muddied his water, and on top of that he'd lost his favorite hair jig. He dropped to third with 25-3. Walker, by contrast, took over second after bringing in 16 pounds, 5 ounces. He'd caught about 10 pounds upriver, then came down to Cedar Creek, where he caught bass weighing 6 and 3 pounds by flipping a Lake Fork Tackle jig into the weeds.

Fears climbed to ninth with his Super Fluke around the upriver shoals; Christ stayed in fourth with his Slider tactics; and Nixon moved up four spots to 12th with his frog. Quietly and without any fanfare, Gary Yamamoto took over fifth with a two day total of 22-5. He was Texas rigging a Senko and drop shotting standing timber with a tiny cut-tail worm; at one spot, he was catching a bass every time he dropped the worm beside a stump. Kevin Wirth jumped from 24th to sixth; and veteran Tommy Martin claimed seventh.

Easily the most unusual pattern of the day was Kelly Jordon's mayfly hatch. The insects were falling off a tree limb by the hundreds, and bass and bluegill were slurping them up as fast as they hit the water. Jordon managed to fool three bass with a Lucky Craft topwater and a smaller trailing lure.

Gone were Kevin VanDam and Scott Rook, first and second in last year's Classic, along with 25 others. This year, in order to shorten the weigh-in for live television, the final day's field was cut to the Top 25. VanDam missed the cut by a single ounce; Kotaro Kiriyama missed it by 3 pounds, the weight of the bass that jumped out of his livewell when he stopped to check the condition of his catch. The 25th place angler was Federation fisherman Erhardt Tulgestka of Michigan, with 14 pounds, 2 ounces.

On the final morning, Yelas did not catch his first fish until 10:15, by which time Walker already had three in the livewell, and because Martens was also struggling, Walker actually took over the lead for a short time. Then, as the current began to create its magic once more, Yelas caught two fish totaling about 6 1/2 pounds. On his next pass down his bank, he did not get a strike, but on his fourth and final pass he added a 3-pounder.

Those four strikes were all he had on Saturday, but like the previous two days, Yelas caught bigger bass than anyone else. The 4-13 he brought in turned out to be the largest bass of the day and gave him another entry into the record book: He's the first angler to claim daily big fish honors all three days in a BASS Masters Classic. His total catch the last day weighed 10 pounds, 11 ounces, and easily preserved his lead.

Martens passed Walker into second by landing 3-pounders on two successive casts and weighing in a total of 14 pounds, 6 ounces, the heaviest catch of the day. His three day total of 15 spotted bass weighed 39-9 and is believed to be the heaviest catch of spots in Classic history.

Although Walker's day had started quickly, it slowed just as fast, and the Tennessee angler ended with five fish weighing 9-15. It was a bittersweet ending for Walker, who also finished third in last year's Classic.

O.T. Fears climbed from ninth to fourth overall after bringing in 12 pounds, 4 ounces, despite running his trolling motor batteries dry in the upriver current; and Nixon moved from 12th to fifth with his best day of the tournament, weighing in 13 pounds, 12 ounces, including one fish over 4 pounds that swallowed his frog.

Federation angler Ken Christ finished sixth after bringing in five bass weighing 8-15, his lowest catch of the week. While he'd been catching most of his bass with the Slider worm, he'd also been successful early each morning with the topwater Sammy, but on the final morning that bite died for him.

In winning the Classic in this, his 12th attempt, Yelas showed once again the poise, patience and professionalism that has so clearly defined his career. While he was able to take advantage of the unusual conditions Lay Lake offered him and in the process made winning look easy, in truth, his three days up the Coosa River were anything but a cakewalk. As a result, bass anglers everywhere will be remembering this Classic and the techniques Yelas used, for years to come.

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