The format for the Bassmaster Elite at Bull Shoals/Norfork is one of the more complex in the trail’s 11-year history.
A full field of 108 Elite Series anglers began on Norfork Lake Thursday and moved to Bull Shoals Lake for Friday’s second round. The remaining Top 50 will fish Bull Shoals again Saturday, with the final Top 12 moving back to Norfork for Sunday’s final round.
As if that wasn’t exciting enough, there are now two anglers deadlocked atop the leaderboard.
Chris Zaldain of San Jose, Calif., and Bill Lowen off Brookville, Ind., have each caught 30 pounds, 14 ounces — and though they took different paths to get there, they will share the lead as the unique tournament heads into the semifinals.
“For me, today was all about just hanging in there,” said Zaldain, who caught 16-2 during the opening round at Norfork and jumped from third place into the lead with 14-12 Friday. “Days 2 and 3 on Bull Shoals are the meat of the tournament. You don’t have to completely knock it out of the park. You just need better-than-average days to make it back to Norfork Sunday.”
After having the big day on Norfork Thursday, Zaldain said there were times when his mind drifted back to that fishery Friday. But he stayed focused on Bull Shoals and put together his respectable five-bass limit with a drop shot rig.
He said the finesse approach allowed him to go behind other anglers, catching fish they might have missed. But the bite slowed for him around midday.
“I had a real bad lull about 11:30,” Zaldain said. “On the way back in, I did check a couple of areas where I’ve done well here in the past, and I had a couple of bites doing that. So I have those if I need them.
“But I’m just going to start out (Saturday) doing the same thing I did today and see what happens.”
Instead of creating a distraction, Zaldain said the possibility of returning to Norfork is actually providing an incentive to fish harder.
“In the back of my head, I know what’s waiting for me at Norfork,” he said. “There’s no certainty in fishing. But just seeing the fish I saw on Norfork gives me all of the confidence to get after them and do what I need to do here.”
While Zaldain had his big day on Norfork and then hung on for dear life at Bull Shoals, Lowen used Bull Shoals to make a big move.
After catching just 13-10 at Norfork Thursday, the shallow-water specialist who grew up fishing the Ohio River caught 17-4 Friday and moved from 11th place into a tie for the lead.
“I’m fishing for some bass that a lot of guys are missing because they’re not fishing shallow enough,” Lowen said. “If my trolling motor is not turning up mud, I can’t catch them.
“I’m fishing the way I like to fish — and any time you can do that, it’s a big plus because you feel confident making adjustments when you need to.”
Though some anglers were bothered by the dropping water level at Bull Shoals, Lowen said it played to his strengths. In addition to climbing the leaderboard Friday, he believes he identified several new lures the fish will bite going into Saturday.
“It’s a huge plus when you can have three or four baits that will catch them in your area,” he said. “I noticed that the water level has dropped about 6 inches, but it doesn’t matter to me. I’m actually glad it happened.”
Alabama angler Keith Poche was just 4 ounces behind Zaldain and Lowen with 30-10. New Jersey pro Adrian Avena (29-15) and Floridian Randall Tharp (29-4) made up the remainder of the Top 5.
The tournament will continue Saturday, with take-off scheduled for 6:15 a.m. CT from Bull Shoals Boat Dock. Sunday’s take-off will be at 6:15 a.m. from Lake Norfork Marina.
Daily weigh-ins will be held at 3:45 p.m. on the campus of Arkansas State University in Mountain Home.