SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Justin Lucas knows he’s on the verge of something special.
But with the way fish are behaving on the California Delta, he knows he still has plenty of work to do if he’s going to raise the coveted blue trophy and pocket a $100,000 check in front of a crowd filled with his family and friends Sunday afternoon.
A native Californian who now lives in Alabama, Lucas caught five bass Saturday that weighed 19 pounds, 3 ounces and took the lead in the Sacramento Bassmaster Elite at Sacramento River with a three-day total of 66-14.
Lucas will lead the Top 12 remaining anglers into Sunday’s championship round with a pair of fellow California natives in close contention. Aaron Martens, who like Lucas grew up in California and relocated to Alabama, is in second with 63-14, followed by San Jose, Calif., resident Chris Zaldain with 60-12.
“It could have been a lot worse, but it could have been better, too,” said Lucas, who has been running down the Sacramento River each day to the California Delta past landmarks he remembers seeing on his way to school as a child. “I had a 6-pounder that bit a couple of times, and I just wasn’t quick enough to get her. After she got it twice and I missed her, she just never would bite again.
“I only caught five or six keepers all day. It wasn’t an easy day by any means.”
Lucas pushed his way into serious contention during Friday’s second round by turning to areas that were good to him more than a decade ago — areas he hadn’t fished in practice. On Saturday, he fished those areas, plus a few more new ones.
He expects to fish more new water Sunday, while still targeting shallow spawners and postspawn bass.
“I’ve been pounding some of these areas pretty hard this week, and I just feel like I’ve got to find new stuff,” Lucas said. “My weight was lower today than yesterday, and I hate that. I want my weights to go up and feel like I learned something.”
Though Lucas didn’t have the day he was hoping for, he fared better than the anglers who began Saturday in first and second place.
Day 2 leader Aaron Martens started his morning with a 6-pounder. But things went steadily downhill from there, and he brought in just 12-10.
“When you get a big one early like that, it can be a good thing or a bad thing,” Martens said. “I don’t know if it affects the way you think the rest of the day or what.”
More than the possible bad mojo created by landing a big fish early, Martens believed he was hurt by unfavorable tidal conditions.
“We’re just not even close to the tide being right, as far as I’m concerned,” Martens said. “The tide is actually good in the morning. But it’s been cold in the mornings, and the fish just don’t want to bite.”
Zaldain was also frustrated by the tide Saturday as his weight plummeted from a whopping catch of 30-7 Thursday and a solid mark of 20-7 Friday. With only 9-14 Saturday, he fell in the standings for the second straight day.
After making a 90-minute run to the Delta the first three days of the event to fish for bedding bass, Zaldain plans to run even farther Sunday toward his old hometown of San Jose.
“Catching 30 pounds on the first day kind of gave me a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Zaldain said. “I used that card big-time today.”
By making a longer run Sunday — he estimated it will take nearly two hours each way — Zaldain hopes to get ahead of the tide for more favorable conditions. The right tide, he said, will make shallow spawning fish more cooperative.
“The last three days, I’ve fished one area in the north Delta,” Zaldain said. “Tomorrow, if I head as far south as possible — as far away from the Golden Gate Bridge as I can get — I think I can find some high water.
“All through practice, I had really good high-tide bites. That’s what I need to find Sunday.”
No one else cracked the 60-pound mark for the week on Saturday. But with so many big fish cruising the shallows of the California Delta, most of Sunday’s championship qualifiers are still within realistic striking distance of a come-from-behind win.
Behind Lucas, Martens and Zaldain, the rest of the top 12 is as follows: Dean Rojas (59-7), Bobby Lane (59-5), Ish Monroe (59-4), Ken Iyobe (59-1), Tim Horton (58-3), Jason Christie (56-5), Cliff Pirch (55-12), Keith Combs (55-3) and Chris Lane (54-7).
The tournament will conclude Sunday with take-off set for 6:15 a.m. from Discovery Park and weigh-in scheduled back at the park at 3:15.
The Elite Series Expo will be open at noon and will have B.A.S.S. sponsor representatives onsite with activities, games and prizes for attendees including boat demo rides.
Other activities planned include a Kids Zone, angler autograph and photo sessions, and the chance to learn tips and techniques from some of the best bass anglers in the world.