TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — A key adjustment early on Saturday enabled Okeechobee, Florida’s Kyle Monti to stay with his offshore game and move into the lead of the Cherokee Casino Tahlequah Bassmaster Elite at Lake Tenkiller with a three-day total of 39 pounds, 11 ounces.
After placing third Thursday with 14-4, Monti slipped to fifth with 23-2 Friday. On Saturday, he added 16-9 — the event’s heaviest catch so far. His Day 3 bag included four largemouth bass and one spotted bass.
For two days, Monti fished an offshore sandbar with isolated hard spots and caught his fish on a drop-shot rig. Saturday, he shifted gears and caught most of his bass on a wobblehead jig.
“I caught one right off the bat that clued me in that the fish were still there, but I caught it on a bait that I haven’t caught a fish on all week,” Monti said. “That clued me in on how to catch them without dropping straight down to them with a drop shot.”
Monti said this proved crucial to his success, as he would have had a difficult time executing the drop-shot technique he had employed for much of Days 1 and 2.
Following cloudy, often rainy conditions Friday, Saturday brought mostly sunny skies and winds that reached a steady 20 mph.
“If I would not have changed, I wouldn’t have caught those fish, because I couldn’t drop down very well yesterday after the wind picked up, and today I couldn’t at all,” he said. “But I got that bite that clued me in on what to do, and I kept that thing in my hand and I have a lot of confidence in that bait.”
Following his revelation, Monti decided to expand his options and explore areas shallower than the 18 to 25 feet where he had caught fish the first two days. Finding a hard spot in 10 feet, he caught two keeper largemouth on the wobblehead and then added a pair of spotted bass on a similar area.
Confident he had caught enough to advance to Championship Sunday, Monti left his offshore spots and found a late-day bonus that pushed him into the lead.
“I went to a bank where I had caught a couple on topwater during practice, tied on a crankbait for the first time this week and caught my biggest one of the day — close to 4 pounds,” he said. “That’s how this lake is fishing right now. If you’re fishing the bank, it’s hit or miss and I don’t want to miss. So, I’m going to grind on that deep hole as long as I can and if I get five bites, I think I can win.”
Monti said that while he’ll focus on his offshore pattern tomorrow, he will not rule out other options. Seasonality, he said, has made his primary pattern a good call, but he realizes its finite reality. Moreover, with the lake level stabilizing after falling at a steady pace, the shallow opportunities could increase.
“I think what’s there is there, and I don’t think there are more fish coming because I think that’s a summertime spot,” he said. “I have to keep an open mind to the shallow bite because it could stabilize. That could go off, and I need to be able to go do that if I have to.”
In second place, Day 2 leader Chris Zaldain of Fort Worth, Texas, committed to a smallmouth pattern and added 11-14 to his previous two days’ weights of 11-1 and 13-15 for a total of 36-14.
Pursuing a highly mobile strategy, Zaldain threw a Megabass Spark Shad swimbait on a 1/8-ounce Megabass Okashira Screw Head and focused on what he described as an unassuming habitat feature.
“It was super-flat, ugly points with red clay and scattered rock,” Zaldain said. “When you’re running down the lake and you see an ugly point, most guys won’t stop and fish it. But when you put your trolling motor down, you’ll find little nuances on those ugly points, and that’s what the fish are relating to.
“Those spots in conjunction with the finesse swimbait I’m throwing, when they get it, they eat it so hard. That tells me it’s the right bait.”
Essential to the Okashira design are the twin props of different sizes behind the lead head. Adding an audible appeal, the props also provide lift, which allows Zaldain to keep his bait higher in the water column where fish chasing bait on windblown points are more likely to see it.
In third place, Carl Jocumsen of Queensland, Australia, turned in his best performance so far with a limit of 15-4, which gave him a 35-3 total. After dialing in a dependable pattern late on Day 2, he dragged a 3/4-ounce football jig all day.
“I literally caught all of my fish in the same areas, doing the same thing as yesterday,” Jocumsen said. “It’s very isolated casts to very specific spots. They’re positioning right on these little rock humps and brush piles that I’m finding on my Humminbird 360.
“They’re there and they bite at the right times. I just have to put away every rod tomorrow and not have anything else in my mind — and if it’s my time, it’s going to happen.”
In the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Race, Scott Canterbury regained the lead with 761 points. The Odenville, Ala., angler led the race coming into this week’s event, but slipped to third on Day 2.
Zaldain follows in second with 752 points, while Canadian Cory Johnston sits in third with 746. Stetson Blaylock of Benton, Ark., is fourth with 741 and Drew Cook of Midway, Fla., is fifth with 733.
Cook also leads the DICK’S Sporting Goods Rookie of the Year race.
Tomorrow’s final takeoff will occur at 7 a.m. CT, with the Top 10 remaining anglers leaving from Chicken Creek Ramp. Weigh-in will be held at Cherokee Casino Tahlequah in Tahlequah, Okla., at 4 p.m., with the winner earning $100,000.