BUFFALO, N.Y. — Kevin VanDam’s eyes lit up. Brett Hite’s? Well, not so much. Those were the reactions when it was revealed to the Bassmaster Classic Bracket finalists that Friday’s six hours on the Niagara River won’t be determined by the heaviest five bass, but will be decided by the total weight of every 12-inch keeper landed.
“Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” as TV’s Gomer Pyle used to say. (Sorry for the 20th century pop culture reference, youngsters. Do an internet search.)
This wasn’t some last-minute format change. It was planned before the start of the event, as was the idea of not revealing it until the two finalists had been determined.
“That’s going to change everything, definitely,” said VanDam. “That throws a whole monkey wrench into it. I was just starting to think about rigging my tackle. Now I’ve got to re-rig.”
Hite’s initial reaction was that he would just keep doing what he’s been doing so successfully the last three days, which is drop-shotting around the North Grand Island Bridge pilings. He caught a five-bass limit weighing 13-9 in about three hours Thursday morning, then backed off.
“I’m going to fish the same game plan,” Hite said. “I’m catching plenty of fish there, and they’re the right quality. It will be nice to fish all day on the juice.”
It could very well turn into a battle between KVD’s numbers vs. Brett Hite’s quality. But who knows? Not much has gone as expected here this week, even in a tournament format where nobody knew what to expect.
One thing most people expected was for VanDam to crush Koby Kreiger in the semifinals today after Kreiger struggled to catch a single bass the day before. As it turned out, VanDam advanced only via a tiebreaker after he and Kreiger tied with 11 pounds each.
“I almost made a big mistake,” VanDam said. “I was hoping to keep this one area clean and green for (Friday).”
Instead, VanDam had to go to that area and scramble. About noon Kreiger began a flurry and suddenly passed VanDam, who’d had a comfortable lead most of the morning. VanDam tied Kreiger when he caught a 1-pound, 15-ounce bass with 22 minutes left in the competition. The tiebreaker was biggest bag of the previous two days, when VanDam caught 10-2 both days and Kreiger’s best was Day 1 when he had 8-14.
Kreiger lost three smallmouth bass at the boat, any one of which would have probably put him in the final.
“I made a game out of it today, for all those naysayers who thought I was going to get whooped,” Kreiger said. “But the thing about Kevin is he will never quit. He just keeps going and going and going. You’ve got to do the same thing.”
Kreiger didn’t know anything he could have done differently to land the three he lost. His rally started about 11:30 a.m. when he moved down to fish the North Grand Island Bridge pilings, where Hite was. Those two are rooming together this week, and they had a friendly conversation about dividing the territory.
“You’re fighting a smallmouth in current that’s flowing two or three miles an hour,” Kreiger said. “They’re down there pulling as hard as they can for their life, and I’m doing the same thing.
“But you never know. You fight one just like you did the last one, and one gets in the boat and the other one comes off. None of them I caught were hooked real deep in the mouth, so they might not have been eating it real good.”
There’s another change in this tournament expected tomorrow. Instead of the sunny skies with light winds of the last two days, it’s forecast to be cloudy with 20 miles-per-hour winds and possible rain.
Hite doesn’t think it will affect him, saying, “When I found that spot (in Monday’s practice) it was blowing pretty good. I’ve got places to hide behind there, that’s the key.”
VanDam thinks wind might help him.
“They bite moving baits better in the wind,” he said. “They might even bite a spinnerbait.”
With the format change to one where every keeper's weight factors in, who knows what to expect Friday?
“It’s going to be a shootout,” VanDam said.
That wouldn’t be a surprise.