TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — It wasn’t planned this way, but maybe it worked out like it should have.
The final regular season Bassmaster Elite Series tournament was supposed at New York’s Lake Cayuga last month. But when the May tournament at Oklahoma’s Fort Gibson Lake had to be moved to the end of the season due to flood conditions, then it required another move to nearby Lake Tenkiller due to further complications, this is where the 75 anglers find themselves for the Cherokee Casino Tahlequah Bassmaster Elite.
With all that’s on the line here involving positioning for the Toyota Angler of the Year Championship, which will begin next week on Detroit’s Lake St. Clair, the final regular season tournament is going to be a tough test of bass fishing skills. Most of the anglers predicted a winning weight around 48 pounds over this four-day tournament.
Tenkiller is relatively small, covering 12,900 acres. The water surface temperature is hitting 90 degrees at midday. The water level has been falling. There’s no significant aquatic vegetation. And the real kicker is that there’s a 16-inch minimum length limit on largemouth and smallmouth bass. Spotted bass have a 12-inch minimum, and all three species will be in play over the next four days.
“(Angler of the Year) is not going to be decided at St. Clair,” said Chris Zaldain, who is in third place, 26 points behind leader Scott Canterbury. “It’s going to be decided this week. You could really pull ahead, or you could really blow it, right here this week. The door could be left wide open. It’s real easy to come in with a limit of 12-inch spots.”
Those 16-inch largemouth and smallmouth bass on the other hand are like digging for diamonds. In three days of practice, Zaldain said he caught two one day, two another day and three the third.
“If I can catch three 16-inchers in a day, I feel like I’m doing pretty good,” he said. “And I think everyone in the top 10 is going to have a mixed bag of smallmouth, largemouth and spots. I would say 12 pounds a day will win it.”
These promise to be long days on Tenkiller, especially after an early morning topwater bite.
“It’s tough, it’s a grind,” said Canterbury, who has a 19-point AOY lead over second-place Drew Cook. “It’s definitely hard to get a keeper bite. Staying positive mentally, staying focused, is a big deal. It’s not the prime time to be here, but it’s the same for everybody.
“If somebody can go out and catch five over that 16-inch limit every day, they’re going to have a great shot to win it.”
Ray Hanselman Jr. caught a 4-pound smallmouth in practice. But it was something that he didn’t find a way to replicate.
“It was in 50 feet of water, suspended under a bait ball,” said Hanselman, who is trying to maintain a BassmasterClassic qualifying spot, which he currently has with a 22nd-place ranking in the AOY standings. “I tried to repeat that every day, and I couldn’t do it. I’ll try again during the tournament. That’s probably what they do here this time of year, cruise with the shad out in the lake.”
There’s as much focus on the 50th spot in the AOY standings as there is at the top. Only the top 50 qualify for the AOY Championship at St. Clair next week. Shane Lineberger is currently in 52nd place, 11 points out of 50th.
“I think you’ll see BASSTrakk light up the first couple of hours in the morning,” Lineberger said. “Then it’s going to really, really slow down. Guys are going to have to grind it out.
“It’s been really, really tough for me. I’ve been getting one, two if I’m lucky, 16-inch fish a day. I’ve kind of resorted to fishing for 12-inch spotted bass just because I’m on the bubble for AOY. I’ve got to catch some fish. That’s just the name of the game here. You can’t go into every tournament trying to win. Sometimes it’s just about survival.”