Testing the best

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Aaron Martens is in an enviable position. He’s the newly minted Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year. The angler from Leeds, Ala., is also the defending champion in the 2013 Evan William Bourbon Championship, the main event of Friday-Sunday’s Toyota All-Star Week.

But all 14 of the All-Star pros are the object of envy this week. It’s a career high to qualify, and proof that hard work and talent pay off.

For the five pros making their All-Star debut, the newness of it all ratchets the experience up several more notches.

Chris Zaldain is one of those first-time qualifiers. His presence, the result of a high points finish in the 2013 regular season, is testament to how his game has turned around.

“My freshman year, I got a little lax; I’m not afraid to admit it,” Zaldain said. “I was so relieved to have made it to the Elites, I exhaled and coasted through the season. Sixty-ninth in points is unacceptable. I had to turn it around and made some huge adjustments in my fishing game.”

From San Jose, Calif., Zaldain said one adjustment he made was learning to adapt to new situations.

If he did — if he taught himself well — he has an advantage on Muskegon and White lakes. That’s because the two lakes near Muskegon constitute a first-time stop for the Elite Series. Adaptation may be the word of the week.

Zaldain also might have a leg up because he scouted the fisheries before cutoff.

“It was a lot different then, a month ago,” he said. “There was a lot more bait in the system, a lot more fish up off the bottom, feeding on the weedlines.”

Hank Cherry finds himself at All-Star Week the first year he was eligible. He qualified through the berth reserved for the 2013 Bassmaster Rookie of the Year.

Cherry, who is from Maiden, N.C., had never seen either lake before official practice early this week.

“I think Kevin (VanDam, from Michigan) is the only guy who has any real experience here,” Cherry said.

After his short look at the fisheries over the past few days, Cherry had the cooling weather on his mind.
“The bite is off a little bit because of the weather. It was 39 degrees the other night, but it picks up as the day goes on,” Cherry said.

Not to say these pros will struggle to catch bass. They’re counted as among best in the world. And the lakes hold bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, to find and to catch.

“I think White Lake has the bigger fish of the two, 4- to 5-pounders,” Cherry said.

For new All-Star competitor Brandon Palaniuk, this week is the best way he could have finished his season, which included an Elite event win, but not enough points to qualify for All-Star.

Palaniuk, like three others, was voted into the season by fans. In fact, Palaniuk was the top vote-getter.

He couldn’t be happier to have gotten in through that door.

“It’s the only fan-voted award,” said Palaniuk, who’s from Rathdrum, Idaho. “Of course, I’d have liked to have made it through points and to have had a good fishing season, but this shows we’re connecting with our fans. Without fans, we don’t have a sport.”

Other Evan Williams Bourbon qualifiers are: Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla.; Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich.; Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla.; Keith Combs of Huntington, Texas; Alton Jones of Lorena, Texas; John Crews of Salem, Va.; Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss.; Michael Iaconelli of Pittsgrove, N.J.; Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif.; and Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala.

The competition will begin at 7:15 a.m. ET Thursday on Muskegon Lake. After two days, the Top 4 will move on to Sunday’s final round on White Lake. The pro with the heaviest sack of White Lake bass will win $50,000 of the $100,000 purse.

Toyota All-Star Week also includes the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series Classic Bracket on Grand River. A Bassmaster Classic berth is the big prize in that event.

On Sunday, Elite pros will pair up with veterans and other guests in the Folds of Honor Foundation Pro-Am presented by ARE. That one is a friendly, bragging rights event.

Weigh-ins for all events will begin each day at 4 p.m. ET at Heritage Landing, 1050 Seventh St., Muskegon. Before the weigh-ins, fans can enjoy Muskegon County’s Family Fun Fall Festival at Heritage Landing.

All events are free for fans.

TV coverage of the All-Star event will be presented on The Bassmasters on Sunday, Oct. 13, on ESPN2, in three hour-long shows. At 2-3 p.m. ET, and again at 4-5 p.m., the first show will set the stage. Two more shows about the competition will air at 6-7 and 7-8 p.m. ET.

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