LUFKIN, Texas — After two days, the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has turned into an all-out slugfest with some of the biggest names in professional bass fishing at the top of the leaderboard.
The Top 10 anglers have all averaged more than 20 pounds apiece the first two days on Sam Rayburn Reservoir, and the top two pros have averaged better than 23.
California pro Brent Ehrler holds the top spot for the second day in a row with a two-day mark of 47-11. He caught 22-5 Thursday in the 90-degree Texas heat to maintain a slim lead over Idaho pro Brandon Palaniuk, who is just 2 ounces back with 47-9 after catching 23-2 Thursday.
Ehrler also still holds the lead for Toyota Big Bass of the week with a 9-1 he caught Wednesday. The winner of that award will receive a Toyota Tundra pickup valued at $50,000.
“I didn’t really find any new stuff today,” Ehrler said. “I checked one spot where I thought I could catch a good one, and I caught about a 4 1/2-pounder later in the day. But I still didn’t get that real clear feeling for what I’m going to do the rest of the week.”
Like many of the 109 pros who started the event, Ehrler has been splitting his time between deep and shallow water, trying to stay in front of bass that are clearly in transition from the spring spawning areas to their summer haunts.
With the field now trimmed to the Top 51 for Friday’s semifinal round, Ehrler said he thinks the tournament’s $100,000 first-place prize will likely be won away from the shoreline.
“I still believe that the guy who wins this is going to have a couple of schools out deep,” he said. “They’ll have one or two spots out deep where they can pull up and catch a 4-, a 5- and then all of a sudden a 10-pounder.”
With the fish moving, Ehrler referred to the event as a “volatile tournament” and said he “wouldn’t be surprised to go out and catch 12 pounds Friday — or 25.”
Palaniuk had a distinct air of confidence as he inched up the standings.
Under a catch/weigh/release format that is being used for the first time in an Elite Series event with a full field, the pros were only allowed to bring one bass to the scales if was 21 inches or longer. All other bass were weighed on the water by judges and immediately released.
Ehrler’s longest fish — a largemouth that weighed just over 5 pounds — measured only 19 inches. So he came to the weigh-in stand empty-handed.
Palaniuk had one fish over 6 pounds, and said the techniques he’s using seem to be holding up well, even as the lake changes.
“I have a general pattern that I feel like applies all the way from 3 feet out to 30 feet,” he said. “I had fewer rods on the deck of my boat today, so I’m slowly narrowing it down.”
One thing Palaniuk hasn’t been able to avoid is losing good fish. He said he’s probably losing “about a third” of the ones that he’s actually hooking.
He agreed with Ehrler’s assessment that many things are changing on the lake.
“All the fish right now are moving,” Palaniuk said. “They’re following bait, moving toward their summertime stuff. You can intercept them at any time, at any depth range.”
Indiana angler Jacob Wheeler caught 23-7 Thursday and jumped from 10th place into third with 44-14.
While Wheeler agreed the bass are in transition, he believes there is enough going on to keep plenty in the shallower depths where he has scored this week.
“You have bait that is still shallow,” Wheeler said. “You have grass that’s going to keep them there. You have bluegill spawning.
“Then on top of all that, two weeks before we got here, the water rose a foot, which pushed a lot of fish back to the banks.”
The Top 51 will fish Friday’s semifinal round, and the field will take a break Saturday for a special event that will feature seminars, boat demos and an outdoors expo. Only the Top 12 remaining anglers will compete on Championship Sunday. A special Get Hooked On Fishing program will take place Friday, when hundreds of area schoolchildren will be bused in to the George H. Henderson Jr. Expo Center in Lufkin.
Daily takeoffs will be at 7 a.m. CT at Cassels-Boykin Park in Zavalla, Texas. The weigh-ins and Saturday activities will be held at 4:30 p.m. at the Expo Center.
The event is hosted by the Lufkin Convention and Visitors Bureau.