MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. —Randall Tharp suffered through one of the toughest seasons of his professional career in 2015, but it seems to have given him some extra motivation for this year's campaign.
Tharp opened the 2016 Bassmaster Elite Series season with back-to-back Top 20 finishes — and now, he has caught enough fish at this week's Bassmaster Elite at Bull Shoals/Norfork to move himself into position to claim his first Elite Series win.
He brought in five bass Saturday from Bull Shoals Lake that weighed 16 pounds, 4 ounces and moved from fifth place to the top of the standings with a three-day total of 45-8. The tournament, which began Thursday on Norfork Lake and moved to Bull Shoals Friday and Saturday, will shift back to Norfork for Sunday's championship round with Tharp leading the remaining Top 12 anglers.
"I started in the same place today where I lost a big one (Friday), and I never had a bite," said Tharp, who has three Bassmaster Open victories but none on the Elite Series. "Where I pulled my trolling motor up (Friday), I just decided to keep on going. I kept the trolling motor down until 11 o'clock, and that's how I caught most of what I had.
"It was new water — a lot shallower than what I had been fishing — and I just fished everything in front of me."
Tharp said he was struggling early, but a slight change in technique helped.
"I had one fish in the boat, and I just felt like they wanted something quicker," Tharp said. "So I tied a heavier jig on, and that's when it just started clicking.
"I had a really good day. I don't know how many 2 1/2-pounders I culled."
Tharp seemed excited about moving back to Norfork after starting the event on that fishery with 15-8 Thursday.
"I've already respooled and done everything I need to do," he said. "I'll get a couple of spare jigs in case I break one off in the rocks. But other than that, I'm ready to go fishing."
Tharp's total is only 6 ounces better than that of second-place angler Chris Zaldain. The California pro turned in a third-straight solid catch Saturday, weighing in 14-4 and pushing his three-day total to 45-2.
Zaldain used a drop shot rig to target spawning bass that were protecting beds.
"I was flipping a drop shot with a 6-inch hand-poured worm all day long," Zaldain said. "The beauty of it is that it represents a bluegill. On the full moon in April, you know bass hate bluegill being around their beds.
"With it being on a drop shot, it's suspended right there in front of their face."
Around midday Saturday, Zaldain had five fish that weighed only about 8 pounds. But he made an adjustment that helped him almost double that weight.
"The key moment today was realizing the water had dropped a couple of more inches, and the back area that had been productive for me just wasn't working anymore," he said. "Around 10:30, I started working out more toward the main river where the bushes got deeper.
"The further out I went, the bigger the fish got."
After a big opening-round catch of 16-2 on Norfork that he said could have been even bigger, Zaldain focused these last two days at Bull Shoals on simply surviving. Now that he knows he's headed back to Norfork, he believes it could be a special day.
"I just wanted to put the clutch in and hang tight on Bull Shoals," he said. "Catches of 14 and 14 are respectable, so mission accomplished.
"I downshifted a little bit on Bull Shoals, but we'll be pedal-to-the-metal tomorrow."
The remainder of the Top 12 is as follows: Skeet Reese (44-13), Jacob Powroznik (44-5), Matt Herren (43-11), Bill Lowen (43-10), Brandon Palaniuk (43-3), Brian Snowden (42-15), Koby Kreiger (42-12), Mike McClelland (42-3), Steve Kennedy (42-1) and Adrian Avena (41-14).
The tournament will conclude Sunday, with take-off scheduled for 6:15 a.m. from Lake Norfork Marina. The weigh-in will begin at 3:45 p.m. on the campus of Arkansas State University in Mountain Home.
The winning angler will receive $100,000.