Tuma's ace in the hole

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Brenden Kanies

LEESBURG, Fla. -- Keith Tuma is 7 pounds, 9 ounces from the lead heading into the final day of the Bassmaster Classic Fish-Off, and he’s well aware he’ll have to dig out of a pretty deep hole to pull off a win.

But the Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation angler thinks he might have an ace in the hole to help him close the gap – make that “The Manatee Hole”.

No, Tuma hasn’t seen a manatee on the Harris Chain of Lakes this week. That would be an extremely rare sighting, much more likely in coastal Florida than anything in the inland Harris Chain. But Tuma hooked something earlier this week in practice that had enough heft to make him think he might have one of Florida’s storied sea cows on the end of his line.

“When I set the hook, it literally stopped my rod and I actually hurt my side,” Tuma said, grabbing his right flank, wincing as he remembered the pain.

“It held on for a little bit, but then it surged and I couldn’t do anything with it. It was pulling, pulling, pulling and then the bait just popped out like it wasn’t even hooked.

“I’ve never been owned like that by a fish, so we nicknamed the place ‘The Manatee Hole,” he said. “Whatever it was, it was a behemoth.”

Tuma doesn’t need to catch a half-ton mammal to draw even with Alabama’s Jordan Wiggins, but he’s got some work to do, for sure. Wiggins caught a limit of five bass Friday that weighed 22-9 to give himself the Day 1 lead in the Classic Fish-Off. The top six anglers (three duos) from the Bassmaster Team Championship held Wednesday and Thursday on the Harris Chain qualified for this portion of the event.

Wiggins and Alabama Bass Trail teammate Wesley Sams paired to win the team championship with a two-day total of 39-8. Tuma and Minnesota Nation partner Andy Walls were second in team standings with 39-1, while Daryl Adams and Keith Mayfield, another Alabama Team Trail tandem, sneaked into the fish-off with a 38-2 total.

Everyone in that group wants to wind up where Wiggins is now – on top of the leaderboard. That’s because the angler who’s there following Saturday’s weigh-in at Ski Beach Park in Leesburg’s Venetian Gardens will secure the final berth in the 2021 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk.

Considered the biggest fishing tournament in the world, the Bassmaster Classic is scheduled to be held March 19-21 on Lake Ray Roberts in Fort Worth, Tex.

Wiggins didn’t settle after coupling with Sams to win the team championship. In fact, the 22-9 he posted Friday is the heaviest limit of the week and it provided a comfortable cushion for the 29-year old Alabaman.

Tuma, who caught 15 pounds on Friday, is realistic about his chances of catching Wiggins, but remains undeterred.

“We went back to the Manatee Hole on Wednesday and didn’t get anything out of it,” he said. “But (Thursday) we pulled in there and I got a seven-pounder. Later that day, we circled back and we saw a little bubble. Andy cast over there and he caught a seven-pounder. I pulled a 5-something out of there today, too.”

“We know it’s a good area….The tournament is anybody’s game at this point.”

Adams, who’s currently third in the fish-off with 14-7, is keeping an open mind, too, though he knows it may take a lunker to catch the leader. Wiggins caught the big bass of the week to date on Friday – an 8-12 largemouth that padded his margin on the field, but also reminded them that difference-makers swim in the Harris Chain.

“If you catch one like that, you’re right there in it again,” Adams said. “Whatever happens, I’m having a great time. But I’m not throwing in in the towel.”

Sams caught 10-12 on Friday and is in fourth place. Walls (10-11) is fifth and Mayfield sixth (8-1). All anglers except Mayfield (four bass) weighed a limit on Friday.

The Classic Fish-Off concludes Saturday. Weigh-in is scheduled for 3 p.m. and fans can catch all the action live on Bassmaster.com.

Both the Bassmaster Team Championship and Classic Fish-Off are hosted by GO Sports, Visit Lake and the City of Leesburg.