MACOMB COUNTY, Mich. — A random moment during practice led Bill Weidler to a most unexpected victory, as the Helena, Ala., angler amassed a four-day total of 86 pounds, 7 ounces to win the YETI Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair.
Weidler earned $100,500 and nearly doubled his career earnings with B.A.S.S. to $204,350.
“I just stumbled across a great area in Anchor Bay, and that was my primary spot,” Weidler said. “I went through it one day in practice; it was cold and I’m an old man so I decided to pull over instead of freezing running down the lake.
“I drifted through an area and caught a limit of 26 pounds in about two hours. I had two 6-pounders, and I was like, ‘I might have found something here.’ That’s where I camped out all week.”
Focusing on a 1,000-yard area of Anchor Bay, Weidler found his bass on the hard edges of grasslines in 14 to 15 feet. Watching his Humminbird 360 for clusters of baitfish helped focus his search.
After two hours of fruitless effort, Day 4 saw Weidler catch three of his best fish between 9 and 10 a.m. He caught fish throughout the day, but two big afternoon bites — a 4-4 and his second of two 5-plus-pounders — pushed him across the finish line.
“This is incredible,” the third-year Elite Series pro said of his first career victory. “I fought and fought; I had a (bad) start to the season, and I knew I had to get some work done. I was on my knees this morning praying that I could catch them.”
Weidler caught all of his fish on a drop shot with a Strike King Baby Z-Too in the gray glimmer color. He used a 3/8-ounce weight and a No. 1 Owner drop-shot hook.
Weidler placed 17th on Day 1 with 20-8. Catching the same weight the next day put him in 13th. Day 3 saw him weigh 22-10 and earn his Championship Sunday berth in eighth place, and Sunday’s limit of 22-13 sealed the deal.
“On Days 1 and 2, I should have had about 22 or 23 both of those days and just didn’t execute,” Weidler said. “I’m lucky I didn’t miss the cut.”
Weidler admitted he did not enter the St. Clair event with great optimism, as smallmouth bass have never been his specialty. Nevertheless, he held his own against formidable Northern pros like Canada’s Cory Johnston, who placed second, along with sixth-place Chris Johnston, who won the SiteOne Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River in July with all smallmouth.
“I’m a largemouth guy; I’ve really struggled on smallmouth lakes,” Weidler said. “I grew up fishing the Coosa River and my boat really hasn’t come out of much more than 10 feet of water. I love a flipping stick and heavy line, so it was hard making the transition.
“But what I can say is that I thank the Lord for what He did for me this week because I feel He guided me where I needed to go and have the finish I had.”
Hailing from Cavan, Ontario, Cory Johnston spent his tournament in the main lake near the Canadian border and tallied 85-15. He turned in daily weights of 21-11, 21-5, 23-1 and 19-14.
Relying heavily on his Garmin LiveScope for target location, Johnston caught his bass on a drop shot with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm and a Strike King Baby Z-Too, both in green pumpkin.
“I found a sunken barrel out there the first day of the tournament, and there were five bass on it,” Johnston said. “I’d throw out and pick them all off; I’d go there the next morning and pick them both off. Today, there was none there; I caught them all.”
Following his seventh- and ninth-place finishes in the past two Elite events (St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain), Johnston has notched three consecutive Top 10s.
“That was my goal; I didn’t want to miss a Top 10 when we were up North,” Johnston said. “This is kinda my wheelhouse. I love dropping on them.”
John Cox of DeBary, Fla., led the tournament for three days but finished third with 85-12. Cox started Day 1 on Lake St. Clair, then moved to the St. Clair River where he spent the remainder of the event.
Catching all of his fish on a drop shot with a Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm, Cox caught the event’s heaviest bag — 24-12 — on Day 1, then followed with 20-10, 20-12 and 19-10.
“Today, the bites were pretty random,” Cox said. “I caught two good ones on a seawall around midriver, then I went all the way to Lake Huron. I didn’t catch anything there, so I came back downriver and caught another good one, a 4-pounder.”
Cox hooked that last fish by a navigation marker. The smallmouth became temporarily entangled in the structure’s subsurface supports, but patience prevailed.
“When he bit, he swam right where I thought he was going to swim — right through those pilings,” Cox said. “So, I went up and took my line around it and it was a miracle I got that fish out.”
Ed Loughran III of Richmond, Va., won the Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with a 6-5 smallmouth he caught on Day 2, earning an additional $1,000.
Cox took home $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program, and Oregon's Cody Hollen earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
With four events remaining on the Elite Series schedule, Texas pro Clark Wendlandt took the lead in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with 423 points. Rookie Taku Ito of Japan is in second place with 416 points and also leads the race for Rookie of the Year.