Winyah Bay is the Elite Series wild card

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Don Barone

GEORGETOWN, S.C. — This is the tournament on the 2019 schedule that strikes fear into every one of the 75 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers. There is so much water to fish in this the fourth-largest estuary on the East Coast, it’s influenced heavily by tides and the best water is in the Cooper River, which requires a 100-mile one-way boat ride down the Intracoastal Waterway into Charleston Bay.

“There’s risk no matter what you do,” said Carl Jocumsen, who finished 36th the last time the Elite Series was here in 2016. “You can stay close and have more time to fish, but maybe catch nothing but little ones. Or you can make a long run north up the PeeDee River or the long run south to the Cooper and have less time to fish, but have the chance to catch bigger fish.”

In essence, the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Elite at Winyah Bay is going to be one wild ride. That’s especially true for Chris Zaldain, who finished 10th in 2016. Zaldain took the day off Wednesday rather than practice one more day for what promises to be a bucking bronco of a bass tournament. The four-day event begins with a 7 a.m. takeoff Thursday.

“I don’t think in my eight years of fishing the Elite Series that I’ve ever taken a day off from practice,” Zaldain said before Wednesday’s anglers’ meeting. “This is equivalent to whatever is the most grueling race in NASCAR. I made that brutal 100-mile one way run (to the Cooper River) five days in a row in 2016 – once the last day of practice, then all four days of the tournament. I’m in my early 30s, and it’s a real butt-kicker.”

Coming off an Elite Series event last week at Lake Hartwell, Zaldain felt it was particularly important to get some extra rest Wednesday. But he still had some work to do.

“I tightened every single nut and bolt on that Skeeter (bass boat),” he said. “I gutted my boat, took everything out except a handful of baits. I’m literally fishing out of a gallon-size Ziplock bag. I’m going to stay light. I want that fuel mileage, and I want to stay on top of the waves once we get to Charleston Bay.”

Britt Myers won the event in 2016 with a four-day total of 56 pounds, 3 ounces, edging second-place Brett Hite by four ounces. Zaldain thinks a similar weight – an average of 14 pounds a day – will win here again.

Zaldain grew up fishing the California Delta. Learning how fish change with the tides, he thinks, gives him an advantage at Winyah Bay. And he believes he got attuned to the right tide during practice.

“I established a tide cycle in practice early in the morning,” Zaldain said. “The tide cycle is 50 minutes later every day, so it will be just right when I get there (Thursday). Once we got out of the tournament tide cycle during practice, I got off the water. I didn’t need to see any more.”

Consistency is more difficult in these particular tidal waters than it is anywhere else the Elite Series has been. Jocumsen’s 2016 performance is a prime example. He led the tournament with 19-11 on Day 1, but weighed only a single 1 ½-pounder on Day 2. That lack of consistency was evident at the top the final leaderboard as well. Myers’ winning total of 56-3 included days of 16-8 and 21-7 as well as days of 8-15 and 9-5. Third-place Kelly Jordon weighed 24-7 on Day 2 and 6-3 on Day 4.

Twenty-four-year-old Elite Series rookie Patrick Walters lives only 20 minutes from the Cooper River in Summerville, S.C. And he was part of a University of South Carolina two-man team that won a college event here in March 2017. Walters said he and his partner weighed 13 pounds the first two days and 20 pounds the final day.

“I’m thinking the weights are going to be down in this event,” Walters said. “I think 13 or 14 pounds a day is going to win. The bass are mainly spawning right now, with some post-spawn. Those spawning fish are real finicky.”