HARRISON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — The Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship is actually several competitions in one.
But the biggest one by far will decide the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race — and for the moment, Chris Zaldain has moved into that big-picture lead.
The California native turned Texas resident caught 20 pounds, 12 ounces Sunday and moved from second place in the AOY standings into first with 842 points. Arkansas pro Stetson Blaylock (840) is just two points back, followed by Alabamian Scott Canterbury (838), Canadian Cory Johnston (833) and Tennessee pro Brandon Lester (811).
Zaldain said things didn’t go as he expected, but he was more than satisfied with the results.
“I caught two 5-pounders on what I thought was my worst spot,” said Zaldain, who finished 13th or higher in six of the nine regular-season Elite Series events this year. “Then on my best spot — out in 17 to 19 feet — I only caught one 3 1/2-pounder.
“That’s telling me things are changing a lot, and you’ve gotta stay on your toes.”
Blaylock came into the event fourth in the AOY race, but moved up after catching five smallmouth that weighed 24-12. Canterbury, who held a nine-point AOY lead coming into the event, had mechanical problems and caught only 17-11, causing him to slip into third.
Canterbury was forced to fish all day Sunday without the use of depthfinders on the front of his boat.
“It was brutal all day long,” he said. “I walked to the back about 93 times just to see the console graphs. You don’t know how deep it is. You don’t know if there’s grass.
“It was a little bit of an aggravating day. But I actually had a little more weight than I thought, so I may have survived. I’ve just got to catch them these next two days.”
In addition to the AOY Championship trophy, a blue Elite Series trophy and $25,000 will be awarded to the angler from 50 qualifiers who can weigh the biggest three-day catch this week.
Minnesota angler Seth Feider took the lead in that competition during Sunday’s opening round with five giant smallmouth that weighed 26-12. He is 2 pounds ahead of Blaylock in the race for the weekly crown.
Feider said all of his weight came off a spot he hadn’t fished on St. Clair in five years.
“There’s this one buoy right on the river channel that’s kind of a community place,” Feider said. “I was rolling up there and the waves were crashing in really hard. So, I just sort of stopped short and made one cast with a Rapala DT-10 (crankbait) and caught a big one.
“I caught them every cast for 20 to 30 minutes.”
Feider’s bag included a 6-12 smallmouth that took the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the week. But with conditions expected to change Monday, he said he doesn’t think the community hole is likely to produce again.
“I’ll probably give it a try for a minute,” he said. “But with the winds shifting, I should be able to get to the place I want to fish on the South end. There would have been 5- to 6-foot waves down there today with the way it was blowing.”
The one race that was decided Sunday was for DICK’S Sporting Goods Rookie of the Year. Florida pro Drew Cook held a big lead in that competition coming into this week and secured the title with a 4-pounder just after 8 a.m. He only caught one fish the rest of the day and sits in 45th place for the tournament.
But he was happy about the new shining mark on his resume.
“It’s incredibly special this year, with this group of rookies,” Cook said. “All of these guys — Patrick Walters, Garrett Paquette, Lee Livesay — those will be household names for years to come.
“Obviously, it means something winning Rookie of the Year now. But later on down the road, to be able to say I won Rookie of the Year against guys who went on to become the new greats of fishing — that’ll be incredible.”
Since the AOY Championship will determine the final AOY standings, it will also decide which 42 Elite Series anglers earn berths into the 2020 Bassmaster Classic scheduled for March 6-8 on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville.
After Sunday’s round, Louisiana’s Derek Hudnall is in the 42nd spot — the last angler in the Classic — because of the 24-12 bag he caught that tied him for second with Blaylock in the tournament.
A Classic berth would be especially sweet for Hudnall, who fished only eight regular-season Elite Series events after being disqualified from a midseason tournament at Lake Hartwell. He was ruled ineligible for that event because he accidentally violated the off-limits rule and self-reported the violation.
“I haven’t done the math or tried to figure out where I need to finish to make it — and I’m not going to do that,” Hudnall said. “I’m just going to fish as hard as I can, and this is a good start.”
The tournament will resume Monday, with a full field taking off at 7:10 a.m. ET off from Lake St. Clair MetroPark. The weigh-in will be held back at the park at 3:30 p.m.