Zaldain leads California crush in Sacramento

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Before the start of the Sacramento Bassmaster Elite at Sacramento River, Chris Zaldain predicted that a few anglers would bring in single-day catches of 30-plus pounds during the four-day event.

On Day 1, only one angler reached that elusive mark – and it was Zaldain himself.

The 30-year-old professional angler, who grew up just a couple of hours away from this week’s tournament venue in San Jose, Calif., brought five bass to the scales Thursday that weighed a monstrous 30 pounds, 7 ounces. His catch was anchored by a 7-6 largemouth and a gigantic 12-0 fish that now stands as the largest caught on the Elite Series this year.

Zaldain’s monster bag placed him at the top of a leaderboard that was dominated by anglers from the Western United States. California pro Skeet Reese is in second with 25-8, followed by Texan Keith Combs (24-13), California native and current Alabama resident Aaron Martens (24-11) and Arizona pro Cliff Pirch (24-0).

Like most of the field, Zaldain made the 90-minute run down the Sacramento River to the California Delta to make his magical day happen.

“Only on the California Delta,” said Zaldain, who has one victory and 11 career Top 10 finishes with B.A.S.S. “When that fish bit, I think I said it on camera: ‘That’s a teener.’ It’s definitely the biggest Delta fish I’ve caught, and it was really something special.”

He said he has caught bass weighing 13 pounds or more — which Californians call “teeners” — elsewhere in his native state.

With the spawn in full swing on the Delta, most anglers were targeting bass on shallow beds throughout the day. But the fish were only willing to bite when the tidal flows were just right.

Many anglers said the fish bit quickly and eagerly when the tidal conditions were perfect. But if conditions weren’t just right, they were skittish and sometimes impossible to approach.

Prior knowledge of the fishery helped Zaldain, who caught his biggest fish in an area he hadn’t tried in practice.

“I was just running down the river, and I knew the big ones live in that area,” Zaldain said. “So I decided to go in there, and that was the second fish I caught.”

With a group of experienced Western anglers not far behind him, Zaldain knows he won’t be able to coast on the strength of his Day 1 catch.

“I can’t expect to catch a 12 again tomorrow, because the chances of that are pretty slim,” Zaldain said. “But the 12 was only one part of that 30-pound bag. I got a lot of clues off of that fish. Two big bites tomorrow, and hopefully I can maintain that top spot.”

Though he’s nearly 5 pounds out of the lead with 25-8, Reese continued his recent hot streak after recording his eighth career B.A.S.S. victory three weeks ago on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville. He had a tough time in practice on the California Delta – just as he did before the Guntersville event – but he finally figured out the fish as the tournament began.

“I was absolutely terrified about today, because I didn’t know what I could catch,” Reese said. “I didn’t catch any big fish in practice. I saw a lot of big fish in one area. But when I went back to the fish I had found on beds, they were all gone.

“I just had to put the trolling motor down and start fishing.”

Reese said he wasn’t sure if he could duplicate his opening-round success on Friday, because conditions tend to change so quickly on the Delta – especially with so many fish moving on and off beds.

Combs echoed those concerns, as he contemplated changing his strategy for Day 2 – even after bringing in 24-13 Thursday.

“I’m going to do some of the same stuff tomorrow,” Combs said. “But I don’t want to do all of it, because a lot of what I did today didn’t work. The big bedding fish that I had found in practice were gone. I’ll continue to look for them in areas where the water is clear, but I’m going to do some things different.”

Combs was one of several anglers who made the long boat run to the California Delta for the first time. The run was particularly rough for the anglers as they returned to the weigh-in site in Sacramento with winds blowing 15 to 20 mph and wakes from massive boats creating treacherous conditions.

“I hit a big boat wake coming back that really kind of caught me off guard,” Combs said. “I’ve never made that run before, so I’m not exactly sure how to make it. I’m running kind of a back route, and I feel relieved every time I get through it.”

The four-day tournament will resume Friday with a 6:15 a.m. PT take-off from Discovery Park. The weigh-in will be held at the park at 3:15 p.m. with only the top 52 anglers advancing to Saturday’s round.

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