Only two anglers topped the 50-pound mark over three days in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship. With the legendary smallmouth bass in the Sturgeon Bay area transitioning from summer to fall patterns, it was unusually tough to catch one 14-inch keeper, much less a big stringer.
When accomplished Elite Series pros like Greg Hackney, the Day 1 and Day 2 leader, and Jason Christie, who was in the Top 5 both days, both post zeroes on Day 3, you realize how difficult it was to be consistent for three days at Sturgeon Bay.
Zaldain, with 53 pounds, 4 ounces, and Walker, with 50-11, solved the puzzle better than the other 48 top finishers in the season-long AOY points system. One thing they had in common was small soft plastic baits. But Zaldain threw his on a ¼-ounce round, unpainted jighead. Walker used a ¼-ounce weight, too, but his was on a drop shot rig.
Here are the details:
1st place, Chris Zaldain, 53-4 (18-2, 20-3, 14-15)
Chris Zaldain caught every fish he weighed on a 3-inch Megabass Spark Shad swimbait, except one. The exception was probably his smallest bass of the tournament, and it came on a Megabass Vision 110 jerkbait (bone color). But the importance of that jerkbait shouldn’t be overlooked.
During the three days of practice, Zaldain used the jerkbait to find areas holding fish. Practice was tough. In addition to the smallmouth having lockjaw, high winds kept all 50 AOY finalists from exploring anything extensively. Zaldain’s “hot spot” had a grand total of two waypoints marked, where he’d caught fish on the jerkbait in practice.
“It was a big shoal area off Monument Point,” Zaldain said. “Within three miles there were probably a dozen or so high spots or shoals. But instead of bouncing around all those shoals, I chose the shoal that was closest to the bank – it’s fall and the fish are trying to get shallow – and the shoal that was out in deep water. It seemed like those had the most smallmouth traffic.”
Zaldain found a flat in 14 to 16 feet of water that had “a bunch of tabletop-size boulders on it.” He also noticed “beach ball-size” schools of bait, probably alewives, he said. He made long casts with the Spark Shad (Zaldain called it albino color; Megabass lists it as “hiuo”), on a round (ball head), unpainted 1/4-ounce jighead attached to an 8-pound test Seaguar fluorocarbon leader and 15-pound test Seaguar Smackdown braid main line on a 7-foot spinning rod.
The jighead is similar to one commonly found in almost any tackle store. It has a 1/0 short-shank hook, Zaldain said. The short hook shank is important.
“The closer the hook (point) is to the line tie, the more action that swimbait has,” Zaldain said. “Making real long casts was the key. I’d let it hit bottom, give it one hop and slow-wind it back. All the big ones, they wouldn’t hammer it, it just felt like weight. When that happened, I’d just reel-set the hook.”
By the end of Day 2, Zaldain had 15 waypoints marked on the flat that was about 100 yards by 150 yards. Depending on the direction of the wind, which produced current, Zaldain concentrated on the downwind side of the boulders, as if he were fishing the current in a river.
“If the wind was blowing from the north, I would position the boat on the south side of the boulders,” he said. “When the south wind blew, I’d really pay attention to the north side of the boulders and bring that swimbait right down the north side.”
Any concentration of smallmouth bass is likely to be here one day and gone the next. On Day 2, Zaldain went back to his spot near Monument Point, made his first cast and caught a smallmouth that weighed just under 5 pounds.
“When I made the first cast the second day and set the hook, I said, they’re still here and they’re big,” Zaldain recalled. “I knew I was on something special.”
It was special to the tune of a 20-3 bag – heaviest of the day – and it moved him from eighth place to second, only 1 ½ pounds behind the leader, Hackney.
But asking smallmouth bass to be in the same place three days in a row is a bit much. Zaldain bailed on his spot at 9:30 a.m. Sunday without a fish in the boat. He’d marked two other places with waypoints during practice. The closest was north near Egg Harbor. Zaldain didn’t know if anyone else had been there the previous two days. He saw Mike Iaconelli leaving as he pulled up, and Chad Pipkens, who would finish fifth, was fishing in the area.
Pipkens welcomed him in, but Zaldain had some reservations about what he’d find there, since at least two pros had already fished it. That’s when his “fish locator” jerkbait came back into play. He caught a small keeper on it, then settled in with the Spark Shad again and promptly landed a smallmouth weighing 4-13. He finished with 14-15 on Day 3, during which he caught only five keepers.
Zaldain didn’t pick the ideal time to win his first Elite Series tournament. The AOY Championship doesn’t include a check for the winner or even a trophy. The goodies handed out at Sturgeon Bay were based on total AOY points for the season, where Zaldain moved from 10th place to finish sixth for the year. Those steps up the AOY standings earned him an extra $4,000over a 10th-place finish. Sixth paid $30,000. Sure, he’d like to have a first-place tournament check and a trophy, but he wasn’t complaining.
“I’ll take it,” Zaldain said. “It looks great on paper. The Top 50 all year long were here, and I can say I was the best of the best. That feels great.”
2nd place, David Walker, 50-11 (11-15, 18-2, 20-10)
You can glance at David Walker’s increasing bag weights each day and see that he got dialed-in as the tournament progressed. The first change Walker realized he needed to make was the size of the bait he was using.
One of his go-to baits for drop shotting is a Z-Man Streak Z – a 5-inch soft plastic swimbait/jerkbait. He also uses a Strike King Z Too, which is made from the same ElaZtech material.
“It’s the same mold, same material, but the colors are different,” said Walker, who keeps a wide variety of subtle colors in this lure boxes.
“I fished it and fished it and I never caught a fish on it – none,” he said. “They always bite it. Nothing. I realized there were fish in the area, but they were ignoring it.”
Walker fished the Sister Bay area, where there were several other anglers, like Greg Vinson, who finished 13th, and Bill Lowen, who finished 19th. But everyone had plenty of room to move.
Walker got the smallmouth bass to pay attention when he went to the Streak Z 3.75, which is just 1 1/4 inches shorter, but has a much smaller profile than the Streak Z.
“Some are mostly white. Others are mostly green. I wanted the mostly green ones,” he said.
Walker ended Day 1 with a decent 24th place bag of 11-15. He was 25th in AOY standings coming into the tournament, so his Bassmaster Classic berth was assured. But Walker was frustrated.
“It was more about, what are you doing wrong?” he said. “There were some decent stringers caught that day (four over 20 pounds). It was a matter of what do I need to do different?”
Walker said once the sun got high Saturday, he started catching smallmouth – an estimated 20 in the 3-pound range. He weighed 18-2 and moved up to ninth place.
“I had 15 pounds in about 40 minutes (Sunday), but it was essentially the same fish I’d found the day before,” Walker said. “I could have kept doing that, but I wanted to see how I could catch a bigger one. What’s the secret?”
Walker realized a general pattern: 1) the shallower you went, the smaller the fish got; and 2) the deeper you went, the fish got bigger, to a point, then they got really small in 35- to 40-foot depths.
“So I started following that line where a sharp break flattened out again in 27 to 28 feet,” Walker said. “That’s where the bigger ones were. The first time I dropped down there I caught about a 4 1/2 pounder. Then I caught another 4-pounder.
“Outside and inside there were a lot of fish, but in-between there was way better quality.”
Walker still managed to catch a good number of fish Sunday, about 15. But with the added quality, he weighed a 20-10 bag, the heaviest of Day 3.
Walker is admittedly a baitcast/heavy tackle/power-fishing specialist. But especially in the last couple of years, he has, through trial-and-error, tailored an effective drop shot style. It includes long, flexible rods (7-7 and 7-4 G.Loomis), small hooks (#2 Owner), bell-shaped tungsten weights in rock/cylindrical in grass (Reins), 10-pound test Sunline braid main line and a 7-pound test fluorocarbon leader (Sunline FC Sniper).
There’s considerable thought behind all those choices.
“Drop-shotting is very similar to crankbaiting,” Walker said. “You’re just trying to pull the hook into the fish, then it’s a matter of playing the fish. It took me a long time to get down to that No. 2 hook, I promise you. I was using 1/0s and 2/0s, thinking I can hook them better with that. You lose them better with that.
“I like way longer rods when I’m doing this stuff. It’s all about playing the fish. That 7-7 rod is a one-power. It’s the weakest one (G.Loomis) makes. It’s a total noodle. Especially with braid, you’ve got to go to a much softer rod. Then the fish never get a good pull at you.
“I heard some of the guys (backstage at the weigh-in tanks) talking about all the fish they were losing. I’ll bet you anything they weren’t using a soft enough rod. I went down that same road.”
Walker, like most pro anglers, prefers tungsten weights – period. But Walker says that particularly in drop-shotting, tungsten gives you a better feel for the bottom, so you know if you’re in rock or sand or whatever. If he’s fishing grass, Walker prefers the slim cylindrical weights because they slice through the vegetation easily. But in rock, like at Sturgeon Bay, he wants a bell-shaped sinker. And he wants it with a looped line-tie, not one of those narrowed ties that pinch on the line. Besides the fact that tungsten weights are too expensive to leave at the lake bottom, there’s a fish-attracting angle to this as well.
“I prefer the bell-shape in rock because it has a tendency to sort of grab,” Walker said. “You get a little tension, then it pops loose. You catch so many fish at that moment. It’s just like banging a crankbait against something.”
Finally, there is his choice of 7-pound test leader. Most anglers rotate between 6- and 8-pound test, depending on the fishery. Seven-pound test line isn’t an item common to every tackle store.
“I used to use 8-pound test,” Walker said. “I’ve tried 6-pound. It’s too fragile for me. It won’t withstand catching more than just a few fish. What could be the difference (7 vs. 6, or 7 vs. 8)? It’s just one pound. There’s a difference, believe it or not.”