BUFFALO, N.Y. — Kotaro Kiriyama left Lake Erie last year with more than just a second-place check in the Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase. He proved that Saturday with a five-bass limit weighing 25 pounds. It gave him the lead going into the final day of this year's Empire Chase presented by Farmer's Insurance.
That 5-pound average of smallmouth bass represents the biggest bag in the seven days of Elite Series competition on Lake Erie in the last two years.
"I learned from last year," said the 37-year-old Japanese angler, who now resides in Moody, Ala. "I tried to save some fish (for the next day) last year. This year, I'm catching everything I can."
Friday the Empire Chase was a race, with the top five anglers grouped within 1 pound, 10 ounces of each other. Saturday the race turned into a chase, as the rest of the top 12 for Sunday's finale will be chasing Kiriyama.
With a three-day total of 67-13, Kiriyama opened a 3-pound, 8-ounce lead over second-place Aaron Martens. Day One leader and defending champion Edwin Evers is 1 ounce back of Martens, at 64-4.
Mike Iaconelli, who held the Day Two lead, dropped to fourth place with 62-1, almost 6 pounds behind the leader. And he acknowledged Kiriyama's margin is bigger than it appears on paper.
"It's hard to make up ground on a smallmouth lake," Iaconelli said. "My biggest fish today was 5-1. He had five of those. That's the key.
"I'd probably have to catch 25 pounds (Sunday), and he'd have to fall off."
Iaconelli's point is best illustrated by the fact that less than 5 pounds separated ninth place (Gary Klein, 55-6) and 25th place (Boyd Duckett, 50-11) after Saturday's weigh-in.
Kiriyama's chances Sunday to record his first BASS victory hinge heavily on the weather. Kiriyama is making a longer run to reach his fishing area than any of the other finalists. He has caught all of his fish from two spots near the Pennsylvania border, almost 70 miles away.
"I've got to have the right weather," Kiriyama said.
"As long as I can get there, I can catch the fish."
Thursday presented the worst weather of the tournament so far. On Lake Erie, the 10th-largest lake in the world, a 10-mile-an-hour wind creates problems in the form of 3- to 5-foot swells. When the wind kicked up over 15 miles per hour on Day One, Kiriyama had only 90 minutes to catch his fish and make it safely back on time to the NFTA Harbor weigh-in site. But he still managed to catch a limit weighing 20-15 that day.
So it's going to take more wind than that on Sunday to keep Kiriyama off his hot spots.
"The weather was wonderful today," Kiriyama said. "This lake is like a big river. It has a current.
"I understand current, and how the big fish like to stay in an eddy."
Kiriyama is drop-shotting a 4-inch soft plastic Jackall Crazy Ninja worm, exactly as he did a year ago, finishing second, 4 pounds behind Evers. But Kiriyama took what he learned about Lake Erie and its currents last year to find areas where big smallmouth are schooled this year.
His biggest smallmouth Saturday — a 5-15 — took Purolator Big Bass honors and is the biggest fish caught in the tournament so far.
Kiriyama estimated he caught 30 keepers Saturday, in depths ranging from 30 to 70 feet.
Martens and Evers are fishing in the same vicinity of each other, about 45 miles from the weigh-in site. Martens finished ninth here last year when Evers won it. And those two, obviously, have the best chance of catching Kiriyama.
"I could see big fish on my (sonar) graph — I just couldn't get them to bite," said Martens, who lost a smallmouth at the boat Friday that he estimated would weigh 7 pounds. "It's easily possible (to catch Kiriyama)."
Iaconelli is probably the only other angler in the 12-man final that has a chance to do that. The 2006 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year will definitely have the most fishing time Sunday.
Like all the other Sunday finalists, Iaconelli is drop-shotting to catch his smallmouth. But he's doing it closer to the weigh-in site.
"All of my places are within 5 miles," Iaconelli said. "I haven't burned much gas this week."
Saturday it became official that Todd Faircloth will be the 2008 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points leader going into the final tournament of the season next week at New York's Oneida Lake.
The Jasper, Texas, resident was in eighth place the first two days on Lake Erie and moved up one spot Saturday, into a seventh-place tie with Shaw Grigsby at 55-13. Meanwhile, Kevin VanDam, who held a 16-point lead over Faircloth entering the week, dropped from 14th place to 18th Saturday with his lightest limit of the tournament: 16-6.
But no matter where Faircloth ends up Sunday, the Champion's Choice event at Oneida will feature one of the closest races for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title in recent history.