Hays tops on Day 3 at Santee Cooper - Major League Fishing

Hays tops on Day 3 at Santee Cooper

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Dylan Hays won the Qualifying Round with a two-day total of 17 bass weighing 71 pounds, 13 ounces. Photo by Garrick Dixon. Angler: Dylan Hays.
February 22, 2024 • Mitchell Forde • Bass Pro Tour

CLARENDON COUNTY, S.C. — When Group A returned to the Santee Cooper lakes Thursday, Dylan Hays went back to the group of cypress trees that produced the bulk of his Day 1 bag. Considering he’d stacked up more than 40 pounds there, that didn’t come as a surprise.

However, this time, Hays only spent a few minutes in the area, catching just one scorable bass. He didn’t make any casts at his “juice” trees, either. He quickly moved on, spending virtually the entire day at Suzuki Stage Two Presented by Fenwick exploring new water.

The result was more of the same. Hays put seven bass weighing 30-8 on the scales, bringing his two-day total to 71-13. He finished his Qualifying Round atop the leaderboard, 2-11 ahead of Matt Becker.

“The very first fish was the only fish that I actually caught somewhere I had ever made a cast in my life, but the first two were really close,” Hays said. “You could almost say it was the same area. … But I don’t feel like any of it was the juice, by any means.”

Tasting success on new water has Hays excited for what’s shaping up to be a thrilling Knockout Round. No angler has yet pulled away from the rest of the pack at Santee Cooper, with the top five finishers in Group A within 8 pounds of one another. 

They got there in different ways, too. Hays and Gerald Spohrer stuck with the most popular tactic, power fishing around cypress trees. Becker leaned on a lipless crankbait and bladed jig around patches of submerged hydrilla. Alton Jones Jr. stuck with the forward-facing sonar and mid-strolling minnow trends that have dominated the sport lately. Dustin Connell combined the above approaches. He used forward-facing sonar to find fish around submerged cover, then targeted them with both a jighead minnow as well as a spinnerbait and football jig.

Complete results can be found here.

Hays has a bead on the big ones

Dylan Hays focused on areas with dirty water on Lake Marion. Photo by Phoenix Moore

All week, anglers have stressed the importance of triggering bites from the bigger-than-average bass that roam Santee Cooper. At least in Group A, no one has done so better than Hays.

The Arkansas pro anchored his Day 2 bag with a 7-3 kicker. He also caught a 6-7 and a 5-4. During each of his first two days on the water, he’s landed three bass over 5 pounds, and his biggest five fish weighed more than 26 both days.

Hays believes he’s figured out a key to enticing those bigger bass. Fishing in Lake Marion, he’s not shying away from the dirty water in much of the lake. He also thinks his bait selection has played a part. All his fish Thursday ate a 1/2-ounce bladed jig with either a Zoom Z Craw Jr. or Shimmer Shad as the trailer.

“Key No. 1 was dirty water,” Hays said. “Key No. 2 was throwing a ChatterBait instead of flipping. … And then just making a lot of casts, working really hard.”

Hays admitted that he’s “kind of making it up as (he goes),” especially as he explored new terrain, but he’s optimistic his key areas are reloading with new staging fish each day. Early in the morning, he watched another angler catch a 5-pounder off the same tree that produced a 6-pounder for him on Day 1.

Still, even if his cypress bite sputters, Hays now has a backup plan in place. The thing that had him most excited about his second day on the water was the fact that he caught several fish not around Santee Cooper’s ubiquitous wood, but grass.

“The first day I caught the majority of them off trees – specific trees, but off trees – but in practice I caught a couple good ones off of some grass,” Hays said. “I couldn’t ever really make it work very long. Today, I actually caught the 7 and 5 off the same kind of stuff, and a couple males, so that kind of got me excited. That might start developing as well.”

Hays’ Group A win marked the first time in his three Bass Pro Tour seasons that he’s won a round. He’ll hope it leads to his first tournament win as a pro on Sunday.

The fact that he’s put himself in that position power fishing around shallow cover – the way he grew up fishing – has made his first two days on Santee Cooper even more fun.

“Dude, if they’re biting a Hula Popper, I’ll throw a Hula Popper,” Hays said. “If I gotta throw a drop-shot in 40-foot, I’ll do that. I do not care, and that’s God’s honest truth. It does not matter; I like it all. But it is fun. I mean, it’s been a while since we were able to do this, and I grew up fishing a place very similar to this, a lot of cypress trees, and I’m very comfortable.”

Lefebre rallies into Knockout Round

Dave Lefebre launched from 35th to eighth place on Thursday by catching 13 bass weighing 46 pounds even.

Given the number of big bass swimming in Santee Cooper and the Bass Pro Tour’s every-fish-counts format, it’s no surprise a few anglers made major moves up SCORETRACKER® Thursday. But Dave Lefebre really tested the idea that no angler is out of contention until the officials call lines out.

Lefebre caught just one scorable bass that weighed 4-12 on Day 1, which had him in 35th place. When he took the water Thursday, he said he still believed he could vault into the Top 10, but “knew it wasn’t likely.” 

Well, he pulled it off, stacking 13 bass for 46-0 on the scales – the biggest bag of the day.

Lefebre blamed his initial struggles on the water level dropping 4 to 6 inches between practice and the start of competition, which he said killed his shallow bite. Thursday, he moved to a deeper group of trees and hunkered down, catching all his fish flipping. 

Boating four bass over 6 pounds spurred his comeback. Lefebre believes a key to catching them was turning off all his electronics for extra stealth.

“We’ve got all these fancy graphs on our boats – I think I have like six graphs and 85 transducers,” he said. “I got to my area and I shut everything off. Literally, not on standby, just shut them off. Just decided to focus on fishing. And it was kind of a cool deal – peaceful, different, and I think it made a difference.”

Lefebre wasn’t the only angler to put together a dramatic comeback. David Walker and Matt Stefan both eclipsed 30 pounds after catching zero bass on Day 1. Stefan boated 11 bass for 36-1, climbing into the Top 20 and earning a check. Walker weighed in 32-4 on nine fish. That included a pair of 8-pounders, one of them weighing 8-8, and taking home Berkley Big Bass honors.

Lefebre is optimistic that he can ride his momentum into his second career Top 10 on the Bass Pro Tour. He thinks more prespawn bass are coming to him.

“They’re coming in,” he said. “I fished the same key casts throughout the day multiple times, and I’d get a bite or get two bites every time I fished it. The fish are just dying to come up. It’s been so cold every night, so they’re just anxious, and they started moving up today.”

What’s next for Stage Two

The 40 anglers in Group B will return to the water Friday to wrap up the Qualifying Round. The 10 highest finishers in the group will join the Top 10 from Group A in the Knockout Round. Weights will zero, then Top 10 will then advance to the Championship Round.

Watch all the action unfold on the MLFNOW! live stream, which will provide coverage from 7:50 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. ET each day for the remainder of the event. 

Fishing Clash Angler of the Year

The Group A anglers who advanced to the Knockout Round won’t only be fishing for the increased paychecks on offer for the Top 10 when they return to the water Saturday. They’ll also chase valuable points in the Fishing Clash Angler of the Year race. 

Bass Pro Tour anglers will compete throughout the 2024 season for the prestigious Fishing Clash Angler of the Year award and its $100,000 payday. While there’s lots of time left in the race, Connell looks like the man to beat early; after winning Stage One, he advanced to the Knockout Round at Santee Cooper by finishing fifth in Group A.

Fishing Clash, an interactive 3D fishing simulation game that’s played by more than 80 million people worldwide, is the official AOY sponsor of the Bass Pro Tour, Tackle Warehouse Invitationals, Toyota Series and Phoenix Bass Fishing League. You can download Fishing Clash for free in the App Store and on Google Play, or log on to www.fishingclash.game for more information.

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