BAY CITY, Mich. – What a difference a day — and a little bit of wind — makes.
After smallmouth comprised each of the four heaviest limits during the first day of qualifying for Group A at Minn Kota Stage Seven Presented by Suzuki at Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River, the brown fish stopped cooperating when Group B took the water on Wednesday. That led to SCORETRACKER® looking dramatically different, with largemouth dominating and weights as a whole dipping.
While Group A found Saginaw Bay placid, a sharp southwest wind roiled the big water on Wednesday. The largemouth bite wasn’t totally unaffected — multiple anglers remarked on the MLFNOW! live stream that the water level dropped around the shallow largemouth habitat on the south end of the bay — but smallmouth anglers were impacted much more severely.
During their first day of qualifying, the 40 anglers in Group A caught 95 total smallmouth. The 45 that found their way into anglers’ five-fish limits averaged 3 pounds, 6 ounces. Twenty-four hours later, Group B mustered just 52 smallmouth, with the keepers weighing about 2-9 on average. No one caught a smallmouth larger than 3 1/2 pounds.
As a result, anglers who caught exclusively largemouth occupy 17 of the top 18 positions in the group, including Britt Myers, whose 17-13 limit led the way. The only exception was Jeff Sprague, who started the day fishing for smallmouth before bailing and adding three largemouth to his limit during the afternoon.
The absence of big smallmouth from SCORETRACKER® made for a significant drop in overall weight from the first day of qualifying. During Group A’s first day on the water, the average keeper weighed 2-14, and 14-6 was good for 20th place. A day later, the average keeper shrunk to 2-10, and Alton Jones Jr.’s 13-9 bag has him in 20th, just above the Toro Cut Line.
Perhaps the most jarring stat: After the field accounted for 16 bass of 4 pounds or more on Tuesday, not a single 4-pounder was boated by Group B. Of course, 13 of the 16 4-pounders caught by Group A were smallmouth, including six caught by leader Greg Vinson alone.
Entering the event — and even after Tuesday — the widely-held belief was that, while largemouth might be caught in greater numbers, smallmouth would comprise the winning weight. Now, the only thing that’s clear is that Mother Nature represents the biggest variable on the mysterious fishery, and anyone hoping to chase smallmouth better have a backup plan in case she doesn’t cooperate.
“The wind is going to be the name of the game this week — what the wind does, where you can fish, where you can’t fish,” Group B pro Jordan Lee said. “You just don’t know what areas of the lake you can fish. So it’s definitely an interesting tournament from that aspect.”
It came as no surprise to see Jones and Matt Becker start their days braving the waves in search of smallmouth. Both are accomplished smallmouth anglers, and both entered Stage Seven in the thick of the Bally Bet Angler of the Year race. Jones leads, while Becker is one of three anglers within 10 points of his total, along with Jacob Wheeler and Ott DeFoe.
Like the rest of the field, both struggled to find the brown fish. They differed in how they responded, but at the end of the day, their situations remain similar — both will enter Friday’s second day of qualifying needing to catch ‘em in order to make the Knockout Round and keep their AOY hopes alive.
Jones pulled the plug on his smallmouth game plan early in the second period and ran shallow to target largemouth. He caught three keepers on a bladed jig to boost his limit to 13-9, which has him squarely on the Toro Cut Line.
Becker, on the other hand, stuck it out on the big water. While he managed to fill his five-fish limit, he only weighed six fish all day, and his best five amounted to 12-13. That has him in 26th place.
The good news for Becker — and perhaps bad news for Jones — is that the weights are so tightly bunched in the middle of the pack that just about everyone in the group still has a chance to make (or fall out of) the Top 20 with a solid second day on the water. Eight anglers trail Jones by 13 ounces or less, while he is just 14 ounces behind 10thplace. In all, 19 of the 40 anglers in Group B are within a pound of the Toro Cut line in either direction. With Wheeler and DeFoe both among the Top 10 in Group A through one day, that could make for a nerve-wracking Friday for Jones and Becker.
Unlike several of the anglers who started their day searching for smallmouth in open water, Sprague seemed to find a school of fish willing to bite. Unfortunately for the Texas pro, he struggled to keep them pinned, losing several that he had hooked.
After eventually putting four smallmouth for 9-1 on SCORETRACKER®, Sprague pulled a 180. During the second period, he took advantage of the trailering policy enacted by MLF for this event by putting his boat back on the trailer, driving about an hour south and re-launching in the Saginaw River. The move paid off, as he found a backwater that produced three keeper largemouth, including two in the high 3-pound range. After falling as far as 36th place, he shot up to second with a mixed bag that weighed 15-15.
“We went out to the big water, then we came all the way into the shallow water, caught largemouth,” Sprague said. “We caught both (species), weighed both today. What a great day on the water.”
Lee’s 14-7 limit, which has him in 10th place, might not jump off the results sheet. But after he struggled to find fish during the two-day practice period, Lee said he was pleased with his day.
For good reason. Not only is Lee positioned to make his sixth Knockout Round of the season, he also continued an unprecedented streak. The 3-15 largemouth that he caught on a hollow-body frog late in the first period took home Berkley Big Bass honors for the day.
It marked Lee’s fifth competition day in a row that he has caught the biggest bass in the field. He did so all four days during his victory at Stage Six on Lake St. Clair (where he also caught the biggest bass of the event for good measure).
Lee’s four consecutive Berkley Big Bass awards were already a record, as he became the first Bass Pro Tour angler to win the honor every day during a tournament. At this point, might as well go ahead and earmark Friday’s award for him, as well.