BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Jay Yelas has already won a big one in the heart of bass-fishing country before, having won the Bassmaster Classic in Birmingham. But if the veteran pro out of Tyler, Texas, continues to fish the way he’s been fishing all week, tomorrow he might win the biggest check of his career at the 2006 Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship – again, right here in Birmingham.
“It feels like deja vu all over again,” Yelas said during Friday evening’s weigh-in at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center arena. “I won the Classic here in 2002 in this very arena. So I’m excited about the possibility of doing it all again.”
Yelas posted the day’s top weight in the second round of bracket competition, catching a five-bass limit weighing 14 pounds, 3 ounces and besting FLW Tour rookie Thanh Le of Davie, Fla., in a tough bracket matchup. Le muscled in a limit weighing 11-1 himself, but ultimately fell prey to Yelas and his newfound soft-plastics technique.
“I’m fishing a Berkley Power Bait worm on a Shaky Head, and it’s like a finesse worm on steroids,” said Yelas, adding that it’s a 5-inch, green-pumpkin, shaky worm. “I’ve never fished the Power Bait in Alabama before, and they’re just eating it up.”
Yelas is working his muscle-bound shaky worm mostly around docks in about 10 to 15 feet of water on the lower end of Logan Martin Lake, though he is targeting brush piles, as well. He had the bulk of his limit in the livewell early Friday morning and ended up culling up with a big one later in the day.
“I had 12 1/2 pounds by 9 o’clock, and then I caught a lot of fish the rest of the day,” he said. “I really haven’t put the hammer down on my water all week long, but I went to one of my good docks this afternoon and caught a 3-pounder.”
While most of the finalists are fishing docks, Yelas said the key to fishing them successfully is their location.
“The lower end of Logan Martin is where all the tournaments are won,” he said. “They’ve had three Classics and one FLW Championship here, and they’ve all been won on the lower end.”
If anyone knows about the hot spots on the Coosa River, it’s Yelas. The Classic he won here was held on the next lake downriver, Lay Lake, and that victory cleared him about $160,000. If Yelas – who was also the 2002 FLW Tour Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year – continues rolling for one more day here on Logan Martin Lake, he’ll enter rare company as one of the few to have won both the Classic and the FLW Championship.
Oh, and don’t forget about that $500,000 top prize, which would be the accomplished pro’s biggest haul ever.
“Yeah, I had a great day,” he said. “I’ve caught a little bit more each day, so that’s what you’re shooting for.”
FLW Tour rookie Brent Ehrler of Redlands, Calif., dominated Ramie Colson Jr. of Cadiz, Ky., (7 pounds, 10 ounces) by catching the second-heaviest limit Friday, 13-4, and positioning himself for his first-ever crack at a half-million-dollar prize.
Unlike Yelas, who said he’s been saving fish until Saturday, Ehrler said he hasn’t held anything back to this point. Still, he’s managed to increase his weight total each day.
“I haven’t saved anything,” said Ehrler, who is fishing a Shaky Head worm around shallow docks and also a small crankbait as a fish locator. “I’m only getting about eight bites a day, but the crazy thing is that I’m getting bigger weights everyday. They’ll be on one (dock) pole one day, and then they’ll just move to another pole another day.”
While an FLW Tour rookie, Ehrler is no stranger to championship fishing. He won the Stren Series Championship in 2004 and said he’s relatively calm about Saturday’s big-money final round.
“In a sense, it’s the same as any other tournament. I just have to catch them and not let that (money) cloud my judgment,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. If I break one off early or something, that could put the pressure on. But we’ll see how that affects my performance.”
In the groaner matchup of the day, Shinichi Fukae of Mineola, Texas, ousted 2004 Logan Martin FLW Tour champion Luke Clausen of Spokane, Wash., by a mere 2 ounces. They both caught limits; Fukae’s weighed 12 pounds, 14 ounces and Clausen’s tallied 12-12.
While the Birmingham crowd let out an sympathetic gasp as Clausen’s weight was announced, Fukae maintained an impish grin, knowing that he’d just come through the toughest set of brackets in the championship.
“Yes, I’ll do the same thing tomorrow,” he said after weighing in the third-heaviest limit Friday.
Fukae said that he’s also catching his bass on a Shaky Head worm around shallow brush piles and docks, a tactic with which he feels very comfortable. He won the Wal-Mart Open at Beaver Lake earlier this year doing exactly the same thing.
Andy Morgan of Dayton, Tenn., also won a tough matchup, against Gary Yamamoto of Mineola, Texas, by a weight of 11 pounds, 15 ounces to 10-2. Both pros caught limits Friday.
“I was fishing docks this morning and caught a few small ones, but I ultimately caught 15 or so keepers,” Morgan said. “I think if you can catch 14 or 16 pounds, you’ve really got a good shot at winning.”
“I caught my largemouth in the back of the bay I was fishing,” said Scheide, who was dragging a worm for his deep bite and found a surprise honey hole on his way back into weigh-in this afternoon. “If all goes well, I think I can catch 15 pounds tomorrow.”
– George Cochran won the Arkansas wars by first defeating Larry Nixon in the opening round and then topping Rob Kilby in the second round. Cochran, who hails from Hot Springs, Ark., beat his friend Nixon, of Bee Branch, Ark., 21 pounds, 2 ounces to 17-10 Wednesday and Thursday. He beat Kilby, also of Hot Springs, 9-9 to 6-12 Friday. Cochran won last year’s championship at Lake Hamilton and stands to become the first ever to repeat as FLW Tour champion if he can pull it off again Saturday.
– Four prior FLW Tour Championship winners competed Friday: Cochran (2005), Clausen (2004), David Dudley (2003) and Dion Hibdon (2000). Cochran and Dudley – both prior winners of $500,000 tournament checks – advanced to the finals while Clausen and Hibdon both exited. Dudley defeated Scott Martin Friday in a tough bracket matchup, 10-14 to 10-0.
– By beating Danny Correia 8-8 to 6-2, top seed Anthony Gagliardi is vying to become the first pro ever to win Angler of the Year and the FLW Tour Championship in the same season.
Rest of the best
– Clark Wendlandt defeated Toshinari Namiki, 10-5 to 4-6
– Brennan Bosley defeated Hibdon, 9-15 to 8-15
– Steve Kennedy defeated Dean Rojas, 8-9 to 4-14
– Kim Stricker defeated Tony Couch, 7-1 to 6-7
Next up: final showdown for all the marbles
The entire FLW season is now boiled down to this: 12 pro anglers vying against each other for the $500,000 winner’s check. All weights will be reset to zero for Saturday’s final round as the field competes in a one-day shootout to determine the champion. Heaviest sack of bass wins.
Saturday’s takeoff is scheduled to take place at 7 a.m. Central time at Lakeside Park in Pell City, Ala.