DECATUR, Ala. — Despite a demoralizing drought, plus a mechanical issue that threatened to doom his day, Sam George of Athens, Ala. persevered and tallied a two-day total of 36 pounds, 15 ounces to take over the lead in the Bassmaster Open at Wheeler Lake.
In a tight Top 10, where 4-03 separates 1st and 10th places, George added 19-08 to his 16th-place Day 1 limit of 17-07. Currently sitting in 28th place in the Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifier standings, George heads into the final day with a lead of 1-06 over fellow Alabamian JT Russell.
“Man, it was one of those days – I struggled, I struggled bad,” George said. “I caught a big one right off the bat, but I was hung up on four fish forever.”
Complicating his challenge, George experienced a bilge pump failure – not a good thing when strong winds whip the lake into a frothy chop.
“I had to come back in, but the service guys saved me big time,” George said. “I was scared to get back out in that big water, taking waves over the front and I couldn’t get water out of the boat.
“They fixed me in 30 minutes and I was able to get out there in the crowd (on the popular Decatur Flats). I was finally able to get on a little place and caught nearly everything I had in seven casts. I went from about 11 pounds to 19 pretty quickly.”
George said his early fish was likely one he shook off during practice. The bass bit a swim jig on the same cast he had made before the event.
“I’m pretty sure she was spawning up there,” George said. “This lake has so much going on right now – there are fish shallow and deep; just offshore in general. Most of it is offshore, but you’re fishing shallow spots offshore.”
On the Decatur Flats, George worked a depression with reaction baits. With minimal lake current, the day’s strong east wind actually created enough water movement to stimulate the fish utilizing that low spot.
Looking ahead to Saturday’s final round, George said he’ll likely give his Day-2 spot a good look. That being said, he’s considering dipping into his deep well of local experience to see if he can seal the deal on his first Bassmaster win.
“I have some tricks up my sleeve, so I’m going to run places where I’ve always caught a bass,” George said. “I’m going to keep some places honest because I know what can happen if they show up.
“This is where I learned to fish, so it would mean a lot to win here.”
Hailing from McCalla, Ala., Russell is in 2nd place with 35-09. Turning in a consistent performance, Russell placed 14th on Day 1 with 17-11 and made a big move with Friday’s limit of 17-14.
“Yesterday, I didn’t catch a fish until 8:30. This morning, I just went straight to fishing shallow,” Russell said. “I caught two or three good ones right off the bat and then it turned into an absolute grind.
“I ended up catching one more good one at 12 o’clock on the dot and I caught my last good one with three minutes left. I slung the trolling motor and came back over (to check in). I caught fish all day, but the big ones were definitely a lot tougher to come by.”
Russell caught his shallow fish on a mix of moving baits and flipping presentations. Offshore, he threw a jig and a Texas-rigged 10-inch worm.
Austin Cranford of Norman, Okla., is 3rd with 35-06. After placing 10th with 18-09 Thursday, he improved his position by adding a limit of 16-13 Friday.
“I tried to start out doing what I did to catch them yesterday, but the wind was blowing so bad I couldn’t see the fish (on forward-facing sonar) and keep the trolling motor in the water,” Cranford said. “So, I ran around and fished shallow. I kinda found a one-cast deal on the back end of a shad spawn.”
Tommy Wood of Sippy Downs, Australia, won the co-angler division with 20-08. In only his third U.S. tournament, Wood led Day 1 with 10-01 and added a second-round limit of 10-07.
“I had no expectations at all,” Wood said. “I just came to the U.S. to learn. This win has made the world so much better. It’s just amazing.”
The Top 10 anglers will take off at 6 a.m. CT Saturday from Ingalls Harbor. The final weigh-in will be held back at Ingalls Harbor at 2 p.m.
Here are the totals for the anglers who advanced to the final day:
1. Sam George: 26-15
2. JT Russell: 35-09
3. Austin Cranford: 35-06
4. Clark Wendlandt: 35-01
5. Trey McKinney: 34-07
6. Brandon Palaniuk: 33-09
7. Adam Rasmussen: 33-04
8. Justin Kimmel: 33-02
9. Allen Johnson: 33-01
10. Harry Peyton: 32-12