By Todd Ceisner
For a few hours Friday, smallmouth bass took a backseat in Chris Zaldain's mind. Instead, he drove, chipped, putted and chased a little white ball around the Gladstone Golf Club with a group of fellow Elite Series anglers following the cancellation of day 2 on Friday morning at the Angler of the Year Championship at Lake Michigan.
Meanwhile, Bernie Schultz was laying low back in his room, trying to figure where he went wrong after a 13-15 stringer on day 1 left him in 42nd in the 50-man field, a position that caused him to slip six spots in the race for one of the final berths for the 2015 Bassmaster Classic. He came into the event in 36th place, safely inside the projected cut for the Classic. Now, he's on the outside looking in.
Zaldain is too, but he's been on a steady rise since starting the season with finishes of 76th, 85th and 94th, a run that pushed him down to 101st in points. His incredible rally continued on Thursday with a 17-15 bag that put him in 18th place. More importantly, though, he improved six positions in the points and has a legitimate shot at securing a Classic berth.
If he's able to complete his comeback, he said it would rank on par with qualifying for the Elite Series All-Star competition a year ago.
"This would be a testament to not giving up on it," he said. "I put myself in a bad position this late in the season, but I'm taking it one day at a time, one fish at a time. In the back of my head, I've been asking myself, 'Why are you in this spot?' It's a tough hill to climb, but I'm going one step at a time."
Schultz's year started strong with a 7th at Lake Seminole, but he slid to 67th in points at the halfway point and has been clawing his way back since then.
"This place doesn’t fish like what I'm familiar with," he said. "I wish it were on the St. Lawrence or Ontario or Oneida or Lake St. Clair. I feel like then I could control my own destiny. I just need to have a banner day."
When the tournament resumes – the forecast for Saturday calls for decreasing winds, but not until the afternoon – both Zaldain and Schultz will be among a group of competitors looking to vacate the Classic bubble in what figures to be a dramatic conclusion that will come down to ounces.
Afternoon Got Zaldain's Attention
Zaldain's strategy for when the tournament resumes will likely be different than it was to start day 1. Rather than making a lengthy, wave-hopping run to Big Bay de Noc, he's considering going back to some water that produced his best fish in the afternoon on Thursday.
"This wind is really playing with my game plan now," he said in between shots on the golf course. "After I made that long run yesterday, it got calm and sunny and I ran back to Little Bay de Noc and did some sight fishing up shallow."
The move produced a 6-01 kicker that ate a Strike King painted blade spinnerbait that he was burning back to the boat.
"A good number of fish were caught real shallow yesterday, like in 3 feet of water or less," he said. "I'm going to try to expand on what I found late yesterday and if I can get five good ones shallow, that will give me a good shot at it. I'm going to make or miss the Classic based on one or two days. It all depends on the next day we fish."
He also said there are some distinct differences in how the fish set up on this particular area of Lake Michigan compared to other Great Lakes fisheries he's competed at.
"This place is weird," he said. "It's nothing like the other Great Lakes we've fished. The predominant wind here is out of the southwest and being that we're in the northern section of the lake, that wind just pounds this shoreline all year. Over the years, that wind has created all of these sand bars and those are the only things these fish have to relate to. It's totally different from what we've seen before."
The differences don't stop with the weather patterns either. He said the fish he's catching are more mature in appearance than fish he's caught at other Great Lakes.
Bernie Schultz says the Bay de Noc area of Lake Michigan fishes much different from other Great Lakes.
"They're different from fish at Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence (River), too, in that these fish are pretty old," he added. "Their colorations and the size of their heads and mouths are much bigger than the fish we were catching last year at the St. Lawrence. Those fish are probably 3 to 5 years old, but the ones here are probably 10. They're longer and are a darker brown color. A lot of times you'll see them solo and not in wolfpacks. I guess they're survivors of their year class or litter."
Bernie Thinking Big
Like Zaldain, Schultz said the Bay de Noc area fishes much different from other Great Lakes and that has him second-guessing his day-1 strategy and possibly planning a reboot for the next competition day.
"I caught more fish Thursday than I had all week, but I think my problem here is I kind of forced my approach," he said. "I did what I would do at Ontario or the last time we were here at Green Bay or how I fish Erie at times.
"I try to fish less than 10 feet of water when I can and I think I tried to fish too shallow. I know fish are being caught that way, but it's not a pattern thing. It's a spot deal and if you don't find a concentration of fish in a key area, you're out of luck. They're not everywhere like that. I looked in what would be textbook places for smallmouth and they're all barren."
He said the structure is there for the fish to hold on, but the fish just aren’t there.
"The shoals here are beautiful," he said. "You couldn't sculpt a better fishery for smallmouth, but for some reason they're not using shoals. I haven't seen a shoal yet that's loaded where you normally would. I was hoping for a topwater, jerkbait and spinnerbait bite and power-fishing all the way, but that's not how it worked out."
He chatted with a fellow competitor, who told him he caught a 20-pound bag on day 1 out of shallow water so that gave Schultz's theory more credence. His problem, though, is he doesn't have any of those places found.
"It's really aggravating to know that approach does exist, but it's just not consistent throughout the water we have to fish," he added. "My thoughts for tomorrow if we get to go is I'm really struggling with going back to where I caught them yesterday. I caught them quick there and it's tempting, but I'm not sure I can catch more than 15 pounds there and that won't do me any good. The smart thing might be to abandon that and just go fishing and fish for fewer bites and try to catch bigger fish."