By Sean Ostruszka
Special to BassFan

Apparently, practice is overrated. Well, at least if you’re John Cox.

Fresh off a 3rd-place finish in the Bassmaster Elite Series event at St. Clair where he led after each of the first 3 days, Cox was still driving to Sturgeon Bay from Michigan while guys were launching yesterday for the start of the FLW TITLE Championship. So his “practice” started this morning when Group B launched for its first Qualifying Round, and it turned out to be one of the best days of smallmouth fishing in his life.

“You always hear guys talking about winning practice,” says Cox, who caught 18 scorable bass for 65-05. “Well, I feel like I won practice, but it actually counted.”

Yet, while Cox would take the lead fishing the same shipping channel as Group-A leader Kurt Mitchell, he by no means blew it out of the water in the manner that Mitchell did the previous day. Instead, up until third period, the day was basically a game of leap-frog for the top spot.

Wade Strelic started out in the lead with an early flurry. Then it was Spencer Shuffield’s turn, followed shortly by Dylan Hays, then Joey Cifuentes and briefly Cox, with the four constantly one-upping one another throughout period 2. That is, until Cox regained it with back-to-back 5-pounders in the third period and never looked back.

Shuffield easily could’ve had the biggest total of the day, but he had the worst day for lost fish he can remember and had to settle for 2nd with 61-02. Meanwhile, Cifuentes settled into 3rd with a trio of lost fish at the end of period 3. He also cracked the 60-pound mark, though, with 60-06.

Matt Becker quietly had a solid day to sit in 4th with 51-01 and Hays went from leading at the start of period 3 to 5th by the time it was over with 49-13. Strelic’s cool-down happened much earlier than Hays’ as he never regained the period 1 momentum and sits in 6th with 43-08.

Clark Reehm (39-14), Mitch Crane (32-15), a late-charging Jacob Wall (32-14) and Chris Brasher (31-14) round out the Top 10.

Of course, with zero prior experience on Sturgeon Bay or even the MLF format, no practice and little sleep after getting into the area at around 10:30 p.m. the night before, Cox hardly expected he’d be in the Top 10, let alone leading Group B. His only preparation was to look for “something similar” to what he’d just fished at St. Clair, where he basically bank-fished in the river. The shipping channel was the closest thing, so that’s where he started. Though, despite starting in the same general area as Mitchell (Cox didn’t know that’s where the Group-A leader was fishing), it hardly started well, as he went two hours in period 1 without a scorable fish.

“I was worried,” says Cox. “I mean, I started on the lake side and there were hundreds of them down there, but I couldn’t get them to bite for some reason. So I made a move and caught that 4-09, and then I just started hammering them. I was like, ‘Oh, god!’”

From that point on, Cox never seemed to stop chuckling because he never seemed to stop catching big fish. He caught a pair of 4-10s and another pair of 4-11s that had him in the lead in period 2, and then a switch to the other bank in the channel produced the 5-01 and 5-02 that pushed him ahead.

Now, it’s a matter of better familiarizing himself with the format (though he only had two fish-handling penalties on the day) and figuring out what to do Thursday.

“I feel like 60 pounds will make the Knockout Round,” he said. “I have that. So I don’t know if I’ll go practice because I need to, or if I should protect that spot because they’re loaded in there.”

Shuffield is equally confident he’s in the Knockout Round, though he endured some frustration. The two spots he thought would be his best ended up producing one fish. Fortunately, he was pleasantly surprised by his starting spot and his ending spot. The other surprise he got wasn’t as welcome.

“Today was unreal,” says Shuffield, who caught the most scorable bass with 19. “I never lose fish on a dropshot. I’ve fished for smallmouth 16 days in the last three weeks and I haven’t lost a single fish on it. Today I lost 12!

“If there’s one good thing I can say about it is I never got spun out, and if you’re going to lose them, today is the day. I don’t want to be losing fish Friday or Saturday.”

Cifuentes also had some missed opportunities, though his came right at the end of period 3 when he lost three straight that would’ve had him in the lead. Still, considering he was “shaking in his boots” this morning from being so nervous with the new format, the man known as “Cowboy” was able to withstand the early jitters and really get rolling in period 2.

“My first cast [of the second period] I caught a 4-15 and then my second cast I caught a 3-10,” said Cifuentes. “I thought, ‘Here we go.’ After that, though, I didn’t catch much.

“I would’ve liked to have won today for bragging rights because it’d have been cool to win the day, but overall I’m excited. I had so much fun today and am really looking forward to Thursday.”

Weather Forecast

> Wed., August 26 – Partly Cloudy - 87°/70°
- Wind: From the SSW at 13 mph

> Thurs., August 27 – Partly Cloudy – 81°/64°
- Wind: From the NNW at 8 mph

> Fri., August 28 – Scattered T-Storms – 71°/61°
- Wind: From the ESE at 10 mph

> Sat., August 29 – Partly Cloudy – 73°/56°
- Wind: From the NW at 15 mph

Group B Qualifying Round 1

(Figure at far right indicates weight of angler's heaviest fish for the round)

1. John Cox -- 18, 66-05 -- 5-02

2. Spencer Shuffield -- 19, 61-01 -- 4-11

3. Joey Cifuentes -- 18, 60-05 -- 4-15

4. Matt Becker -- 15, 51-01 -- 4-05

5. Dylan Hays -- 16, 49-13 -- 4-06

6. Wade Strelic -- 15, 43-08 -- 4-09

7. Clark Reehm -- 11, 39-14 -- 5-11

8. Mitch Crane -- 11, 32-15 -- 3-11

9. Jacob Wall -- 10, 32-14 -- 4-05

10. Christopher Brasher -- 11, 31-14 -- 4-06

11. Joseph Webster -- 10, 29-11 -- 4-01

12. Alex Davis -- 8, 29-09 -- 4-14

13. Dakota Ebare -- 8, 26-13 -- 3-15

14. Tyler Woolcott -- 7, 24-10 -- 5-00

15. Bill McDonald -- 8, 23-13 -- 5-06

16. Jared McMillan -- 7, 23-04 -- 4-05

17. Tommy Dickerson -- 7, 22-03 -- 3-13

18. Kyle Hall -- 6, 20-15 -- 4-07

19. Cole Floyd -- 7, 20-03 -- 4-00

20. Jordan Osborne -- 7, 18-12 -- 3-15

21. Jason Reyes -- 6, 18-12 -- 3-12

22. Jimmy Washam -- 6, 18-07 -- 4-03

23. Chad Warren -- 5, 16-01 -- 4-10

24. Bradford Beavers -- 5, 15-07 -- 3-10

25. Darrell Davis -- 2, 6-02 -- 3-15