Late on day 3 of the Bassmaster Classic, as Jeff Kriet was finishing off his solid 14-05 sack that he hoped would allow him to hold onto the ultra-slim lead he'd begun the day with, he had an ominous thought: He hadn't seen a thing of Kevin VanDam.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," the Oklahoman said. "The day before, when he'd caught the little bag, he'd been running around and bopping all over the place.
"He wasn't going to sit on 12 or 13 pounds on the last day. If he didn't have them, he'd have been out looking. It was just kind of a sick feeling, realizing he was still back in that creek all by himself."
His fear proved to be well-founded as VanDam, the world's top-ranked angler, boated 19 1/2 pounds to claim the third Classic title of his illustrious career. Fishing farther back in Beeswax Creek than Kriet or Todd Faircloth (all of whom started the day within 3 ounces of each other), VanDam snatched the trophy that Kriet had envisioned becoming his since before practice began.
Kriet was beaten out by arguably the greatest angler the sport has ever known, but his performance at Alabama's Lay Lake was nonetheless superb. He and Faircloth both found an area in Beeswax that had the potential to win, and it might've surrendered the top weight if they hadn't been forced to share it.
He averaged about 15 1/2 pounds a day en route to his runner-up finish, and his 46-06 total surpassed all but the most optimistic angler predictions of what it would take to win at frigid, muddy Lay. It was his second straight No. 2 showing (he was also 2nd at the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series finale at Oneida) and marked the fourth time in five events that he'd ended up among the Top 15.
Here's how he did it.
Kriet had hoped that Lay would remain cold in the days leading up to the Classic so that the majority of the fish would stay away from the banks. His strength is fishing offshore structure and he's one of the top finesse artists in the game.
The water temperature remained in the low to mid 40s as the event approached, which was plenty cool enough to suit him. There was a problem, though the depths were heavily stained due to recent precipitation that prompted muddy discharge from upstream Logan Martin Lake.
He spent most of the 3-day pre-practice period up near the dam and in Paint Creek, working points and their accompanying secondary structure.
"I was getting bit, but it was too slow," he said. "I'd get one bite, but that's not the way they're supposed to act on that stuff when you find them, you should be able to get 10 bites in a row. I started to realize there wouldn't be enough time in the day to make that work.
"That first day I got nine bites on a jig, but I probably could've only caught one of them. They were too finicky."
He'd caught a bunch of fish out of the grass in Beeswax during the 2007 Lay Classic, when he'd finished 15th. He began to look for vegetation in other places and got a couple of bites on a rattlebait right at dark on the third pre-practice day from an adjacent creek. He spent the one official practice day scouring every part of Beeswax.
"As soon as I got that first bite (on the lipless crank) in practice, I knew that would play. I fished every inch of that creek and I knew where all the sweet spots were. And when you're throwing a 'Trap against these guys, as good as they are, you'd better know where the meat is."
His main area was a ridge that ran somewhat perpendicular to the bank and stretched about 100 yards from the shore. The grass was somewhat scattered on top and thicker on the edge.
"The real key to that stretch was it had a little bit deeper grass than most places and the ridge also had some stumps on it."
> Day 1: 5, 16-07
> Day 2: 5, 15-10
> Day 3: 5, 14-05
> Total = 15, 46-06
Kriet caught his biggest bag of the tournament on day 1 and settled into 3rd place, just over 3 pounds behind VanDam and about a pound and a half in back of Faircloth. He boated well over a dozen keepers and suffered his only lost fish of the tournament a 6- or 7-pounder that he'd hooked in the back.
"That first day I smoked them out on the end of the ridge," he said. "I was casting across the tip and they were piled up. At one time I think I caught eight in a row."
The water level dropped a bit on day 2 and the fish moved to the sides of the ridge. He had a limit by 8:30 and although his haul was slightly smaller than on day 1, he moved into the lead as VanDam came in 7 pounds lighter and Faircloth's weight fell by more than 4 pounds.
The water was back up again on the final day and he had only three fish at 12:45, all caught from closer to the shore than the school had resided all week. He moved off and tried a nearby pocket with no success, and then tried one little "rough spot" and stuck a 2 1/4-pound spotted bass on a 1/2-ounce Jewel football jig.
Kriet mined his hard-fished area for everything he could on the final day, but it wasn't enough to keep him at the top of the standings.
"I didn't end up weighing in that fish, but it got my momentum going again. That gave me four, and I immediately went back to the other deal and caught Nos. 5 and 6 and started culling. I got my groove on and started catching them and I was thinking I was going to win."
It was shortly thereafter that the lack of a VanDam sighting set in.
"I knew I was about out of fish, but I tried to put that out of my mind. By that time I was pretty sure that me and Todd both needed a really big bite. If Todd wasn't in there, I think I would've won and if I wasn't in there, I think Todd would've won. We both needed each other's stretches to give ours time to rest.
"I made good decisions and fished flawlessly and I didn't give it to (VanDam) he took it from me. Going into the last day of a tournament, you'd better have a big lead over that guy or you're in trouble."
Kriet fished the ridge in an elongated horseshoe pattern, going down one side to the end and then swinging back up the other. He kept his boat far enough away from the structure that he had to make his longest possible cast to reach the other side and bring the rattlebait down and across it. Most of his fish came from water that was 3 1/2 to 5 feet deep.
Casts on which the bait traveled directly down the ridge were ineffective it had to go across at an angle. "I had about three lines where I made the exact same cast and caught about 90 percent of my fish," he said.
He said he fished the bait slowly almost like a jig. He'd let it get hung up in the grass and then ease it out.
"I was really dialed in on how to catch those fish," he said. "Almost every one that bit my bait swallowed it and I usually had to use the pliers to get it out."
He said he caught the vast majority of his weigh-in fish on a 1/2-ounce Yo-Zuri lipless crank that had been hand-painted Rayburn red. He caught a few on the final day on a 1/2-ounce white Sebile Flatt Shad.
"By the end of the last day they'd started to hit that white Sebile a little better."
> Lipless crankbait gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Falcon rod, Abu Garcia Revo Premier casting reel, 15-pound Hi-Seas fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce Yo-Zuri rattlebait (hand-painted Rayburn red) or Sebile Flatt Shad (white).
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success "Making up my mind on the last practice day that (fishing offshore) wasn't going to win and that I needed to start throwing the 'Trap."
> Performance edge "I've said it before, but I really think it was the rod change I made last year late in the season. Since then I haven't been losing fish and I'm real comfortable with my tools right now. Who would've thought that would be such a big deal, but it is."
> The Classic marked the second time that Kriet had taken a lead of less than half a pound over VanDam into the final day and come up short. It also happened at Oklahoma's Grand Lake in 2007.
> He said he got a bite from his main area during the last practice day from a fish that went at least 7 pounds. "I didn't have hooks on the bait, but I swam (the fish) to the boat," he said. "I really thought I was going to get bites like that throughout the (tournament)."