By Todd Ceisner
The upper Niagara River proved to be no easier Wednesday as the competitors in the Bassmaster Elite Series Classic Bracket wound up their quarterfinal matches. The tough fishing provided some dramatic theater, though, in two of the duels.
In the morning, Dean Rojas caught two fish in the final 15 minutes to erase a 4-pound deficit and eliminate Jordan Lee with a margin of 1 pound even.
The afternoon saw Koby Kreiger, with competitor Jacob Powroznik looking on as a spectator in a dramatic and bizarre twist, catch one bass for 1-07. That was good enough to eliminate Powroznik, who opted not to fish this afternoon in an effort to help Kreiger, his roommate, advance to the semifinals.
It took more than 2 1/2 hours, but Kreiger finally delivered the bite he needed. It gave him a 10-05 total and a 7-ounce win over Powroznik.
Kevin VanDam, the top seed, defeated Drew Benton in the other match that wrapped up this afternoon. VanDam caught 10-04 today and finished the quarterfinals with 20-08, easily ousting Benton, who tallied 4-04 to close with 5-10.
In the morning, Rojas caught 9-14 to push his 2-day total to 13-09. Lee, who caught 7-15 Tuesday, caught just 4-10 today to finish with 12-09.
Meanwhile, Brett Hite cruised to a 7-pound win over Keith Combs in the other morning matchup, setting up an all-Arizona semifinal showdown.
Hite caught a pair of 3-plus pound smallmouth, including a 3-11 (the biggest of the event so far) and finished the morning with four fish for 11-12, which gave him a 2-day total of 21-14. Combs managed just 6-12 and closed with 14-11 total.
Here’s a recap of how the quarterfinal matches finished up:
> Match 1: 1) Kevin VanDam (9, 20-08) def. 8) Drew Benton (3, 5-10)
> Match 2: 5) Koby Kreiger (6, 10-05) def. 4) Jacob Powroznik (5, 9-14)
> Match 3: 7) Dean Rojas (8, 13-09) def. 2) Jordan Lee (7, 12-09)
> Match 4: 3) Brett Hite (9, 21-14) def. 6) Keith Combs (4, 14-11)
The semifinal matches are as follows:
> Kevin VanDam vs. Koby Kreiger
> Dean Rojas vs. Brett Hite
The semifinal matches will start 8:30 a.m. and conclude at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.
The cloud cover that was prevalent Tuesday morning was never a factor Wednesday and the winds weren’t as gusty, but it still picked up enough in the afternoon to put a good chop on the water.
Thursday is expected to be mostly sunny with highs in the upper 80s with winds out of the southwest at 10 to 20 mph, which means it’ll be blowing with the river current.
Pressure Nearly Got To Kreiger
Powroznik doesn’t care what people think about his decision not to fish during today’s portion of his match against Kreiger. He believes it was the right thing to do and he’d do the same thing if Kreiger wasn’t a close friend and roommate on the road.
“A lot of people might think that it wasn’t the right thing to do, but in my mind it was,” he said. “Like I said before, if there had been something else on the line, it would have never been this way. Like I said before, I had nothing to gain out of this. He has everything to lose.”
Kreiger came into the event 72nd in points, the lowest of any of the eight competitors. In order to qualify for the Classic, Kreiger likely has to win this week’s event. Powroznik’s gesture was a way to help him in that effort. He said he conferred with a bunch of other anglers about the situation and the consensus was that they’d do the same thing if they were in Powroznik's shoes.
“On stage at Cayuga, I said if I finished 8th and he finished 9th, I would opt out and not go,” Powroznik said. “I didn’t say I was going to lose. I talked to a lot of anglers about what was going on and what they would do and they said they’d do the same thing – like if it were their best friend or anybody who was trying to get into the Classic. If it had been Dean or Kevin, I’d have done the same thing.”
Knowing Powroznik was basically sitting it out, Kreiger had high hopes he could quickly erase the 1-pound deficit he faced. He rotated through several spots with Powroznik looking on from behind the steering wheel of his boat and came away empty.
“It’s like when you’re doing school work as a third-grader and your teacher is peeking over your shoulder,” Kreiger said. “You know what you’re doing. It makes it that much tougher – just leave me alone and let me do what I do. It was definitely a lot more pressure with him and other guys watching, especially him because we’re working together on this program.”
After losing one fish and having another steal his bait, Kreiger finally connected with a 1-07 smallmouth. After he weighed it, he yelled to Powroznik that it was only 15 ounces, but soon corrected himself. It was a big relief for both anglers.
“When I landed him, I didn’t know if he would weigh enough,” Kreiger said. “I got in such a hurry to put him on the scale and when it said 1-07, I said, ‘Thank God.’
“You go out there knowing I have to basically catch one bass that weighs 1 pound, 1 ounce and I figured with what I knew and what was going on that I’d have that done in the first hour, to be honest.
“When you hit some good stuff and you don’t get a bite, it’s like, ‘Oh my God,’” Kreiger continued. “And then you have your best buddy over there watching you, I was like, ‘It can’t be this hard to catch one fish.’ You just keep chunking and chunking and chunking. It was a lot of pressure. People don’t understand what the pressure was just because of the embarrassment of not being able to catch one fish.”
Kreiger will now take on VanDam in the semifinals and he’s hoping the 6-hour time frame yields better results than his 3-hour session today.
“We’re all human,” he said. “Obviously, I caught them a little better in the morning and so did he. I know where they’re at. I just have to get them to bite. I know what Kevin will be doing.”
Dean Rojas caught two fish in the last 15 minutes Wednesday to knock out Jordan Lee.
Rojas Rallies Late
After trailing Lee for 95 percent of the match, Rojas caught two key fish in the final 15 minutes to surge ahead for the win.
“It doesn’t do anything, but it’s a moral victory more than anything,” he said. “To be in that sort of pressure-cooker and being that far behind for the whole 2 days and to pass him in the last 5 minutes means a lot. I’ve had it happen to me in the MLF so you just keep fighting. The momentum shifts back and forth and you react to the leaderboard. I saw he’d caught another one and was 5 pounds ahead. I didn’t know how I’d catch up.”
He endured a spell where he caught three fish that didn’t meet the 12-inch length requirement and he admitted frustration started to set in. He then made a couple moves before catching his last two keepers.
“I needed one 3-pounder,” he said. “I went to an area with one little tree and saw one swimming down the bank. I made a couple pitches to it and couldn’t get it to bite.”
He ran to two other spots that didn’t produce either. At that point, time was becoming a factor.
“Trip (Weldon) said, ‘15 minutes to go,’” Rojas said. “I said, ‘That’s plenty of time.’”
He made a couple more casts before connecting with a 3-03 that closed the deficit to 1-13. He lost a fish with 9 minutes to go and after re-rigging, he picked off a 2-13 to close it out.
“I flipped my dropshot back into the spot and picked up and I had a fish on,” he said. “I said, ‘There it is.’ It came up and jumped and I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the one.’”
For Lee, it wasn’t the outcome he was hoping for, but he was grateful for the opportunity to be involved in a first-of-its-kind event with some of the top Elite Series anglers.
“This was a fun tournament,” he said. “I didn’t have any expectations coming in. Obviously you want to win, but I’m glad I got to fish it. There are only eight guys in the Elites who got to come here. It’s one of those things where it’s a good tournament to be in whether you smoke them or not.”
He certainly didn’t uncover any honey holes over the course of his 6 hours on the water. He weighed four fish Tuesday and three today.
“I really didn’t know coming in if it would take 15 pounds or more,” he said. “I didn’t think at all it would be this tough. Obviously, we didn’t hear anything about the place. The last 2 days, it was really a struggle to just put fish in the boat. My game plan was to get into high-percentage areas. A dropshot is my confidence bait when it comes to smallmouth so that’s what I stuck with both days.
“I got four bites a day and caught all four yesterday and only caught three today. It was one of those things where I couldn’t run around and try a bunch of stuff. I wouldn’t do anything different. I fished how I wanted to fish and tried a bunch of stuff. I just never figured anything out.”
He was the first to leave the dock this morning and he opted to start on a stretch of corrugated metal wall on the back side of Strawberry Island, a spot that half the field fished Tuesday. Before competition began, Combs also pulled into the area, the two had a quick conversation and Combs eased up ahead of Lee. The two fished there briefly, moving in opposite directions and both eventually left.
“I told him he could fish there,” Lee said. “It wasn’t a big deal. I feel like some of these guys get really into it and I’m not like that. I make a couple casts and just get away. I don’t want to get into any confrontation out there, especially when you’re not fishing against the guy. I just wanted to hit that place real quick.”
Brett Hite continues to learn more about the area around the bridge pylons he's focused on the first two days.
Hite’s Plan Coming Together
Hite spent the majority of his 3 hours today dropshotting the large, concrete bridge pylons under the north Grand Island Bridge, just as he did Tuesday afternoon.
He was one fish short of a limit today, but he caught better quality and learned more about the area for Thursday.
“It’s good,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in the area I’m fishing. The right ones are there. That’s the deal. The big ones live in that area. I only weighed four for 12-something and I had another one on right off the bat that came off.”
He also pulled off the area with 40 minutes left in an effort to preserve it for his matchup with Rojas.
“The potential to catch a 15-pound bag is really there,” he said. “It can happen.”
He said his Humminbird 360 Imaging has been key to helping him understand the structure around the base of the pylons and how the fish are relating to it.
“Some were still where they were yesterday and some were positioned on the back just like they had been,” he said. “I really got dialed in with the 360 to show me where the rocks are. One side or the other has big piles on it. If it comes out and makes a seam and that seam is somewhere near those rock piles, that’s a good spot.”
Combs believes he saw the fish that would’ve pushed him through to the next round. The problem was he struggled to get them to bite. He had multiple fish follow his jerkbait back to the boat, but never commit to eating it.
“There’s an adjustment I needed to make, but I don’t know what it was,” he said. “I had four yesterday and five today follow my bait in. One was no doubt a 3 1/2-pounder and another was a 3. On my jerkbait, I’d move it and they’d move with it. I mean it was like inches. They just wouldn’t eat it.
“It was frustrating because I knew what the potential was. I felt like a jerkbait would get them. I tried a different color, but we only had 3 hours to figure it out.”
He went back through areas today with a tube and dropshot to try to trigger bites from those finicky fish. He caught three in the last 45 minutes, but it wasn’t enough to overtake Hite.
I definitely think the wind has something to do with it,” he said. “When we had more of a ripple on the water, they tended to get more active.”
Kevin VanDam caught his first keeper today not far from where he caught several of his fish on Tuesday.
VanDam Starting To Settle In
VanDam carried a sizable 8-plus pound lead into today and felt comfortable enough to use the afternoon to learn more about certain areas on the river for Thursday’s semifinals. He wound up catching four for 10-04.
“I did get to look around some and I caught three just practicing,” he said. “One was in an area I was just trying to learn since it was nice and sunny and calm where I could see good.”
He anticipates the weights increasing Thursday as a result of having 6 consecutive hours on the water.
“Yesterday, I ran around really trying to maximize my time and not do anything other than fish places that had bass on it before that I’d found in practice,” he said. “Today, it gave me the freedom to say, ‘Hey, that stretch there looks like it has the right ingredients, let’s go down it and take a peek. Or look at this place where I didn’t realize the current swept against it like that.’ It helped and I think tomorrow’s going to be good.
“I think I’m going to have a good day. Tomorrow will be a real telling day. I think Koby’s going to have to catch more than one.”
Benton spent the first 2 hours today on a Hail Mary largemouth run up Tonawanda Creek. He liked what he saw in terms of cover and vegetation, but the fish just weren’t in there like he’d hoped. He caught a 1-06 keeper, but nothing else.
“It was some of the more beautiful largemouth water I’d ever seen,” he said. “They just don’t seem to live there. There was milfoil folded over and lily pads – the right stuff. It stunk.”
He moved back into the main river and went back to a jerkbait, which proved frustrating. Despite having several fish show themselves, he caught only a 2-14 and finished with 4-04.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “The place I was fishing, the current was ripping over a shoal and it was one of those deals where if something comes by they have to eat it or it’s gone. When they go through the effort of following it back to your boat and don’t bite, you’re like, ‘You’re really not going to bite? You’re a smallmouth – you’re supposed to be stupid.’ That was kind of frustrating.”
Still, he’s grateful for the chance to qualify for the event. He just would’ve liked to have a better showing.
“There are 100 more guys that would want to be in my shoes,” he said. “We’re all taking home a check. The name of the game is making a living at it so I can’t complain. I’m in good shape points-wise to make the Classic. I’d like to have had a better showing, but I can’t complain.”