Chris Johnston 12th & Gustafson 15th
To hear Bryan Schmitt talk there isn’t a single bass left in Lake Champlain. They’re all gone. Just vanished.
But don’t buy any of it for a second.
The perennially pessimistic Maryland pro caught another big limit Saturday — this time five bass that weighed 19 pounds, 4 ounces — to increase his three-day total to 62-4 and maintain his lead at the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Lake Champlain.
He’ll lead a field of 10 qualifying anglers into Championship Sunday with a chance to claim his first Elite Series victory and a $100,000 first-place prize. But of course, he sounded less than confident about his chances.
“I don’t even know how we got it done today, to be honest with you,” Schmitt said. “Tomorrow’s the day. Whoever catches the big bag tomorrow. It’s still anybody’s tournament.”
Schmitt, who has been either first or second all week long, said he spent Saturday’s semifinal round fishing the same areas he fished the first two days. The areas produced big bites, but Schmitt had big bass break his line twice and he admitted he was starting to feel a bit defeated.
After going to an area where he knew he could catch some small fish “just to calm down,” he revisited more familiar areas and put together the bulk of his weight with largemouth.
“I can’t get my smallmouth to go,” Schmitt said. “Yesterday, they were there but it was too rough to fish for them. Today, they were just gone, not even there. I saw one or two fish on my electronics, but I’m not even sure they were smallmouth because they wouldn’t bite.”
Schmitt’s five-bass limit included three largemouth and two smallmouth. Those two smallies came late in the day after he had abandoned his largemouth pattern.
“I caught a 4-pound largemouth that made me feel a lot better, but I started feeling like my largemouth were just burned,” he said. “So, after I caught that 4-pounder, I went smallmouth fishing and caught two that helped me upgrade.
“I really feel in my heart that the largemouth won’t hold up tomorrow. I need to make the smallmouth bite.”
Schmitt entered the day with a lead of 2 1/2 pounds over his closest competition, and that lead stayed virtually the same as Texas pro Chris Zaldain moved into second place with a three-day total of 59-13 — just 2 pounds, 7 ounces back of Schmitt.
Zaldain stuck with his strategy of targeting small schools of alewives and the big smallmouth that were chasing them. But with the change in weather conditions — from cloudy and overcast the first two days to bright sunshine Saturday — he had a harder time staying on top of his fish.
Noticeably absent for the latter part of the day were the birds that had guided him to those baitfish the first two rounds.
“My bird activity only lasted about 45 minutes today,” Zaldain said. “This is my first time fishing an alewife-driven tournament, but it was kind of what I expected. It’s like a shad spawn down South. Once those clouds disappear, the bait kind of dissipates.”
Even with the short window, bird activity led Zaldain to one mega-school of smallmouth that helped him put most of his weight in the livewell. He said that school was far away from any of the waypoints he marked during practice or the first two days of competition.
Though many anglers had been wishing for sun all week, Zaldain believed the bluebird skies were to blame for a day that wasn’t quite as action-packed as the previous two.
“It hurt my numbers for sure,” he said. “The size is still there. There are still a lot of 3 3/4- to 4 1/4-pounders up there. But when it got slick and sunny, I could see a lot of them on my electronics following my bait that wouldn’t commit.
“With it being sunny, it gives them a lot of time to examine that bait.”
The biggest mover of the day was Texas pro Keith Combs who caught 20-14 and jumped from 16th into third with a three-day mark of 58-10.
Combs, who is known for catching giant largemouth, weighed in a bag of five smallmouth Saturday anchored by a gorgeous 5-pounder that claimed Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors for the day.
“A 5-even is rare on this place, so that was big,” Combs said. “It was a great day, but it was frustrating at the same time because minutes before I caught that 5, I saw another 5 behind my bait that wouldn’t commit to it.
“That stretch had some big ones. I could have had a huge bag.”
Minnesota pro Seth Feider caught 18-7 and stayed in sixth place for a second straight day with 57-9. With his fourth Top 10 of the season now assured, Feider has 697 points in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year race and holds a 50-point lead over South Carolina pro Patrick Walters.
The Top 10 remaining anglers will takeoff for Championship Sunday at 7 a.m. ET from Plattsburgh City Marina. Weigh-in will be held back at the marina at 3 p.m.
Live coverage can be streamed on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will also broadcast live with the tournament leaders beginning at 8 a.m. ET.