Sunday, June 11, 2023

2023 Bass Pro Tour Favorite Fishing Stage Five Presented by ATG by Wrangler on Cayuga Lake!

Championship Round shaping up to be another epic clash for Stage Five supremacy

UNION SPRINGS, N.Y. – Saturday’s highly-anticipated Knockout Round at Favorite Fishing Stage Five Presented by ATG by Wrangler on Cayuga Lake lived up to the hype, and its name.

The constant catches and subsequent swings on SCORETRACKER® evoked a pair of heavyweight boxers trading blows in a 12-round title fight — except instead of punches, the 40 anglers thrilled fans watching on MLFNOW! by landing Cayuga’s beefy smallmouth bass.

Stage Five has officially become a smallmouth slugfest, with all 10 anglers who qualified for Sunday’s Championship Round weighing exclusively brown fish. Once again, the smallies showed up in quantity and quality never before seen on a national tournament trail, ensuring that this bass brawl will be remembered in fishing lore like Ali and Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle.

Adrian Avena leads after hauling in 29 pounds, 6 ounces — in his words, “the best smallmouth bass fishing day of my entire life.” It gave him only 2 ounces of cushion over second-place Jacob Wheeler.

It wasn’t just the two traveling partners who caught ‘em, either. It took nearly 26 pounds (25-15) to make the top 10, with Kevin VanDam the last man to qualify for the Championship Round. An astounding 15 anglers topped 25 pounds for the day.

The fish-catching started fast and accelerated from there. The field caught 13 bass of 5 pounds or more… in the first 30 minutes. That number would rise to 90 by day’s end, far and away the most of any day this week. Four of those fish didn’t find their way into anglers’ five-fish limits. The average keeper weighed 4-11.

“What an unbelievable Knockout Round here at Cayuga,” Dakota Ebare said. “I think I had 27 and change, and I’m in fifth place. I mean, man, this place is on fire.”

Here are some notes from arguably the most epic day of smallmouth fishing the Bass Pro Tour has ever seen.

Jacob Wheeler boosted his five-fish bag Saturday with a 7-5 smallmouth. Photo by Garrick Dixon

Six-pounders (or 7s) the difference-makers

While a 5-pound smallmouth would be considered a lunker at just about every other fishery in the country, as noted above, they’ve become the minimum needed to keep pace on Cayuga.

The anglers entering the Championship Round atop SCORETRACKER® will do so because they managed to unearth a few true giants.

Avena’s bag was anchored by three smallies over 6 pounds; a 6-1 and a pair of 6-2s. Avena clearly understood the importance of finding 6-pounders. He’s spent much of his time this week lying prone on his front deck, looking through a flogger to spot bigger fish spawning slightly deeper than can be seen with the naked eye. He caught his first 6-2 just two minutes after lines in.

Wheeler, the only angler who took the lead away from Avena after the first period, did so thanks to a monster of his own. About an hour into the third period, Wheeler boated a 7-5 smallie, which earned Berkley Big Bass honors for the day and marks the biggest fish of the tournament so far.

Ebare, the only other angler to catch a 6-pound smallmouth, will enter the Championship Round in fifth.

Fishing up north has often been a good experience for Spencer Shuffield.

Shuffield continues smallmouth success

The closest pursuer to Avena and Wheeler is Spencer Shuffield, whose Knockout Round limit weighed 28-1. 

Casual viewers might see Shuffield’s hometown of Hot Springs, Arkansas, and be surprised at his ability to keep pace during this week’s smallie showdown, but tournament followers know that Shuffield is no stranger to catching giant bags of brown fish.

Shuffield won the Tackle Warehouse TITLE on the St. Lawrence River last year. And that’s not his only high finish on northern smallmouth waters. Shuffield has also recorded a fifth-place finish on the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit at Lake Erie, sixth at Sturgeon Bay and 11th at Lake Champlain within the past four seasons.

KVD narrowly avoids KO

Entering the Knockout Round, no one had fooled Cayuga’s smallmouth better than Kevin VanDam. The legend caught the heaviest limit of the Qualifying Rounds with his 28-1 stringer on Tuesday, and his 52-7 total through the first two days also paced the field.

However, VanDam spent much of Saturday below the Toro Cut Line. He ultimately qualified for the final day of competition by finishing a mere 1 ounce ahead of Anthony Gagliardi. Four other competitors finished within 12 ounces of his total.

VanDam caught 23-14 in the first two hours of competition, but took a while to find the fish necessary to upgrade. Finally, his drop shot fooled a 5-10 at 1:48 p.m. He then caught a 5-7 at 2:37 p.m., after spending several minutes casting at its bed, which proved to be just enough to advance him to his fourth career Championship Round.

Kevin VanDam made the Toro Cut Line by a single ounce. Photo by Garrick Dixon

While he finds himself nearly 3-and-a-half pounds back of the lead, VanDam — who won a 2016 Bassmaster Elite Series event on Cayuga by targeting largemouth — assured that he still has some cards to play.

“Definitely going to be doing some more sight-fishing tomorrow, but I’m going to mix in a little bit of largemouth, too,” VanDam said. “That’s what I gotta do to have a chance to win. There’s some big ones out here, I know a few areas where they’re at, I got a couple sneaky things up my sleeve to try on ‘em.”

Omori pulls off species switch

The Top 10 entering the Championship Round illustrates how important it was to earn extra practice time during qualifying, which anglers who got off to strong starts were able to use to find new fish. Avena, Wheeler, Shuffield, Alton Jones Jr. and Matt Becker all fit that description.

But at least one competitor managed to find the spawning smallmouth pattern midway through the tournament and ride it into the Top 10.

Takahiro Omori sat in 30th place in Group B through one day of competition, having caught 17-10 of largemouth. After catching one more largemouth on Friday morning, Omori shifted his attention to smallies and caught four for 21-5, giving him a nearly 27-pound bag and a spot in the Knockout Round. He carried his success over to Saturday, catching five smallmouth over 5 pounds for a total of 26-14. That has the 2004 Bassmaster Classic champion in sixth place.

Momentum is real

The predominant pattern during Stage Five couldn’t be much more different than how the top anglers caught their weight on Lake Guntersville during Stage Four — from using electronics to fish offshore ledges to sight-fishing shallow smallmouth.

Yet half of the anglers who will fish Sunday’s Championship Round also fished the final day three weeks ago in Alabama, proof that momentum is a real thing in bass fishing.

Avena, Becker, Omori, Wheeler and David Dudley will all make their second Top 10 in as many events. That group doesn’t include Ebare, who is as hot as anyone, having now made the Championship Round in seven of his past 14 BPT events, or Jones, who blew away the field at General Tires Heavy Hitters in late April.

Mark Rose is one of the handful of anglers who could scoop 100 pounds of smallmouth in four days of fishing.

Century mark in sight

Given the BPT’s tournament format, which resets competitors’ weights between the Qualifying and Knockout rounds, four-day weight totals aren’t officially tabulated, nor are they a focal point for anglers.

But it’s worth noting that, had weights carried over from the first two days of competition, we would almost certainly see a slew of competitors top the 100-pound mark on all smallmouth bass by the end of the Championship Round. 

Only two anglers in major professional bass tournaments have reached the century club by catching all smallmouth; both Jay Przekurat and Cory Johnston did so at last year’s Bassmaster Elite Series event on the St. Lawrence River. Through three days of competition, six anglers are averaging more than 25 pounds of smallmouth per day during Stage Five (Avena, Becker, Jones, VanDam, Shuffield and Wheeler). Dudley and Mark Rose would also join that group if they replicate their Knockout Round weights during the Championship Round.

That’s pretty remarkable, especially since the BPT format incentivizes anglers to ease off the throttle once their spot in the Knockout Round is secure. It’s further proof that there’s never been a smallmouth tournament on a national circuit like the one currently unfolding — and that Cayuga could make a case not just as the best lake in the country for catching both smallmouth and largemouth, but the best smallie fishery, period.

Expect the slugfest to continue

Somehow, the phenomenal fishing on Cayuga has continued to get better during the course of the week. Each day has seen the total weight caught and the size of the average keeper increase.

While that trend might finally end on Sunday, especially with only 10 anglers taking the water, competitors are expecting one final melee to end the tournament. Several believe it will take a two-day total of 58 or 59 pounds to take home the trophy.

“It’s going to be an absolute dog race tomorrow,” Avena said. “… I think tomorrow you’re gonna have to smash ‘em. I don’t really know. I don’t really know what to say.”

“We’re going to have to catch 30, 31 pounds of smallmouth, probably, to even have a chance to win,” Ebare said. “But the opportunity is going to be out there, just going to have to execute, find the right ones.”

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