Canadians Gallant 5th, Cory Johnston 25th & Chris Johnston 26th.
Luke Palmer of Coalgate, Okla., is leading after Day 3 of the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair with a three-day total of 68 pounds, 7 ounces. (Photo: Seigo Saito /BASS
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MACOMB COUNTY, Mich. — Boat problems are a regular annoyance for Elite Series anglers but had Luke Palmer not suffered mechanical issues during practice for the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair, he might have driven past the spot that has yielded over 22 pounds each of the past three days.
The Coalgate, Okla., pro landed 22 pounds, 11 ounces on Semifinal Saturday to take the lead with a three-day total weighing 68-7. He leads Arkansas rookie Joey Cifuentes III by 12 ounces and Japan’s Taku Ito by 13 ounces.
“It is weird for me to be leading a smallmouth deal,” Palmer said. “I’ve done well at Champlain. This place, we came here for the 2019 AOY Championship and I sucked. We came here in 2020 and I ended up 60th. I didn’t understand it. I was just doing stupid stuff.”
During practice, Palmer was running across the lake and suffered a motor issue that forced him to head back in to visit the service crew. After that quick pit stop, Palmer started fishing and landed two smallies over 5 pounds and a 4-pounder.
“I have stayed here close every day and it is working out,” he said. “I don’t want to jinx it, but it may have been a blessing in disguise.”
The tournament is setting up eerily similar to Palmer’s Elite Series victory at the Santee Cooper Lakes in April, where he made his way from 10th on Day 1 to the top spot on Day 3. At St. Clair, Palmer started in 12th with 22-0 on Day 1 before catching 23-12 to move into third place.
“I’m happy just to be in contention to win this one,” he said. “I had a super-good practice, which is normally a bad sign. But this one, this is a reverse role on it and it is working out.”
Palmer has started each day moving around a massive flat not far from takeoff, a flat that has been pressured by much of the field this week. Once the sun gets up, he has moved to what he feels is his best area and has been able to make key culls each day.
The bass on this particular spot have moved every day and it takes a little time for Palmer to relocate them.
“I’m not catching a ton of fish, but when you do catch one, they are normally better than average,” Palmer said. “They are just roaming. The area has some short sand grass and some taller cabbage. That might be what is keeping them there, but the perch are in there big time.”
The first two days, a drop shot was responsible for most of his bites, but he struggled to generate strikes with it on Day 3.
A couple of hours in, Palmer switched to a Great Lakes Finesse Drop Minnow on a 3/16-ounce jighead and landed two 4-pounders on back-to-back casts before 10 a.m. When the wind kicked up, he moved to his best spot and filled his limit.
“I got there and whack, I caught one around 5 pounds and I went a little further and caught another 5,” Palmer said. “And then I put the bait down and picked up a drop shot and kept having fish follow my stuff down. I got back to where a group of fish was and kept trying to find the right drifts. I picked up that bait again (and caught more).”
Strong winds and cloud cover followed early morning storms and lingered for much of the morning. But calmer, sunnier conditions are expected on Championship Sunday, which would play right into Palmer’s hands with the minnow presentation.
“If it gets slick calm, you boys might want to watch out,” Palmer said. “I figured them out in practice on that and when you get in the right area and find them, it can get wild in a hurry.”
The wind made life difficult for Cifuentes, who caught 21-1 to improve his total to 67-11. During the first two days, he used his forward-facing sonar to catch 22-10 and 24-0.
Throughout the week, he has been targeting smallies living in 18 feet of water in Canada.
“I was fortunate to catch a 5-pounder pretty quickly,” he said. “I caught some fish but didn’t get the quality. I had one more 4-pounder and everything else was 3 1/2. It was much tougher. The waves were so bad I couldn’t effectively use my LiveScope. But I was all in on the spot.”
A brown back-colored Berkley MaxScent Flat Worm rigged on a drop shot has caught most of his bass this week. To get above the grass in his area, he has used a 2-foot leader. The first two days, Cifuentes used a 1/4-ounce weight. But with the conditions, he needed a 1/2-ounce weight.
After landing 21-12 on Day 1 and then the VMC Monster Bag of the Tournament at 25-8 on Day 2, Ito added 20-6 on Semifinal Saturday to land in third with a total of 67-10. Conditions also made it difficult for Ito, who preferred the calmer conditions from Day 2.
“I tried to find the big school of Disneyland bass, but strong wind was very hard on me. I couldn’t see them very well,” Ito said. “The morning wasn’t rough water, so I caught a couple of big ones. But strong winds in the afternoon ... no good. Very bad.”
Ito landed his biggest bass of the day during the calmer morning hours, a 5-pounder which he nicknamed “Zona Bass” after longtime Bassmaster LIVE host Mark Zona.
“Zona has muscles and a big body, and that bass was big with muscles,” he laughed. “So, I called it Zona Bass.”
Ito used basically the same techniques he used the first two days, mixing in a drop shot and a Neko rig. With the hefty breeze, he had to up his weight sizes on both in order to get a proper presentation.
“On Day 3, I fished the same spot as Day 2,” he said. “Today there was too much wind, so I used a 1/2-ounce weight on the drop shot and the Neko rig was a 3/16-ounce. Yesterday I used a 1/8- or 1/16-ounce Neko rig.”
Not only does Ito have control of the VMC Monster Bag, but he also holds Phoenix Boat Big Bass of the Tournament honors with the 6-2 smallie he landed on Day 2. Tennessee’s Jacob Foutz earned the $1,000 daily bonus on Day 3 with a 5-10 smallmouth.
South Carolina’s Brandon Cobb leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 573 points. Kyle Welcher of Opelika, Ala., is second with 572 points, followed by Tyler Rivet of Raceland, La., with 532, John Cox of DeBary, Fla., with 532 and Drew Cook of Cairo, Ga., with 529.
The Top 10 remaining pros will launch from Brandenburg Park beginning at 7 a.m. ET on Championship Sunday and will return for weigh-in beginning at 3 p.m. The winner will hoist the coveted blue trophy and earn the top prize of $100,000.
Bassmaster LIVE kicks off tournament coverage Saturday morning from 8 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on FS1 before moving to Bassmaster.com until 2:45 p.m.
2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota