The 'one' that earned a Classic berth

10-nationschlapperdsc_4380.jpg

B.A.S.S.

Wisconsin’s Pat Schlapper targeted smallmouth to win the 2020 B.A.S.S. Nation Championship with 51-10 over three days, earning a Classic berth and taking the invitation to fish the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2021.

Every fish weighed counts toward an angler’s tournament finish, but there’s often that one particular fish upon which success hinged.

Maybe it was a pivotal kicker, a late-day limit filler or an eye-opening catch that identified an unexpected pattern. 

Such tales abound for those competing in the 2021 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk. We rounded up a quintet of dramatic moments from qualifiers set to take on Lake Ray Roberts.

Pat Schlapper

Qualified: Won the TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Championship on Pickwick Lake.

After catching a combined 28 pounds, 7 ounces the first two days of the event, Schlapper was struggling with what he called the heaviest current he’d ever fished. He nabbed his Classic-maker while working his way down to a planned fishing spot; a course during which a random cast yielded a 12-inch smallmouth whose impact far exceeded its dimensions. 

“That fish clued me in on the specific cast that ended up producing 23-3 that last day,” Schlapper said. “I caught that fish on a swimbait and marked the point. If I hadn’t caught that fish, I wouldn’t have gone back up to where I caught it and figured out what was going on.”

Schlapper described the key spot as a small, inconspicuous current seam. He never determined what was creating the seam, but he caught 30 fish in three hours there.

“When the current is that heavy, you can’t really graph around and find these spots,” Schlapper said. “I have a Minn Kota Ultrex 112 and three Battle Born lithium batteries and I was on 100 percent with SpotLock, but I was still drifting at a slow pace until I got far enough away from the mark that it would just kick out.

“Each drift, I would get maybe two casts on the sweet spot before I was too far past it. If I hooked a fish, by the time I landed it, I’d be a half mile down the river.”

And it all started with a foot-long smallmouth that pointed the way to victory — and a Classic berth.

Brandon Cobb

Qualified: 41st in Bassmaster Elite Series AOY points

At the Bassmaster Elite at Santee Cooper Lakes brought to you by the United States Marine Corps, Cobb made a solid start with 15-12 on Day 1, but managed only a 4-3 the next day. Finishing 55th certainly was not the performance he wanted, but rather than resenting his lone Day-2 keeper, he recognized its big-picture importance.

“That one bass definitely did it,” Cobb said. “It was kind of a rough day, but looking back, if I hadn’t caught that one fish, I wouldn’t be fishing the Classic.

“Even though it was a terrible day and I dropped several places in AOY points, that one keeper added probably 10-15 points. With the points race so tight, I’m definitely not in without that one bass.”

Throwing Greenfish Tackle Toad Toter buzzbait with a white Zoom Horny Toad, Cobb got seven bites, stuck five and boated one. His takeaway: “Every fish could be the difference between making the Classic and not. So you have to play like it’s the one to win the tournament or make the Classic.”

Bill Lowen

Qualified: 40th in Bassmaster Elite Series AOY points

Entering the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest Benefitting Texas Parks and Wildlife on the Classic bubble, Bill Lowen managed just 8-12 on Day 1 and feared he’d blown his chance. Day 2 began with a double heartbreak, but then the clouds of fate parted.

“On Day 2, my first two bites were an 8 and a 4 and I lost both,” Lowen recalls. “I thought, ‘Those were your Classic bites and you blew it.”

With one small keeper in his well around midday, Lowen spotted a fish running bait on a shallow, wood-strewn flat where even his XPress aluminum boat couldn’t reach. Picking up an Ima Grande Skimmer (topwater), he made a long cast into the area, twitched it three times and caught the fish.

“I thought, ‘You haven’t had a bite (in several hours), why not throw that topwater for a few minutes?” Lowen said. “Everything I weighed on Day 2 (five for 13-8) came on that topwater.

“Had I not seen that fish running bait up there and had I not picked up that topwater, I wouldn’t have made the Classic.”

Keith Carson

Qualified: Won the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Lay Lake

Although most of his fish bit a Berkley Frittside 5 crankbait, Carson recalls how the sunny conditions of Day 1 lead him to a big fish in a familiar setting. Making his first Lay Lake appearance, the Florida angler said the kicker not only proved foundational to his overall weight, but also incredibly important to the momentum he’d ride into a victory. 

“I had been catching fish that morning on the Frittside 5, but there was a mat up the Coosa River and I had been eying it all through practice,” Carson said. “I decided to run over there and punch it with a watermelon red Berkley Havoc Pit Boss and a 1-ounce weight and on my first flip I caught a 6-pounder.

“I was all shook up. I put it in the boat and put it in the live well. I put on a new bait, retied, checked my line and on my next flip, I caught a 4. That 6-pounder is what really changed the momentum for me for that tournament — to make a random call and go fish a spot I hadn’t even fished in practice. It positioned me well to win the tournament and make the Classic.”

Shane LeHew

Qualified: 42nd in Bassmaster Elite Series AOY points

Also pointing to Lake Fork for his difference maker, Lehew recalls blanking on Day 1 and starting slowly on Day 2, until he caught a 5-10 at 2 p.m. That fish helped him figure out a pattern that would deliver a limit of 16-7.

“I had been fishing shallow, but when I caught that 5-10 on a white Berkley Cutter jerkbait, I figured out that fish were suspended in timber,” Lehew said. “Then I went to work with Garmin Livescope and found they were suspending in 10 feet over about 20.”

Lehew said he had caught several hybrids (striped bass/white bass), so he wasn’t initially certain that his 5-10 was a largemouth. As soon as he got a confirming look, the fish dove into timber and got tangled in a branch. Fortunately, Lehew was able to clear the fish, but not before spiking his blood pressure.

“It was only about 4-5 seconds, but felt like forever,” he said. “Hanging up an almost 6-pounder in a tree with only 10-pound line was pretty nerve wracking.”

All’s well that ends well — especially when it earns a Classic berth.