TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Channeling his Southern California finesse-fishing roots, Chris Zaldain established a replicable pattern Friday and moved into the lead of the Cherokee Casino Tahlequah Bassmaster Elite at Lake Tenkiller with a two-day total of 25 pounds.
After placing 13th on Day 1 with 11-1, Zaldain, who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, added 13-15 during Friday’s second round. His bag included four smallmouth bass — including a 3 1/2-pounder — and one spotted bass.
“I figured something out this morning; it was bang, bang, bang,” Zaldain said. “I stayed in one area until about 10 o’clock, and I learned a lot about what the fish were doing. I’d keep going back and forth on a stretch, and I learned a lot about how they move up and move down.
“After 10 o’clock, I started expanding. I got out of that area and I started looking for new stuff, and I caught two big smallmouth.”
With water levels down approximately a foot and a half since practice, many anglers have reported struggling with displaced fish. However, Zaldain said his fortune hung more on the day’s meteorological makeup. With Tropical Storm Imelda pushing clouds, rain and windy conditions across Tenkiller, he found a favorable contrast to Thursday’s hot, sunny complexion.
“It’s definitely a pattern and I don’t think the weather is affecting me much, but it is weather dependent,” Zaldain said. “If we get clouds and wind tomorrow, I can catch a big bag of brown fish (smallmouth).”
Noting his high comfort level with finessing fish into biting, Zaldain described his bait selection as a medium-finesse size. The essential element, he said, was using a bait with broad appeal.
“Growing up in California, we had all the different (species) options of fish,” Zaldain said. “Honestly, you don’t know what you’re going to catch here; you may catch a smallmouth in a brushpile or a largemouth on a sheer bluff rock wall, so bait selection is key.
“You can’t discriminate against one or the other. You have to throw something just big enough to interest a largemouth and just small enough for a smallmouth or spot. That way you have three different chances. And if you get a bite, you have to get it to the boat because bites aren’t very plentiful.”
Zaldain kept his details guarded, but he explained that figuring out precisely how fish are relating to a specific habitat feature defined his success. Having discovered more areas where fish are following the same pattern, he said he’ll follow the game plan tomorrow.
In second place, Tennessee angler Brandon Card caught 12-12 on Day 1 and followed with 11-15 Friday for a two-day mark of 24-11. He reported losing two big fish and boating five keepers. His bag included three largemouth — one that went 4-10 — and two spotted bass.
“I’m fishing one section of the mid-lake area, but kind of jumping around and fishing specific little areas,” Card said. “I had a couple of areas where I caught multiple fish, and then I’d have lulls and then catch a few more fish — bam, bam, bam — and then one at the end of the day.”
Card said he’s targeting bass that were pulled from the shoreline cover when the water fell. The fish are holding on particular fall-back spots and he’s catching them on a mix of reaction baits and slower baits.
In third place, Florida’s Drew Cook added 13-7 to the 9-14 he weighed on Day 1 for a 23-5 total. Cook mostly focused on a 60-yard area in the back of creek where fish are holding on a bluff wall with about nine feet of water.
“I caught five keepers today. I was lucky enough to catch four ‘over’ largemouth (exceeding the 16-inch minimum) within the first two hours,” he said. “Then I went looking for something different — in case I made it to Sunday — and caught a keeper spotted bass.
“If you throw anything shad imitating, you’ll catch a pile of little ones. I’ve been catching them all on a 3/8-ounce Nichols jig with a 3-inch Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog because I’m looking for the crawfish eaters, not the shad eaters.”
Coming into the day, Alabama’s Scott Canterbury led the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race with 750 points, followed by Stetson Blaylock of Arkansas with 748 and Canada’s Cory Johnston with 744. After today’s weigh-ins, Cook leads with 758, Zaldain is second with 753 and Canterbury slipped to third with 751. Blaylock sits in fourth with 745 and Johnston is fifth with 744.
Cook also leads the DICK’S Sporting Goods Rookie of the Year race.
The field will be trimmed to the Top 35 for Saturday’s semifinal round, and only the Top 10 will advance to Championship Sunday with a chance at the $100,000 first-place prize.
Daily takeoffs Saturday and Sunday will occur at 7 a.m. CT from Chicken Creek Ramp. Weigh-ins on Days 3 and 4 will move to the Cherokee Casino Tahlequah in Tahlequah, Okla., at 4 p.m.