CLAYTON, N.Y. — Patrick Walters had a solid game plan, but calling a Day 1 audible ultimately allowed him to reach the three-day total of 80 pounds, 6 ounces that leads the Minn Kota Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River.
“I threw back a 5-2 and a 5-3 today,” said Walters, a Summerville, S.C., native vying for his fifth B.A.S.S. win. “When I culled those fish, I knew I’d have a great day and it was time to head to the hill.”
Walters started strong with a Day 1 limit of 24-14, then added 27-3 on Friday. Semifinal Saturday saw him catch 28-5 — his best bag so far and the event’s second-heaviest catch. He heads into Championship Sunday with a 1-1 advantage over Kyle Welcher.
Hailing from Opelika, Ala., Welcher locked up the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year title Saturday. The award comes with a $100,000 first-place prize.
“I really can’t even believe it’s true just yet,” Welcher said in his trademark measured tone. “This is going to be my proudest moment in fishing for a long time.”
Days 2 and 3 saw Walters making an hour-long run into Lake Ontario, where he targeted unpressured fish over shoals on the Canadian side. When Day 1 brought strong southerly winds and 6- to 8-foot waves, Walters decided to forgo the rough ride and fish at the mouth of the St. Lawrence.
Doing so gave his spot a rest and when Walters fished there the next two days, he caught his fish quickly. That allowed him time to locate other spots, some of which contributed to his limits.
“I got lucky this week with the wind blowing the first day of the tournament,” Walters said. “I didn’t run to the lake and I caught 24-14, which is way bigger than I thought I’d catch. I was just trying to catch 20 pounds.
“That saved me from going to my fish in the lake. After I fished that spot, I found new areas there and culled up two big ones late in the afternoon. If I had gone there (on Day 1), I wouldn’t have been able to (expand).”
Walters said he had his Day 2 weight by 10:30 a.m. On Semifinal Saturday, he had 25 pounds by 11 a.m. and found two key upgrades in new areas.
Walters, who claimed his first Elite Series win in 2020 at Lake Fork in Texas, said he has made methodical laps around his key spots this week, catching all of his bass on a drop shot.
“I was using forward-facing sonar and trying to pick out key fish,” Walters said. “There are a lot of fish in the area and if you catch every single fish, that takes up a lot of time.
“It felt good to hunker down on them. Today was the biggest bag of smallmouth I’ve ever caught.”
Turning in daily limits of 25-10, 27-12 and 25-15, Welcher sits in second place with 79-5.
For three days, Welcher made a long run into Lake Ontario to fish the Prince Edward Point area. He knew Day 1 would deliver a beating. But coming into the event atop the AOY standings, he was determined to do all he could to close the deal.
“I had a slim lead coming into this tournament, so I came in thinking AOY still had to be won, and I wasn’t going to do anything to lay up,” Welcher said. “I was going to take the big risk.
“I would rather lose taking a big risk and trying to win, than play it safe and lose. I’d never get over it. I took that big risk and that’s definitely what saved my week.”
Welcher is fishing scattered rock in 20 to 25 feet and catching all of his bass on a drop shot with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce weight.
Chris Johnston of Otonabee, Ontario, is in third with 78 pounds. Placing third on Day 1 with 28-3, Johnston added a second-round limit of 24-11 and moved up one spot. His third-round limit weighed 25-2.
After the second day’s weigh-ins, Johnston lamented the issue of dealing with more quantity than quality. Returning to the same area of Lake Ontario’s Canadian waters, he faced that scenario again on Semifinal Saturday.
“I caught a lot of fish and, normally when you’re catching a lot of fish in the areas I’m fishing, you get high 4- and 5-pounders, but I didn’t get the quality today,” said Johnston, who won the 2020 Elite event at the St. Lawrence. “I got two nice kickers today, but I had three 4 1/2-pounders. I’m not very happy weighing in 4 1/2-pounders on this fishery.”
Johnston is catching his fish on a drop shot with a SPRO CJ Smasher. Varying his weight and leader sizes has occasionally helped convince a stubborn fish.
Kenta Kimura of Osaka, Japan, won the $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day award Saturday for his 7-0. That fish also now leads the race for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Week
Bryant Smith of Roseville, Calif., holds the lead for VMC Monster Bag of the Event with the 29-5 limit he caught Thursday.
While Welcher locked up the 2023 Angler of the Year title, the final standings will be determined Sunday. Brandon Cobb of Greenwood, S.C., currently sits in second with 728 points. Walters is in third with 717, followed by Drew Cook of Cairo, Ga., with 712 and Joey Cifuentes III of Clinton, Ark., with 698.
Cifuentes leads the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings with 698 points, followed by Japanese pro Kyoya Fujita with 696. Cifuentes wrapped up the event in 17th place; however, Fujita made the Top 10 and the ROY trophy will be awarded Sunday.
The Top 10 remaining pros will take off at 7 a.m. ET Sunday from the Antique Boat Museum. The weigh-in will be held at the museum at 3 p.m., with the winner earning $100,000 and an automatic berth in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota.
FS1 will broadcast live with the leaders beginning at 8 a.m. with continuing coverage on Bassmaster.com.
The tournament is being hosted by the 1000 Islands Clayton Chamber of Commerce.
2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota
2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha
2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew’s, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC
2023 Bassmaster Conservation Partners: AFTCO, Yamaha Rightwaters
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The Bassmaster Tournament Trail includes the most prestigious events at each level of competition, including the Bassmaster Elite Series, St. Croix Bassmaster Opens Series, TNT Fireworks B.A.S.S. Nation Series, Strike King Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops, Strike King Bassmaster High School Series presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors, Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship, Yamaha Rightwaters Bassmaster Kayak Series powered by TourneyX, Yamaha Bassmaster Redfish Cup Championship presented by Skeeter and the ultimate celebration of competitive fishing, the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota.