Mark Menendez's long journey back from a bout with life-threatening viral meningitis was capped today with a victory at the weather-shortened Dardanelle Bassmaster Elite Series. The 44-year old Kentuckian caught a 16-03 bag to thwart a furious charge by Michigan's Kevin VanDam and prevailed by a little more than 2 pounds with a 3-day total of 55-07.
VanDam sacked a day-best 19-08 under the tough post-frontal conditions, but it moved him up just one spot from where he began the day. He finished 2nd with 53-04.
Chris Lane also had a big day – he climbed 10 spots to finish 3rd with a 17-11 stringer that gave him a 48-01 total. It was the second-best Elite finish of the Floridian's career (he was the runner-up at Clarks Hill in 2007).
Georgia's Jim Murray completed what was easily his best showing in 2-plus Elite seasons by catching 14-06 today to end up 4th with 43-08. His previous high-water mark was a 21st at the same Clarks Hill event in which Lane finished 2nd.
Missouri's Denny Brauer gained two places today despite coming in with just four fish. His 11-13 bag left him 5th with a 43-08 total and marked the 60-year-old's best finish since his win at Lake Champlain in 2006.
Here's how the remainder of the final field looked once the scale had closed:
6. Skeet Reese: 42-12
7. Cliff Pace: 40-08
8. Fred Roumbanis: 40-05
9. Matt Herren: 39-08
10. Alton Jones: 39-03
11. Greg Vinson: 35-09
12. Bradley Hallman: 28-14
As anticipated, the major cold front that hit the Russellville, Ark. area on Saturday and led to the cancellation of day 3 did a number on the shallow fish in many places. Water temperatures were down as much as 14 degrees from Friday in some locales and several anglers reported that the Army Corps of Engineers pulled a tremendous amount of current, which dropped the water level by a foot or more.
Only five of the 12 anglers who fished today managed limits. Menendez, however, had little trouble loading up again from his hard-to-reach backwater stretch that he accessed with an aluminum boat all week. He became the first angler since Roland Martin in 1994 at the Connecticut River to win a Bassmaster tour-level event out of a tin craft.
The first fish Menendez caught today was a non-keeper, but the next two went about 4 pounds each.
There's little time to celebrate or commiserate over this one – the majority of the Top 12 spent Sunday night making the nearly 400-mile drive to Alabama's Lake Wheeler, where practice gets under way tomorrow.
Menendez's Perseverance Pays Off
Menendez has been through a lot since his only other tour-level win at the Alabama Top 100 (Pickwick and Wilson lakes) in 1998.
"Coming back from the illness (which he contracted in early 2005, causing him to miss the bulk of that season) and then winning the Open later that year was really special just because I was thrilled to get back out and fish," he said. "Since then, I've been grinding it out (on the Elite Series) and I think I've had five Top 10s since becoming sick.
"To put myself in position to win, and then to go out and close the door is really rewarding."
He had some trouble getting to his out-of-the-way stretch today because of the low water. He struggled to get across the two wing dams, and then had to physically remove rocks from the culvert he'd had little difficulty traversing all week.
"It was almost dry and there were rocks in there that I didn't know existed. I had to lean out of the boat and physically pick them up and throw them out of the way. It took about 25 minutes and it was pretty scary."
His primary approach was flipping laydowns that had adjacent brush and grapevines with a variety of Strike King plastics, which he downsized as the tournament wore on. Full details of his winning pattern, as well as those of the other top finishers, will be posted soon.
Kevin VanDam caught the biggest bag of the day, but it moved him up just one place in the standings.
2nd: VanDam Gave it a Run
VanDam overcame mid-day mechanical issues and put a charge into the crowd at the weigh-in with his fat bag that included two fish that combined for more than 10 pounds. But he needed a slip-up from Menendez to claim his 15th tour win, and he didn't get it.
"It's always disappointing when you don't win, but Menendez was solid every day," he said. "At Amistad (where he finished 8th 2 weeks ago) I wasn't on the right fish to win – I wasn't even close. Here I was on the right fish, but I came up a little bit short.
"The way the conditions were, it required adjustments every day and I feel good about that part, but I knew it would be a longshot for me to win. I knew where Menendez was there was some deeper water and I figured he'd still have an effective bite, but you never know."
He abandoned the area he'd shared with Cliff Pace (who began the day in 2nd place) and others early on when it became obvious to him that the changes to the water had killed it. He had to switch to a backup boat at about 11:00 and that left him without his Biosonix unit, but he more than made do. He caught all of his weight between 11:45 and check-in.
"I was just running a pattern, fishing shallower spawning pockets with deeper-water access."
3rd: Learning Experience for Lane
Lane was happy with his finish, but not entirely pleased with his overall performance.
"I feel good, but I made some decisions that I think hurt me," he said. "I need to learn from those in order to win one of these things because you need things to go exactly the way they're supposed to.
"I need to continue to mature to get to the standard where these guys who win these tournaments are."
He culled just one time today and his biggest fish was a 4 1/2-pounder.
"I left 20 minutes early just to make sure I made it back on time because I thought maybe I had a shot (at winning) if some other people messed up. If I was a millionaire, I would've stayed there until the last second. But right now, points and money are crucial."
Jim Murray moved up four spots today with a 14-06 bag.
4th: Murray Relieved
Murray was pumped about his best Elite finish to date.
"It feels great," he said. "It took long enough – this is my 3rd season out here and I haven't gotten many breaks.
"There've been times when I've found fish (in practice) and then got beaten to them (on day 1). To have fished well in this tournament feels like a burden has been lifted."
He ditched the big spawning flat where he fished the first 2 days at about 10:00 and eventually caught 8 keepers, including a 4-pounder.
"I had one little place where I'd gotten a couple of bites in practice. The water was in the 3- to 5-foot zone and those fish didn't seem to be as affected as the shallow fish.
"It was dead as a doornail until I moved – I hadn't gotten a bite. When you've caught so many in one spot it's hard to leave, but when I snagged a big carp in the side, I knew it was time."
5th: Brauer Pulled a Rabbit
Brauer was pleased to pull out a Top-5 finish after an underwhelming practice.
"Obviously anytime you have a good finish in a tournament when you felt you weren't on any strong patterns or in any strong areas, you should be happy," he said. "It's nice to be off to a decent start – last year I just dug myself such a big hole at Falcon.
"It can be hard to overcome those terrible finishes, but a good one like this can help neutralize them."
He and Lane worked the same oxbow for most of the tournament. He got five keeper bites today, including a 5 1/2-pounder, but a 3-pounder never made it to the boat.
"I had a train wreck on that one and it just came unbuttoned. Not catching a limit was a little disappointing."
7th: Pace's Bites Shrunk
Pace started the day just 13 ounces out of the lead, but weighed just a lone 2-pounder. He stayed with the place that he'd divided up with VanDam and others throughout the event, but it never produced.
"I fished the area that I thought had the best potential," he said. "I got about the same amount of bites I'd been getting, but instead of 4-pounders, they were 14-inchers (an inch under the lake's minimum requirement for largemouths).
"The area I was fishing was real shallow water, and behind it was 20 acres of 6-inch water, and water at that depth is what cools off the fastest. When they dropped the level today, it sucked all of that ice-cold backwater right out to where I was fishing."
He caught his fish around lily-pad stems with a V&M swimjig and a spinnerbait. Today he brought half a dozen to the boat that were too short to go into the livewell.
"I thought the bigger ones would get back up on the targets when it warmed up this afternoon. I was getting more bites every hour and they were just enough to keep me there."
> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 5 limits, 1 four, 3 threes, 1 two, 1 one, 1 zero.
> Menendez lost four fish today. "I don't think any of them hurt me (weight-wise)," he said. "I think it hurt my psyche more than anything."
> VanDam, the defending Angler of the Year, leads that race again after two events. He has a 3-point edge over Alton Jones.
> Pace said the only other spot on the lake he had confidence in was the one shared by Lane and Brauer. "I didn't want to go jump in on Chris or Denny. They hadn't done it to me."
Day 4 (Final) Standings
1. Mark Menendez -- Paducah, KY -- 15, 55-07 -- 315 -- $100,000
Day 1: 5, 17-12 -- Day 2: 5, 21-08 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 5, 16-03
2. Kevin VanDam -- Kalamazoo, MI -- 15, 53-04 -- 295 -- $26,000
Day 1: 5, 15-06 -- Day 2: 5, 18-06 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 5, 19-08
3. Chris Lane -- Lakeland, FL -- 15, 48-01 -- 290 -- $20,000
Day 1: 5, 15-14 -- Day 2: 5, 14-08 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 5, 17-11
4. Jim Murray -- Arabi, GA -- 15, 45-09 -- 285 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 12-00 -- Day 2: 5, 19-03 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 5, 14-06
5. Denny Brauer -- Camdenton, MO -- 14, 43-08 -- 280 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 16-06 -- Day 2: 5, 15-05 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 4, 11-13
6. Skeet Reese -- Auburn, CA -- 15, 42-12 -- 276 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 15-13 -- Day 2: 5, 13-09 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 5, 13-06
7. Cliff Pace -- Petal, MS -- 11, 40-08 -- 272 -- $13,000
Day 1: 5, 16-11 -- Day 2: 5, 21-12 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 1, 02-01
8. Fred Roumbanis -- Bixby, OK -- 13, 40-05 -- 268 -- $12,500
Day 1: 5, 16-12 -- Day 2: 5, 15-05 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 3, 08-04
9. Matt Herren -- Trussville, AL -- 13, 39-08 -- 264 -- $12,000
Day 1: 5, 17-01 -- Day 2: 5, 15-07 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 3, 07-00
10. Alton Jones -- Waco, TX -- 13, 39-03 -- 260 -- $11,500
Day 1: 5, 17-05 -- Day 2: 5, 14-14 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 3, 07-00
11. Greg Vinson -- Wetumpka, AL -- 11, 35-09 -- 257 -- $11,000
Day 1: 4, 09-01 -- Day 2: 5, 21-14 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 2, 04-10
12. Bradley Hallman -- Norman, OK -- 9, 28-14 -- 254 -- $10,500
Day 1: 4, 10-10 -- Day 2: 5, 18-04 -- Day 3: 0, 00-00 -- Day 4: 0, 00-00
Day 4: Denny Brauer -- Camdenton, MO -- 5-07
Day 2: Timmy Horton -- Muscle Shoals, AL -- 7-08
Day 1: Mark Menendez -- Paducah, KY -- 6-00