By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor


Paul Mueller hadn't been fishing all that well coming into the Lake Lanier Bassmaster Elite Series. The fifth-year pro from Connecticut had closed the 2018 season with four finishes of 69th or lower in the final five events and began the new campaign with a 62nd at the St. Johns River.

At Lanier, though, he found a scenario that suited him perfectly. An expert in the use of his ultra-revealing Garmin electronics, he "video-gamed" big spotted bass primarily from one deep-water location to the tune of more than 17 pounds per day. His 18-08 stringer in the rain-drenched final round gave him his first tour-level victory with a four-day total of 69-00.

"It's pretty awesome," said Mueller, a former B.A.S.S. Nation champion who becomes the first angler from the New England region to win an Elite Series event. "I knew I had a shot, but I really didn't think I had enough. I thought I needed to get rid of my two smallest fish and I never did.

"It's a big relief to have it over with because these tournaments are a mental grind, man. It's hard to describe the intensity and the stress of everything that's going on. The reality of it is most of the guys in the top 10 are all on a winning deal and it comes down to whoever gets the bigger bites and who doesn't have a bad day."

He nosed out runner-up Chris Zaldain, the day-3 leader, by 14 ounces. Zaldain boxed 16-09 on day 4 for a 68-02 aggregate.

Keith Combs ended up 3rd with 66-01 (16-07 on day 4). David Mullins notched a career-best 4th-place finish with 65-14 (14-10) and veteran Todd Auten rounded out the top 5 with 63-06 (17-02).

The remainder of the top 10 had Bill Weidler in 6th with 62-03 (15-01), followed by Brandon Card with 60-04 (14-03), Stetson Blaylock with 59-13 (13-03), Clent Davis with 58-08 (12-15) and Angler of the Year points leader Chris Johnston with 57-01 (11-12).

Mueller, who started the day just over a pound off of Zaldain's lead, had only about 13 pounds in his livewell when the afternoon rolled around. He made two big culls in fairly quick succession by catching a 5 1/4-pounder and a 4.



B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Two afternoon upgrades gave Mueller the weight he needed to overtake day-3 leader Chris Zaldain.

He caught 80 percent of his weigh-in fish from a depression between two high spots on a long, tapering point. His primary bait was a Reins Fat Rockvibe Shad swimbait fished on a modified under-spin head (full details of his winning pattern, as well as those of the other top finishers, will be published this week).

"I wasn't confident that spot would hold up for multiple days and that's why I was always looking for new water," he said. "Why didn't that place change when everything else did?

"When it's God's plan for you to win, you're going to win. There's no reason those fish stayed there for four days other than it was meant to be. Faith is a huge thing for me and it's what carries me through the emotional roller coaster of doing this."

Zaldain said he made contact with the fish that would've given him his first Elite Series victory on the final day, but the connections weren't strong enough.

"I think I did get the right bites, but they just bit really weird," he said. "There were three or maybe four times when they'd grab the swimbait and I'd just get a piece of them three cranks of the reel and they'd be off. Where those bites were coming from were places where I'd been catching 3 1/2- to 4-pound-plus fish.

"I did get three big bites to the boat that were all close to 4 pounds, but I had to weigh two smaller ones and I just couldn't afford that. To win an Elite Series tournament, whether you're fishing against the biggest names in the sport or not, you need to capitalize on your opportunities."

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Chris Zaldain said the biting tendencies of his day-4 fish were "weird."

Combs, Mullins and Auten all plied shallower water than the two competitors who finished in front of them, with crankbaits accounting for the majority of their fish.

"I think I did all I could do," Combs said. "I lost the one big fish (on day 2), but I don't think it would've given me enough to catch Mueller.

"I had a good week and I thought they'd really bite today, but they didn't everything was just barely hooked. I lost two that I didn't even get to feel and I had several just push the crankbait. They didn't want to eat today for some reason."

The oversize bites that had carried Mullins to the top of the standings on day 2 dried up over the weekend.

"I really don't know what happened to them," he said. "I really couldn't figure out why all of a sudden the big ones weren't there. It's a mystery to me.

"Every time I set the hook the first two days it was a 3-plus pounder and today they were all 2-pounders."

Auten had a strong final day as his bag was exceeded only by Mueller's. He did the bulk of his work in a flurry that started around 8 o'clock.

"Once I caught that first one, then it was boom, boom, boom I got four off of one spot," he said. "That allowed me to relax and just fish for the rest of the day.

"Yesterday I got twice as many bites as I did today, but a lot of times they'd just nip at the crankbait and the ones I caught only had one hook in them. They just really turned on for me this morning."

Notable

> Day 4 stats 10 anglers, 10 limits.

> The Elite Series is not off until after next month's Bassmaster Classic. It resumes in early April with back-to-back events at Lake Hartwell and Winyah Bay in South Carolina.

Day 4 (Final) Standings

1. Paul Mueller -- Naugatuck, CT -- 20, 69-00 -- 100 -- $100,000
Day 1: 5, 16-11 -- Day 2: 5, 18-04 -- Day 3: 5, 15-09 -- Day 4: 5, 18-08

2. Chris Zaldain -- Fort Worth, TX -- 20, 68-02 -- 99 -- $25,000
Day 1: 5, 16-15 -- Day 2: 5, 16-06 -- Day 3: 5, 18-04 -- Day 4: 5, 16-09

3. Keith Combs -- Huntington, TX -- 20, 66-01 -- 98 -- $20,000
Day 1: 5, 16-06 -- Day 2: 5, 16-15 -- Day 3: 5, 16-05 -- Day 4: 5, 16-07

4. David Mullins -- Mt Carmel, TN -- 20, 65-14 -- 97 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 17-12 -- Day 2: 5, 19-06 -- Day 3: 5, 14-02 -- Day 4: 5, 14-10

5. Todd Auten -- Lake Wylie, SC -- 20, 63-06 -- 96 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 16-01 -- Day 2: 5, 12-14 -- Day 3: 5, 17-05 -- Day 4: 5, 17-02

6. Bill Weidler -- Helena, AL -- 20, 62-03 -- 95 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 14-10 -- Day 2: 5, 14-11 -- Day 3: 5, 17-13 -- Day 4: 5, 15-01

7. Brandon Card -- Knoxville, TN -- 20, 60-04 -- 94 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 15-15 -- Day 2: 5, 13-12 -- Day 3: 5, 16-06 -- Day 4: 5, 14-03

8. Stetson Blaylock -- Benton, AR -- 20, 59-13 -- 93 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 13-12 -- Day 2: 5, 18-11 -- Day 3: 5, 14-03 -- Day 4: 5, 13-03

9. Clent Davis -- Montevallo, AL -- 20, 58-08 -- 92 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 15-14 -- Day 2: 5, 15-00 -- Day 3: 5, 14-11 -- Day 4: 5, 12-15

10. Chris Johnston -- Peterborough, ON -- 20, 57-07 -- 91 -- $16,000
Day 1: 5, 15-01 -- Day 2: 5, 16-09 -- Day 3: 5, 14-01 -- Day 4: 5, 11-12