By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Any of the top-5 finishers at the Lake Guntersville Bassmaster Elite Series could've easily won the event, as there was just a little over 2 pounds of separation in the final totals for that quintet of anglers. Jamie Hartman secured the victory with his final-day rally from 10th place; had that not occurred, the circuit would've seen its first overtime fish-off in its 14-year history, as Chris Zaldain and Matt Arey were deadlocked just 6 ounces behind him.
Quality fish were utilizing both the offshore ledges and the grass beds. The grass is abundant and healthy this year and some competitors were able to find stretches that hadn't been subjected to severe angler pressure.
Here are some specifics on how Zaldain, Arey, Caleb Sumrall and Matt Herren went about their business at the renowned Alabama fishery.
2nd: Chris Zaldain
> Day1: 5, 17-03
> Day 2: 5, 19-13
> Day 3: 5, 23-10
> Day 4: 5, 18-10
> Total = 20, 79-04
Zaldain's runner-up finish was his second of the year – he also placed 2nd at Lake Lanier. He won the tiebreaker over Arey by virtue of the heaviest single-day haul, which he caught on day 3.
He relied on a single location for the first three days. He described it as a "mini-ledge" that featured a shell bar with eel grass behind it. The productive area spanned no more than 50 yards and nobody else fished it during the event.
"The grass patches were real blotchy; I called them points," he said. "The bar in front of the blotchy grass was where the fish were. My Humminbird 360 showed me exactly where I needed to cast on the grass lines and the breaks."
His bait arsenal consisted of a Neko-rigged worm, a crankbait and a big spoon. His fish came from 12 to 14 feet of water.
His hot spot was rendered ineffective by the powerful wind on day 4. He caught a pedestrian limit on a swimjig from other locales and got some big bites on the spoon late in the day from a place within 5 miles of the ramp in Scottsboro, Ala. He caught a couple of those, but several others eluded him.
> Neko-rig gear: 6'11" medium-light Megabass Destroyer Addermine rod, Shimano Sustain spinning reel, 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braid (main line), 12-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon (5' leader), size 2 Trokar finesse hook, unnamed 6" straight-tail worm (redbug), 1/16-ounce Eagle Claw Pagoda tungsten nail weight.
> He said the crankbait ran to a depth of 12 feet. He chose the color to imitate the yellow bass that the largemouths in that area were eating.
> Spoon gear: Same rod, reel and line as crankbait, 2 1/4-ounce Daiwa Steez spoon (chrome).
> The spoon was designed by fellow Elite Series competitor Yusuke Miyazaki. Zaldain said he asked Miyazaki whether he had any when both were in the parking lot after day 1. He was hoping to get just one, but Miyazaki gave him three.
Matt Arey sat atop the leaderboard on the tournament's two middle days.
3rd: Matt Arey
> Day1: 5, 22-10
> Day 2: 5, 21-06
> Day 3: 5, 18-13
> Day 4: 5, 16-07
> Total = 20, 79-04
Arey sat atop the standings after days 2 and 3, taking over the No. 1 position after day-1 leader Paul Mueller blanked in the second round. His bags got lighter each day and he was eventually caught by Zaldain and surpassed by Hartman.
Knowing that the well-known offshore haunts would draw numerous competitors along with some local throughout the event, he spent his practice time seeking less-pressured areas that were harboring quality fish.
"I tried to find some secondary stuff to fall back on because all the obvious stuff would be getting hit hard," he said. "The less-obvious places were secondary channels and stuff like that and a couple of them had a hard bottom.
"I found one or two places that were totally new to me, but some were history. I didn't have any company on a couple, but on others I did. A few of the places were totally new to me and others were history. Scott Canterbury is my roommate and we work together and share all our schools, so some were his and some were mine."
His key depth range was 14 to 17 feet and his primary offerings were a jig and a crankbait. He caught one key 4-pounder on a nail-weighted soft stickbait.
> Jig gear: 7'4" heavy-action Team Lew's Pro Speed Stick, Lew's Hypermag casting reel (8:1 ratio), 17-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, 1/2- or 3/4-ounce hand-tied jig (green-pumpkin or brown), various craw-style trailers (green-pumpkin).
> Cranking gear: 7'11" medium-heavy Team Lew's Custom Pro rod, Lew's BB1 Pro Speed Spool casting reel, 12-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, Strike King 8XD (green herring or citrus shad).
> Soft stickbait gear: 7'2" Lew's Custom Pro spinning rod, Lew's Custom Pro Speed Spin reel, 10-pound P-Line TCB braid (main line), 10-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon leader, Lunker Hunt Lunker Stick (leech), 3/32-ounce Titan Tungsten nail weight.
Caleb Sumrall caught all of his fish from extremely shallow water.
4th: Caleb Sumrall
> Day1: 5, 20-02
> Day 2: 5, 16-10
> Day 3: 5, 20-13
> Day 4: 5, 20-01
> Total = 20, 77-10
Caleb Sumrall, a second-year pro from Louisiana, achieved his best pro finish. After faring no better than 42nd in any of the season's first three events, he's finished 11th, 24th and 4th in the last three to climb to 30th in the Angler of the Year race – well inside the where the cutoff will fall for next year's Bassmaster Classic.
He likely fished shallower water than anyone in the event – his fish came from 1 to 2 feet of water. All of them were enticed by a Missile Baits D-Bomb under a 1 1/2-ounce weight.
"A lot of my stretches were reloading and that's what kept me shallow," he said. "I was catching fresh fish every day."
He said his practice period wasn't the least bit encouraging.
"I idled for 2 days and found a whole bunch of schools, but even though I could see the fish on my graph, getting them to bite was a different story," he said. "Those fish have been out there (on the ledges) for a few weeks and have been pressured for that whole time.
"The setup wasn't favorable for me, so I got in the grass and realized I could get bit punching. That's my favorite way to fish and I never thought twice about going back out."
He believes his fish were keyed in on bluegill.
"The mayfly hatch had just ended, but there was still a lot of bream in the area. I saw a gizzard shad swim by now and then, but the main thing I saw was bream and frogs."
> Punching gear: 7'10" heavy-action Kistler Z-Bone rod, Daiwa Tatula casting reel (8:1 ratio), 60-pound Sunline Xplasma Asegai braided line, 1 1/2-ounce Cajun Boss tungsten weight, 5/0 Gamakatsu Super Heavy Cover hook, Missile Baits D-Bomb (candy grass or GP3 with tails dyed chartreuse).
Matt Herren's vast knowledge of Lake Guntersville paid off for him.
5th: Matt Herren
> Day1: 5, 18-11
> Day 2: 5, 20-11
> Day 3: 5, 19-12
> Day 4: 5, 18-05
> Total = 20, 77-07
Matt Herren, who now sits at No. 1 in the AOY points, logged his best placement since he won the Toyota Texas Bass Classic at Lake Ray Roberts more than 3 calendar years ago. He was consistent throughout the derby, with less than 2 1/2 pounds of separation between his heaviest and lightest bags.
He was another angler who ditched any notion of fishing deep during practice. "It was just too big of a zoo for me, man," he said.
Possessing great familiarity with Guntersville and knowing that a lot of fish make a move back to the vegetation every year around father's day, he put his entire focus on milfoil in 6 to 7 feet of water. He made short pitches and near-vertical drops with a Reaction Innovations Spicy Beaver.
"Knowing (about the June migration) was a big key for me – a lot of guys weren't aware of that and it wasn't an easy deal to get on," he said. "Most people were gravitating toward offshore, but I knew that somewhere there was a big group of fish in the grass and I got fortunate enough to find it.
"The grass topped out about a foot under the surface and it was clumpy, and the fish were using the clumps."
He gave the grass fish frequent breaks to rest and regroup and flipped docks with a jig during those times.
> Punching gear: 7'6" heavy-action Kistler Z-Bone rod, Daiwa Tatula casting reel (8:1 ratio), unnamed 50-pound braided line, 3/4-ounce Elite Tungsten weigh, 4/0 Hayabusa Heavy Cover hook, Reaction Innovations Spicy Beaver (green-pumpkin).
> Flipping gear: Same rod and reel, 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce Dirty Jigs Matt Herren Signature Series jig, Reaction Innovations Spicy Beaver trailer (green-pumpkin).