By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

Fast starts this morning led to another solid day on the Mississippi River for Greg Hackney, Zack Birge and Fred Roumbanis. It wasn’t long before they all had shored up tickets to the next round.

That put the pressure on the remaining seven anglers in the second Knockout Round at the Bass Pro Tour Redcrest to vie for the final two spots in Sunday’s Championship Round.

Brent Ehrler was the first to answer the call, rallying from ninth place after the first period to secure a top-5 finish. As the third period wore on, though, all eyes were fixed on the race for fifth, which unfolded into a three-man derby involving Brandon Palaniuk, Casey Ashley and Mark Rose.

Palaniuk and Ashley took turns holding down fifth place for the first two hours of the final period with Rose entering the fray in the last 30 minutes. Fifth place changed hands six times between Palaniuk and Ashley, with Ashley surging ahead by a pound with a 2-10 largemouth with about 35 minutes to go.

Palaniuk answered minutes later with a 1-08 and a 1-10 (both largemouth) within three minutes of each other to seize control of fifth place for good.

Rose had a flurry to draw within a few ounces of Ashley and a couple pounds of Palaniuk, but Palaniuk cemented his place in the finals with three fish for 3-10 in the last 10 minutes.

Palaniuk closed with 48-02 (31 bass) while Rose ultimately overtook Ashley for sixth with 43-04 (30 bass).

Hackney wound up atop the ScoreTracker at day’s end with 71-11 (42 bass), waiting until the circuit’s richest tournament to clinch his first Championship Round appearance of the season.

“I’m at the point in my life where these big money events really motivate me,” he said. “I want to win championships. I’ve been fishing for quite a while and I want to win every time, but these championships only come around once a year. You don’t get many opportunities at these. They’re very important.”

Birge started his day by serving 15-minute penalty stemming from his boat getting lodged on a sandbar during the Elimination Round. It didn’t slow him down one bit as he seized the first-period lead with 40-10 and ultimately finished second with 59-05 (34 fish).

“It’s pretty awesome (to advance),” Birge said. “It’s awesome be among the 30 much less make a top 10. I’m extremely excited to get out there tomorrow and see what we can do. It all looks good. I’ll fish by the seat of my pants and see what we can catch.”

Roumbanis amassed 35-15 in the first period and overcame a lull in the second period to finish third with 55-04 (34 bass).

Ehrler tallied 26-11 in the second period to turn his day around and finish fourth with 54-09 (36 bass).

After four straight days on Pool 8, the scene will shift to Pool 7 for the one-day shootout for $300,000. The anglers who qualified for the Knockout Round were allowed a four-hour ride-around on Pool 7 during their day off but weren’t allowed to make a cast. They weren’t allowed to practice on it earlier in the week, so it’ll be interesting to see who can make the necessary adjustments to build momentum through the day.

MLF/Garrick Dixon
Photo: MLF/Garrick Dixon

Zack Birge got right to work in the first period after serving a 15-minute penalty.

Here’s a look at the 10 anglers who will compete Sunday for the first Redcrest title: Greg Vinson, Hackney, Birge, Roubmanis, Edwin Evers, Palaniuk, Jacob Powroznik, Ehrler, Michael Neal and Mike Iaconelli.

Afterward, Palaniuk expressed relief and excitement to still be alive in the inaugural championship event for the Bass Pro Tour.

“I’m glad it’s over and the result was what it was,” said Palaniuk. “For me, it was an emotional build up. I only had one area that I found in practice and I know it got beat on pretty hard the first two days and Michael Neal got to fish it yesterday with nobody around. I had no idea how today would turn out or if any fish were left.”

The bite was slower and the water had been stirred up in that area this morning, so he opted to explore further back to places he hadn’t fished yet. The water was cleaner and he sensed the boat traffic had pushed some of the fish back toward where he was going.

“I found some offshore hard spots on my (Humminbird) 360 and caught a bunch in a row and that clued me in to what I needed to do the next couple of periods,” he said.

A Storm Arashi Square 3 crankbait was his best weapon today while a frog and a Zoom Z3 Trick Worm on a dropshot accounted for the rest of his fish.

Palaniuk and the upper Mississippi have a bit of history together. In 2013, Palaniuk’s day-2 weight that put him in the lead of the Bassmaster Elite Series event out of La Crosse was disqualified due to a culling violation and knocked him down to 77th place. In three subsequent trips back (one MLF Cup and two more Elite Series events), he’s not been in contention to win, so being among the last 10 standing this week carries a lot of meaning for him.

“It’s not very often you get to have a 1-in-10 shot at 300 grand,” he said. “That’s a lot of money. Just being able to say I won … I haven’t been in another position in the last couple times on the river to have a shot to win. Everything is equal tomorrow with the weights zeroed and nobody being able to practice (Pool 7). That makes it interesting when talking about a river because it can look good all over the place, but that doesn’t mean they’re everywhere.”

Hackney couldn’t have scripted a better start to his day. Unsure of what the bite would be like in his key areas after having Friday off, he was able to pick up where he left off Thursday.

MLF/Garrick Dixon
Photo: MLF/Garrick Dixon

Brandon Palaniuk had to adapt and expand on the area that had been productive for him earlier in the tournament.

“It was a great day,” he said. “I was able to fish the same places that I fished the first couple of days. After you fish the same places for so many days you learn so much about them, so I had all the sweet spots and there was no wasted motion today.”

He said the big first period (16, 29-10) allowed him to exhale and pace himself through the rest of the day.

“It bolstered my confidence and allowed me to fish normally,” he said. “I never got rushed and just went slow and steady.”

Hackney made it to the finals fishing a way most BassFans wouldn’t expect, especially around all the vegetation lining the upper Mississippi. A square-bill crankbait and a deeper-diving 5XD plug from Strike King were his primary baits on Pool 8 and they were key again today as he piled up nearly 30 pounds in the first period and nearly 26 more in the second.

“Every day was pretty much dominated by a crankbait for me,” he said.

And once he figured out how the fish were positioning in relation to the wads of baitfish in the area, he said it was pretty easy to get bit.

“They’d never seen a 5XD before,” he said. “It was like old-school Kentucky Lake fishing with a plug. It was silly good. It was fun.”

As for Pool 7, he’s fished it before, but doesn’t think his crankbait pattern will translate.

“It’s pretty different,” he said. “It felt like more traditional fishing. The way I caught them was not traditional for here and there’s not really an area to duplicate that deal.”

Birge said he opted to avoid the spot where he, Michael Neal and Palaniuk had fished through over the first couple of days. Instead, he went to one of his other productive areas and promptly put a one-two punch of a frog and wacky-rigged worm to work.

“I’d get them fired up with the frog, then throw in there with the worm and then go back to the frog,” he said. “They were still biting and there were plenty of fish left. I caught enough this morning to get me in.”

As the day wore on, he stayed committed to the frog, but only because he was in a comfortable spot on the ScoreTracker.

“I was really trying to force the frog bite,” he said. “I could’ve caught more if I threw a ChatterBait all day. I was being stubborn today, but fortunately I was in a position where I was ahead enough to where I didn’t have to pick up something else.”

Knockout Round Results

1. Greg Hackney -- 42, 71-11

2. Zack Birge -- 34, 59-05

3. Fred Roumbanis -- 34, 55-04

4. Brent Ehrler -- 36, 54-09

5. Brandon Palaniuk -- 31, 48-04

The following anglers missed the cut and will not compete in the Championship Round.

6. Mark Rose -- 30, 43-06 -- $12,000

7. Casey Ashley -- 27, 42-06 -- $12,000

8. Randall Tharp -- 22, 38-14 -- $12,000

9. Takahiro Omori -- 12, 21-00 -- $12,000

10. Todd Faircloth -- 10, 19-0 -- $12,000