Down to the man, they were wet, chilled and shaken a bit, thanks to a sub-50 degree day with relentless, sometimes heavy rain and wind that made their bass boats pop up and down like a bobber.
It’s all part of being a pro angler on the FLW Tour, they will tell you, but nasty conditions take some of the fun out fishing.
A chance to grab a $125,000 first-place check puts the fun right back in.
The FLW Tour event on the Mississippi River, which completed its third day on Saturday, was held in conditions only a duck, or a fish, would prefer. Unless, of course, you were Bryan Schmitt or nine other pro anglers still in the hunt for a chunk of the $800,000 purse.
The original field of 160 anglers, which was sliced to 20 after Friday’s action, was cut to 10 for today’s final round. Schmitt, a Deale, Md., angler, couldn’t be happier as his bag-bulging limit of five bass weighed 15 pounds, 12 ounces.
That pushed Schmitt to the top of the leaderboard with 46 pounds, 12 ounces of bass over the first three days. That is 12 ounces ahead of Andy Morgan of Dayton, Tenn., who caught a limit weighing 14-12 on Saturday, giving him a three-day total of 46 pounds.
About 5 p.m. today, a champion will be crowned.
Holding off Morgan, a man they affectionately call the “GOAT,” won’t be easy. After all, G-O-A-T stands for Greatest Of All Time, according to the FLW announcer who was having a good time — as was the crowd of at least 250 people at Veterans Freedom Park — despite the forgettable weather.
“The afternoon (fishing) got really good for an hour or so, then it was like the tide or something came in,” said Schmitt, describing how the current increased, bending the submerged grass where he was fishing.
“It’s almost like we had an incoming tide all day. Every day I have kind of evolved in the spot where we are at. I feel confident fishing here.”
Don’t underestimate Schmitt’s prowess for river fishing, or knowing the “tide” of the river can be changed, sometimes significantly, by the lockmasters who can regulate the river’s flow and the level of each pool of the Mississippi River.
With heavy rains throughout the region within the last week, the flow of the Mississippi River has significantly increased, bringing with it swift current, muddy water and unpredictable conditions for anglers.
That is why Morgan, the leader entering Saturday’s competition, was happy to get some pretty hefty bass very early in the day. It took some pressure off, said Morgan, a three-time FLW Angler of the Year who has won more than $2.2 million in prize money in his career.
“It (fishing) was a lot better than I had planned. When I started (Saturday morning) I kind of hit five (bass) pretty quick, which helped take the pressure off,” Morgan said. “After that the water changed.
“We are going to be dealing with rising water tomorrow, so whoever wins this thing is going to have to make some adjustments, and that includes me. It looks like we will have us a one-day shootout.”
A somewhat local angler, Eden Prairie, Minn., pro Austin Felix, certainly appears to be a player in the shootout. Felix caught 15 pounds, 1 ounce of bass the first day, then followed it with a catch weighing 15-10 on Friday. Saturday, his five spirited bass had a combined weight of 13-15, giving him a total weight of 44-10 entering today’s action.
That’s 2 pounds, 2 ounces he will need to make up in order to rope in Schmitt, but he knows it’s possible.
“I just love being able to fish close to home. It’s the first time my family has been able to come to an event,” Felix said. “I got a couple of wild ideas for tomorrow.”
Felix, who said he has been traveling 50 miles — one way — to his fishing spot the first three days, may change his strategy for today, as barge traffic “complicates things.” Anglers can fish in pools 7, 8 and 9 of the Mississippi River — basically from below the lock and dam at Trempealeau south to Harpers Ferry, Iowa — but if they choose to lock through, they are at the mercy of lockmasters at each lock and dam.
And, as the anglers know, commercial barge traffic generally gets priority treatment over recreational boats. That is why the anglers generally had kind words when describing the lockmasters, who have “squeezed them in” in conjunction with barge traffic.
Matthew Stefan, a Junction City, Wis., angler said his game plan entering the week was to fish for largemouth bass. In each spot he had picked out in pre-fishing, he wound up catching far more smallmouth bass which turned out to be just as big.
“I spent a day-and-a-half fishing for largemouth and the smallmouth I caught were just as big,” said Stefan, whose catch of 13-5 on Saturday left him in fourth place (44-3) entering today. “That is part of the reason why I switched gears. I know it will take a big bag tomorrow to win.”