Leading the way among the Classic qualifiers is Texan Bradley W. Stringer, who grabbed the top spot from Louisiana’s Greg Hackney, the leader after each of the first two days of competition. Stringer has a three-day cumulative catch weighing 34 pounds, 13 ounces, giving him a one-pound lead going into the final round as he fishes for the title of Open Series champion.
Stringer has been casting a Stanley spinnerbait and a Carolina-rigged plastic worm to backwater bass in five to 12 feet of water. With water temperatures falling and water levels rising on the river, his deeper water fish may be just the ticket to an Open Series championship.
But perhaps more important than the Open Series championship is the fact that these top five finishers have just earned a slot at the 2005 CITGO Bassmaster Classic in Pittsburgh, Pa. It’ll be the first Classic for Stringer and one that he’s dreamed of for years.
“That’s the goal of every angler,” Stringer said. “Making the Classic is what we all shoot for, and it’s great to be qualified so early.”
Greg Hackney is in second place going into the final round. The “Hack Attack” has been flipping and pitching backwaters with Rattle-Back jigs for his bass. After leading the tournament for the first two rounds, he managed only a small limit weighing seven pounds, 13 ounces on Day Three.
Hackney will be fishing his third Classic when the world’s most prestigious bass tournament visits Pittsburgh and the famed Three Rivers area next July.
In third place is Edwin Evers of Oklahoma with 29 pounds. Evers qualified for his fifth Classic by flipping a four-inch black neon Bass Pro Shops tube with a 5/16-ounce sinker to backwater bass in about five feet of water.
“The bite was really slow today,” Evers lamented. “I had to really soak the bait to get my four bites.” Fortunately for Evers, he put all four fish in the boat and made the cut for Sunday’s final round and a berth in the Classic.
Fourth place going into the final round belongs to young Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., with 25 pounds of bass. The 24-year-old spent the first two days of competition casting a ?-ounce jig in black, brown and amber to bass tucked into a backwater area.
“My fish haven’t moved up into the shallows,” Pace said. I’m catching most of them in 10 to 12 feet of water. That may change though as the water keeps rising.”
On Day Three, the jig bite died for Pace, and he picked up a solitary keeper on a spinnerbait. It was enough to keep him in the top five and give him his first ticket to the Classic.
Chris Baumgardner of North Carolina earned the fifth and final Classic berth by taking 24 pounds, four ounces of Ouachita River bass over three days. Like the other qualifiers, Baumgardner is fishing backwater areas, and, like most of them, he’s pitching and flipping.
“I’m using a Zoom Baby Brush Hog in root beer with a 5/16-ounce slip sinker and a 4/0 hook,” said Baumgardner, who’s targeting woody cover he finds along depth breaks.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher to catch my fish,” he admitted, “because they’re in the thick stuff, and it keeps getting deeper and deeper as the water rises. On the first couple of days there just wasn’t as much water and cover to pull them out of, but today I broke off a four pounder that really would’ve helped me.”
While the top five boaters have fished their way into Sunday’s final round and a Classic spot, the Open Series champion was crowned today on the non-boater side of the competition. That title belongs to Wade Grooms of South Carolina.
Grooms took the top spot in interesting fashion. Fishing with Bradley Stringer, now the boating division leader, on Day One, Grooms brought a five-bass limit to the scales that weighed nine pounds, seven ounces. On Day Two, when paired with another boater who was not on fish, Grooms zeroed, but managed to hold on to fourth place in the non-boater standings on the strength of his first round catch.
Amazingly, in the final round of competition for the non-boaters, Grooms again found himself paired with Stringer. Grooms’ magic returned when he stepped into the back of Stringer’s boat. He caught nine pounds, five ounces of bass for a three day total of 18 pounds, 12 ounces and the Open non-boater crown.
Grooms, a Department of Defense engineer, had nothing but praise for Stringer.
“Bradley bent over backwards to help me catch my fifth bass on Day One,” Grooms said. “He’s a great sportsman and a terrific fisherman. I was thrilled to draw him again on Day Three.”
The final round weigh-in will be held on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. CT at Lazarre Point Recreation Area.
The Open Series Championship will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Jan. 8, 2005 at 10:00 a.m. ET.
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