The field has been cut to six for the final round in the race for the $100,000 first-place prize money and valuable points toward the CITGO Bassmaster Classic this summer in Pittsburgh.
Leading the way is Faircloth, 29, who finds himself in the lead of a BASS tournament for the first time in his career. Faircloth posted a catch of 15 pounds, 12 ounces Saturday to boost his three-day total to 52-3. Behind him is veteran Florida pro Peter Thliveros, whose five-bass limit totaling 16-13 lifted him into second place with 49-6.
Bitter, a past BASS winner on his home lakes in Leesburg, struggled to catch three bass weighing 8-12 — his smallest catch of the week. That dropped him into third with 49-1.
Rounding out the field of finalists is former Classic champion Larry Nixon of Arkansas (46-9), North Carolina's Guy Eaker (45-2) and Aaron Martens of California (42-5).
Faircloth has been enduring a severe cold all week, but admitted that his newfound lead has him feeling somewhat better.
“I'm concerned not only that my area has been fished hard, but also the cold weather conditions seem to have kept the (spawning) fish from replenishing the area,” he said. “Today, I only had one bite and didn't catch a fish until 12:10.
“I was beginning to wonder if I was ever going get a fish. I guess it took that long for the water to warm up enough for the fish to move up shallow.”
Faircloth has spent the entire tournament in the Ninth Street Canal, a residential canal off of Lake Harris. Only two of his 15 bass were caught sight-fishing. All fell victim to a five-inch junebug-colored Yamamoto Cut-Tail worm on 12- and 14-pound test Berkley Trilene line.
The leader is targeting shallow lily pads. “The key is knowing where the bass are positioned and how to present the bait,” Faircloth said. “They’re right at the base of the stem. If you miss the stem by six inches, you're not going to get a bite, and that's tough in this wind.”
Although sight-fishing for visible bass was the early ticket to big catches, two passing fronts over the last two days played havoc with that strategy. The most successful anglers have focused on spawning beds located in deeper water that they couldn’t see.
A prime example is Thliveros, 44, who’s been mixing up a spinnerbait and a creature bait to make a run at his first win on the Harris Chain in four tries.
“I won a club tournament here way back in the '80s, and I've never really caught them here since,” the three-time BASS winner said, “and I've had a lot of chances with BASS.
“Luckily, I've learned some valuable lessons about this place. Confidence is one. I was on the fish to have a chance to win last year, but I didn't have enough confidence to stay with it. Patience is another. The fish are in places where they should be. You just have to be patient enough to figure out how to catch them.”
Bitter's pattern of fishing various soft-plastics in shallow vegetation in a residential canal off of Lake Harris let him down Saturday. Nevertheless, he’s just three pounds, two ounces out of the lead.
“I kind of felt like I was behind the eight ball today,” Bitter said. “Things didn't go as planned. It was tougher than I thought it would be.
“I left my area early today and fished some other places. I've got confidence I can catch some fish (Sunday). But the fish are changing and getting tougher to catch.”
Although Mark Rogers was eliminated on Day Three of competition, the Florida pro took Saturday's Purolator Big Bass Award with a 7-pound, 13-ounce largemouth. He earned a $1,000 bonus.
Thliveros also took home a $1,000 bonus for his 16-13 limit, which was the Busch Heavyweight catch of the day.
While the pro division champion has yet to be decided, the co-angler winner was crowned on Saturday.
Scott Bunday, a 45-year-old dentist from Plano, Texas, was the winner of a Triton/Mercury package valued at $37,000. His three-day shared weight total was 60-14, which outdistanced New York's Timothy Dennis (59-2) and Gary Simpson of Florida (53-15).
Bunday caught seven bass weighing 13-10 and took advantage of the catches of pro partners Rogers, David Walker and Scott Rook. It was his first appearance as a Bassmaster co-angler, although he competed in nine Bassmaster Invitationals between 1999 and 2002.
“This is awesome,” he said. “This is what it's all about.”
In the Bassmaster CastingKids competition held prior to today’s weigh-in, Darlene Harmon, 13, of Pierson, Fla., took the 11-14 division with a score of 120, while Rusty Knox, 10, of Fruitland Park, Fla., claimed the 7-10 division with a score of 80.
"I practiced a lot this past year, and I'm going to continue to fish the hardest I can so I can be a pro one day,” said Darlene.
Rusty has similar aspirations.
"I want to be a pro some day, and my grandmother really wants me to be one, too," he said.
Tomorrow’s weigh-in will begin at 4:00 p.m. at the Leesburg Baseball Complex at Venetian Gardens where the winner will be crowned and awarded first-place prize money totaling $100,000.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail, which includes the Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Toyota, Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops and Cialis (tadalafil).
Local Sponsors include Leesburg Chamber of Commerce.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.