PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — Bryan Schmitt talked all week about “special little things” that were happening to help him maintain the lead at the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Lake Champlain.
But the most special one happened just 15 minutes before Sunday’s final weigh-in, as Schmitt landed a 3 1/2-pound smallmouth that gave him a 12-ounce upgrade and allowed him to secure his first Elite Series win with a four-day total of 78 pounds, 5 ounces.
Call it luck. Call it fate. But the win seemed meant to be for the second-year Elite Series pro from Deale, Md.
“I pulled up to a buoy cable this afternoon right before time to come in and saw two fish on my (Garmin) LiveScope,” Schmitt said. “I threw that drop shot in there, felt the bite and didn’t really think it was a bass. But it turns out it was a bass — and without that fish I don’t win.
“When things like that are happening, man, it’s a special week.”
Schmitt talked each day about a waning bite, but he still managed to catch 21-11, 21-5 and 19-4 the first three rounds. Then on Championship Sunday, things did get tougher and he only managed to bring in 16-1.
That barely helped him stave off a hard charge from Texas pro Keith Combs, who finished with 77-13 — just 8 ounces behind the leader.
“I caught a couple of key fish on the spinbait, but the Quiver Worm produced the bulk of my fish for sure,” he said. “I was fishing it on a Hayabusa Spin Muscle Guard Hook with a little nail weight just to get it down.
“These fish are smart, I guess. You could throw a jig in there and they wouldn’t bite it, but they would eat that Quiver Worm.”
For the Neko setup, Schmitt used a 6-9 Fitzgerald Stunner Rod and a spinning reel spooled with 10-pound braid and a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. For the drop-shot rig, he used a drop-shot wacky hook from Hayabusa, a 1/4-ounce Reins Tungsten sinker with 8-pound fluorocarbon on the same rod. The only time he picked up a baitcaster was when he used the spinbait.
Another special element for Schmitt this week was the ability to overcome several unfortunate moments.
On Saturday, he had two key fish break his line. Then on Sunday, he lost several bass because of something he says he should have never allowed to happen.
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“Today, it took me three lost fish to realize that the point on my drop-shot hook had bent in,” he said. “That’s not a smart move. Out of those three, I’ll bet you at least one of them was a big one because they were on a spot where I had caught three 4-pounders this week.
“I was able to overcome those kinds of mistakes — somehow.”
Even as he was standing in the weigh-in line, Schmitt said he thought he’d blown his chance with only 16-1 in his bag.
“I thought it was over, no way,” he said. “I knew one of these guys was going to have a good day — and Keith (Combs) did.”
Combs, who was in 16th place going into Saturday’s semifinal round, dialed in a topwater strategy for big smallmouth and caught 20-14 to jump into third heading into Championship Sunday.
The topwater pattern, which included a Strike King Sexy Dawg and another unnamed walking bait, produced again Sunday, as Combs caught 19-3 and held the unofficial lead on BassTrakk for a while.
Combs, who also used a couple of different jerkbaits, caught a pair of large fish that swallowed his lures so deeply he was forced to release them for fear of receiving a 4-ounce dead-fish penalty at the scales.
“With those two fish, I might have actually had enough to win,” Combs said. “I hate that it worked out that way, but it is what is.”
Minnesota pro Seth Feider, who came into the event just needing to avoid a total crash and burn to maintain his lead in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings, did far more than simply survive. He finished in fourth place behind Schmitt, Combs and Texas pro Chris Zaldain.
With his fourth Top 10 of the season, Feider now has 699 points and holds a commanding lead over his closest competitors, Patrick Walters of South Carolina (644) and Canadian Chris Johnston (630).
Feider believes it will take something catastrophic to keep him from winning the AOY title now — and for that reason, he plans to stay close to the takeoff site during next week’s season-ending Farmers Insurance Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River.
“I’m not going to take any chances, and that definitely means I won’t be making the long run to Lake Ontario,” Feider said. “I probably won’t get more than 30 miles from the takeoff site anytime during the week.”
Another Minnesota pro, Austin Felix, took Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day honors with a 4-13. Oklahoma pro Dale Hightower had Big Bass of the week with the 5-15 he caught on Day 1.
Combs took home an additional $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program, while Zaldain earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
Combs also earned $2,500 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Yamaha Power Pay program, while Zaldain claimed an additional $1,500 for being the second-highest placing entrant.