Whoever said the Bassmaster Classic Bracket wouldn’t provide much drama was dead wrong.
Only one of the eight pros had anything to sweat, but even so, the head-to-head matches had it all -- tension, drama, intrigue, rallies and potential disasters in various forms. It was an entertaining roller coaster of emotion.
Kevin VanDam and Brett Hite had runaway wins in their two-day quarterfinals, and it appeared Jordan Lee was doing the same to Dean Rojas. Lee was up 5 pounds with 15 minutes to go.
Then Rojas, who earlier in the week for a trash-talk video said, “Sit aside youngster, let a real professional get it done,” found magic, and he got it done. He landed a 3-pound, 3-ounce fish with 13 minutes to go, then lost another before hooking into the winning 2-13 with three minutes left.
Rojas was beside himself, excitedly telling his judge, Trip Weldon, “Read me the weight, Tripper.” Rojas was giddy, kissing the bass and proclaiming his love of the head-to-head format.
On the flip side were Koby Kreiger and Jacob Powroznik, who weren't feeling that good. Powroznik was pitted against his roommate, so he promised to lay down his rod to allow Kreiger a chance at winning that Classic berth. Kreiger was the only compeitor on Niagara not well inside the cut in Toyota Angler of the Year points for a spot, so getting to his second Big Show and first since 2003 would have been a great outcome.
Powroznik’s gesture was admirable by many people’s account, but criticized by others. Some readers said it hurt the integrity of the sport, but 78 percent were OK with the move.
The real problem was Powroznik caught a fish in the final minutes of Day 1 and actually held a 1-1 lead. No problem, he figured, Koby would catch a fish on Day 2 to win. Dilemma solved.
Nope. Problem accentuated. Kreiger couldn’t get a bite in the first two hours and that layup was rolling around the rim. Powroznik watched from nearby as Kreiger tightened and the tension heightened. It was almost painful to witness the potential debacle unfold in realtime on Bassmaster LIVE.
After some excrutiating misses, Kreiger finally caught his white whale with 26 minutes to go in the three-hour period. Although agitated, he screamed in jubilation, “Thank you, Lord! And thank you, Jacob Powroznik!”
That sent Kreiger up against, gulp, KVD. Thursday semifinals started as blowouts for KVD and Hite, who both actually stopped fishing and went to find new areas. Rojas hadn’t bottled his magic, and Kreiger was struggling.
Then Kreiger went to the I-90 North bridge that Hite had exploited all week. Hite saw him catch a fish and drove over to set the ground rules, giving Kreiger a few of the outer pilings to fish. In hindsight, Hite should have let Kreiger onto his juice to help him beat KVD. He would then have an opponent who really couldn’t return to the bridge in the finale.
On those bridge pilings, Kreiger rallied with 5-9 in about 15 minutes, forcing KVD to pick up his rod and fish the area he hoped to save. He said his plan to sit nearly blew up in his face after Kreiger landed his final 2-6 to take the lead with 11-0. But KVD rallied, culling ounces with fish Nos. 7-10 until they were tied -- and KVD held the tiebreaker.
Kreiger once again just needed one decent keeper to cull an ounce, advance, and keep the Classic within his grasp. Late in the round he hooked up, played it as he hollered, “Boys …. Boys … Awwww! He came off!”
Agony hit Kreiger this time.
It was hoped the only surprise in the KVD-Hite final was informing them that the format change they'd learned Monday was every fish would count toward their total. While Hite was catching larger fish on average (2.4 pounds), VanDam (1.9) certainly had him in numbers. Advantage KVD.
And that's how it played out early Friday. VanDam was leading, nearly doubling Hite with his eight fish for 14-11 to Hite’s 7-10 on four fish. But then IT happened -- VanDam went past the boundary line and landed a fish. That put the day into disarray, sparked a protest as well as calls of impropriety.
Just a month before at the regular season event on Cayuga, then-AOY leader Greg Hackney fished an off-limits area and had his day’s catch disqualified. He fell to fifth in the point standings, and with three events left, that mistake might have cost him his second AOY title.
Commenters thought VanDam would be similarily disqualified from the event, ending it right there at 12:26 p.m. ET and crowning Hite. But VanDam’s judge that day, Weldon, the senior B.A.S.S. tournament director, only threw out the fish VanDam caught while out of bounds. It eliminated a 1-13 bass as KVD cruised to a 20-3 total to Hite’s 13-9. Viewers to LIVE suggested there was favoritism being shown toward VanDam.
As the boats communicated at the time of the infraction, Hite stated he wanted to continue the event under protest. He was satisfied afterward when Weldon cited C1 of the 2016 Elite-Classic rules, which gives penalties for rules violations. Under (b), it states as a potential penalty:
Loss of one or more fish caught in potential violation of rules or regulations. All bass under question must be marked and verified by your Marshal/camera operator. If not verified the entire catch may be disqualified.
How did Hackney’s and VanDam’s infractions differ? VanDam’s was a boundary instituted by B.A.S.S. The specific fish and its weight caught while out of bounds were known and therefore easily subtracted. Hackney’s fish caught in the off limits were not known.
It was pointed out that if Hackney had realized he had fished in an out of bounds area, he could have contacted Weldon and possibly “re-started” his day at zero. But Hackney didn’t contact Weldon after it was suggested he might be in an off-limits area.
An additional difference in the two instances was that Hackney could have been issued a citation from New York game officials, based on state law not a tournament rule.
The Classic Bracket ended up crazier than a ski boat pushing a barge full of rock up the Niagara with an outhouse at the ready. (Steve Bowman photo)