LAKE GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — While the main show at the Marine Formula STA-BIL Southern Challenge was the parade of giant sacks brought to the scales by Aaron Martens, Marty Stone and Mike Iaconelli, the sideshow was seeing which angler near the bottom of the standings could fight his way back into contention and score some valuable points in the race to the postseason.
Davy Hite was sitting in 47th place when Day Three began and knew he needed a big day to gain ground in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race as well as make a move in the standings.
"I felt like in 47th place, you can only move down a couple places, so I went out there shooting for a good bag," Hite said. "You want to get a few fish in the livewell right off the bat. You don't want to skunk. Getting a quick limit was a great feeling because mentally, I could run new water and relax. I fished a place I hadn't fished in 5 years and ended up catching a 6- and 7-pounder there."
That instinctive move ended up paying off for Hite, as his 25-pound, 12-ounce sack propelled him into 23rd place, one of the bigger moves of the day. Hite came into the tournament sitting in 53rd place in the TTBAOY race and will take home enough points to also get into Classic contention with three events to go.
Wade Grooms also made a move courtesy of a solid stringer. For Grooms, the real battle came after Day Two, when he spent the weigh-in stressed out over whether or not he would make the top 50 cut.
"I was halfway back to the hotel yesterday when my mom called and told me to come back," Grooms said. "When there is no stress, fishing is just so much easier. I just wanted to go out and have fun on the water. It was a relief knowing I had a check coming, so I could fish relaxed and that really helped me today."
On the strength of his 24-15 Day Three bag, Grooms leapfrogged 24 anglers to finish the tournament in 24th. That improvement earned Grooms a nice check and will help him take home some much-needed points as he currently sits mired in 82nd place in the TTBAOY race.
On the flip side of Grooms, Dean Rojas was just happy to survive the tournament on Lake Guntersville. While many Elite Series anglers were hauling in eye-popping bags of Tennessee River largemouth, Rojas had to watch his slow slide down the leaderboard after each day of competition.
"I'm just happy to move forward from this tournament," Rojas said. "You just lose ground each day at this slugfest when you don't catch them. I'm looking forward to the rest of the season, especially Iowa and Oneida, places that really suit my strengths."
Looking back on his tournament, each day was a struggle to boat quality bites with his only saving grace being his bread and butter, the topwater frog.
"I caught my limit on an Aruku Shad and then went frogging," Rojas said. "Each day, I caught one around 5 pounds on Kermie, but I just haven't been around the right quality bites since practice. My goal going into today was to try and catch a really big sack, but I was just happy making the cut because I didn't have a good practice."
Rojas sits on the bubble for Classic contention in 31st place in the TTBAOY race with at least the top 36 receiving invitation. Expect him to only get stronger as the season heads to the froggy waters of the Mississippi River and Lake Oneida, where he won last season.
Dustin Wilks dropped even more than Rojas did after a tough third day on Lake Guntersville. Entering in 45th place, Wilks hoped to make a move from the bottom of the pack, but instead lost ground and finished with only 15 pounds, 2 ounces to fall to 49th.
"Four places is a big deal when you are trying to qualify for the Classic," Wilks said. "Yesterday, I had nearly 26 pounds and got lucky, so I started on those spots, but couldn't get the bites I needed. I just kept hitting water and had a few chances at 4- and 5-pound fish, but couldn't get them hooked up."
Like Rojas, Wilks spent part of his day trying to upgrade on a frog, but the fish wouldn't eat the bait all the way. Wilks painfully described the bass coming all the way out of the water to explode on the frog, but missing the bait entirely, something that he hadn't experienced before.
"I should have just stuck with the frog fishing all day and went for a 25-pound bag instead of a 20-pound bag," Wilks said. "I try to go for more consistent fishing and try to move up. I don't get crazy because I don't want to fall too much. A lot of people are happy to make the 50-cut, so they let up and I was trying to take advantage of that, but it just didn't work out today."