Monroe sticks monster sack for lead

DEL RIO, Texas — The buzz began about midway through Saturday's weigh-in at the inaugural CITGO Bassmaster Elite Series on Lake Amistad, which has coughed up huge fish and big limits all week.

"Ish Monroe has a huge bag of fish."

"Wait until you see what Ish has."

"He's got a bag of monsters."

Only when the 31-year old Californian brought his weigh-in bag to the check-in line and began showing it to fellow anglers did it appear the rumors were true. Monroe's huge smile also was quite telling. He had the fish to make Sunday's 12-man cut, but he was unsure just how much was in the bag.

The scales didn't lie, and the crowd wasn't disappointed. Monroe busted a limit weighing 34 pounds, 1 ounce, earning him the top spot on the leaderboard with 81 pounds. It also was the Busch Heavyweight catch of the day, earning him a spot in the Busch Shootout later this year, as well as the biggest catch of the week.

And, standing backstage before going to the scales, Monroe only hoped he would be able to make the cut.

"I really don't know what I was thinking, other than I wanted to fish Sunday," he said.

He will, along with 11 other pros who had at least 71-6 to make the cut. They will hit Amistad at 6:50 a.m., returning for the 3 p.m. weigh-in at Diablo East Marina. Included are former CITGO Bassmaster Classic champions Kevin VanDam of Michigan and Ken Cook of Oklahoma, Elite series rookies Steve Kennedy of Alabama and Fred Roumbanis of California, and Dean Rojas of Arizona.

Ironically, Rojas holds the four-day tournament record of 108-12 that could be eclipsed tomorrow if Monroe has another big showing. Actually, four other anglers could erase the 5-year-old mark Rojas set on Lake Toho, although Monroe's chances look to be the best if his topwater bite holds up Sunday.

Monroe needs 28 pounds to break the record. VanDam is second with 77-2 and needs 31-11, while Matt Reed of Texas (76-12) needs 32-1. Alton Jones of Texas and Greg Hackney of Louisiana, both with 76-9, need 32-4 for the record.

Given the seven limits of 30-pounds or better caught this week — consider only three have been caught in the last two seasons combined — it's not out of the realm of possibilities for one of those five pros to do it. Likewise, the second- through fifth-place totals on the four-day catch record list likely will fall today.

Monroe's big fish

The day started good for Monroe, who has been sight-fishing but also working a Reaction Innovations Vixen topwater bait, along with another topwater he declined to identify. Once the slight 7-10 mile per hour breezes ended this morning about 9 a.m., he was able to spot cruising bass offshore better and target them with the topwaters.

"I caught a 3 ½ and a 5 ½ on my first few casts and was doing pretty well, but then the slick flat calm conditions hit and the fish started popping up on beds," he said. "But I was passing up the 3- and 4-pounders looking for the bigger fish."

His biggest bass, a 9-5, proved to be a test of his casting and landing skills. Monroe spotted some treetops in the back of a small slough behind two spits of land that made points and formed an opening to the slough. He couldn't get in there, though, because of a sandbar.

"I cast between two treetops because I knew a big fish would be there, twitched the Vixen once and she inhaled it completely," he said. "But then she dove into a treetop and there we were. I couldn't get in and she wouldn't come out. So I just pulled her out with the 50-pound Power Pro braid and finally got her to the boat."

After that, Monroe continued to look for cruising or bedding fish, incrementally adding to his stellar catch.

Sunday, he's going for broke. It's the first time Monroe has led a tournament going into the final day. Last year he struggled with his focus, due to building a new home in California, moving there from Arizona and trying to fish two pro tours.

"I'm going out and swinging for the fences … home runs," Monroe said. "The opportunity to win is there. This year I've turned my cell phone off or I look at the caller ID. I'm more focused on the water. The worst I can do is 12th, and there are 38 fewer competitors out there Sunday."

VanDam surging

Sitting in 11th place Friday, VanDam further honed his attention on prespawn bass and moved into second with a shot at what would be his fourth victory in the last five Bassmaster tournaments.

But popping 27-6 for second place didn't come easy.

"I started slow," he said. "I was fortunate to catch the 8-pounder. I'm not sight-fishing, but looking at staging fish (in transition). I'm fishing slow but fast. I'm covering water but I'm moving the bait real slowly."

This week he's worked Strike King jigs, spinnerbaits and plastics, depending on his location and whether he spots a bedding fish. But his transition areas are producing best and that's what he plans to stick with Sunday.

"I'm going to new areas every day," he said. "I can't duplicate (anything in) my water."

Reed stays consistent

After popping 31-8 on the first day by sight-fishing , Reed has hit about 25 pounds the last two days to stay within striking distance. He caught 24-6 Saturday despite changing tactics midday.

"I didn't catch a single fish doing what I've been doing," he said. "I caught two fish early and then had to adjust a little bit. I caught three in deep water. The big ones have laid their eggs and are suspended.

"I've seen new fish every day but Saturday I didn't. They're acting crazy. There are a lot of little males (on beds) and I'm looking for the big females. But I see a 10-pound female cruising (off the bank) and I just groan."

Jones, Hackney tied

Jones tossed a 7-inch Yum! Dinger stickbait for his catch of 23-2, which included a 5-10, but he also inadvertently helped his co-angler have an outstanding day.

After watching Jones catch fish after fish, Gordon Karstedt of Texas began doing the same thing with the Yum! baits.

"He was picking up my culls that were torn up after I set the hook, gluing them back together and fishing with them," Jones said. "He started catching good fish and had a good day."

Karstedt finished second in the co-angler standings, earning a Triton boat and Mercury motor valued at $25,000.

Hackney tied Jones for fourth with 76-9 with a catch of 22-1.

"Not bad, not bad … I've averaged 25 pounds but haven't gotten that 30-pound bag," he said. "That's my goal this week. Maybe on Sunday. But I'm going to change tactics. I've been keying on staging fish but they're leaving me because the water's warming up."

Hackney said he's also been able to enjoy the week even after watching his co-angler partner, Dalton Arnold of Texas, whack some big bass.

"He had a 6- and an 8-pounder and on any other lake that would crush me," Hackney said. "But here, I know I'm OK. That just means we're around big fish. And they're out there … hundreds of them."

Arnold's biggest fish weighed 7-10, earning him the co-angler Purolator Big Bass honors.