A sure sign Joey Cifuentes III was in line to win his second blue trophy came when a 5-pound smallmouth jumped into his boat midway through Championship Sunday at the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair.
That bass helped “the Cowboy” claim his second victory of his rookie season on the Elite Series with a four-day total of 91 pounds, 8 ounces, outlasting Oklahoma’s Luke Palmer by 1-2 ounces.
The Clinton, Ark., pro caught 22-10, 24-0 and 21-1 the first three days before landing 23-13 on the final day. Including his acrobatic smallmouth, Cifuentes landed four smallmouth that weighed over 5 pounds on the final day.
“That is what you dream about, to have a Championship day like that,” Cifuentes said. “The conditions were perfect. I knew the fish were there and I got to fish really effectively. It was meant to be.
“It seemed like there were the perfect amount of fish there for me to win this tournament. It was great.”
Cifuentes’ first victory of the season came back in February at Lake Seminole, an event he led for the final three days. At St. Clair, he did not lead a day until it mattered the most.
“At Seminole, I had a pretty good lead, and that was way more stressful,” he said. “Here, all of these guys could have caught a really big bag and won. But I was trying to get to the top instead of holding the lead. The pressure here wasn’t even close to what it was on Seminole.”
All week, Cifuentes cruised around a large area on the Canadian side of St. Clair, targeting smallies that had transitioned into their summertime patterns. There was a healthy population of perch in the area and, maybe more importantly, he had it almost entirely to himself.
The majority of his weight was caught from 18 feet of water around cabbage grass with a drop shot he built with a 1/4-ounce tungsten weight and a brown back colored 3.6-inch Berkley MaxScent Flat Worm rigged on a No. 2 Berkley Fusion 19 drop-shot hook.
He pitched that to his smallmouth with a 7-foot Abu Garcia Fantasista X spinning rod and a new Revo spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Berkley X5 braid tied to an 8-pound Berkley fluorocarbon leader.
Every bass that entered the boat was first viewed on Garmin LiveScope and he would not make a cast if he didn’t see one on his screen.
Windy and wavy conditions out in the abyss prevented Cifuentes from effectively using his forward-facing technology on Day 3 but on the final day, calmer and brighter conditions prevailed.
After missing a couple to start the morning, Cifuentes caught his first 5-pounder and went on a flurry of big fish, which included his highlight-reel smallmouth.
“I can’t believe that fish jumped in the boat. It jumped right next to the boat and then jumped in the boat,” he said. “That is the way I want to land them every time if I can.
“I went to some waypoints I had that I didn’t get to fish yesterday, and in that one little spot, I caught all of my big fish. There was a good strip of cabbage that was about 100 yards long that they were sitting in.”
With bags of 22-0, 23-12, 22-11 and 21-15, Palmer finished as the runner-up with a four-day total of 90-6. During the first three days, the Coalgate, Okla., pro split his time between two sections of Anchor Bay, one more populated than the other.
The area with the fewest boats turned out to be his best area when the sun got to its highest point, and on Championship Sunday, Palmer decided to spend his entire day there. It was a slow start to the morning, but he worked his way to a limit around mid-morning before landing several 4-pound smallies in the afternoon.
Unfortunately, he just never got a really big bite and the bass never rose off the bottom for him to see with his LiveScope.
“All day long I knew I needed one more fish and I never got that bite today,” he said. “I’m not going to complain about it. It was a good week and it wasn’t meant for me to win. Joey did a heck of a job this week, and he had the big final day he needed. I’m not mad about a Top 5.”
Palmer threw a tube rigged on a 3/8-ounce or 1/2-ounce Great Lakes Finesse jighead as well as a Great Lakes Finesse Drop Minnow with a 3/16-ounce jighead. A drop shot with a Yum Warning Shot and a 5/16-ounce Rougarou tungsten weight also caught several key bass.
Japanese pro and fan favorite Takumi Ito finished third with a four-day total of 89-11 with bags weighing 21-12, 25-8, 20-6 and 22-1.
While he may not have won the trophy, Ito won the $2,000 prize for VMC Monster Bag of the Tournament with his Day 2 bag and won the $2,000 bonus for Phoenix Boat Big Bass of the Tournament with the 6-2 smallie he also caught on Day 2.
“It was so hard to find ‘Smallmouth Disneyland’ and I don’t know why,” he said. “Two times I found a school and the fish came into my boat and were easy to catch. I needed one more 5-pounder.”
Ito caught bass throughout the day and every smallie he had weighed over 4 pounds, but was unable to find another 5-pounder to bolster his bag.
A Neko-rigged worm with a 1/8-ounce weight was key to getting his smallmouth to bite in Anchor Bay as well as a 1/4-ounce drop shot with a variety of soft plastics including a 2-inch Ecogear Aqua Bug Ants.
Both Louisiana’s Greg Hackney and Cifuentes landed a 5-1 smallmouth and split the $1,000 prize for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of Day 4. Jason Christie still has a firm grip on the $10,000 check for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the year with his 9-4 Lay Lake largemouth.
Hackney took home an additional $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program while South Carolina’s Bryan New earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Ito earned an additional $2,500 as the highest-placing entrant and Day 1 leader Shane LeHew, who finished the event in 14th, claimed an additional $1,500 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
John Crews of Salem, Va., won the $1,000 BassTrakk Contingency award for the most accurate weight reporting.
South Carolina’s Brandon Cobb leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 573 points. Kyle Welcher of Opelika, Ala., is second with 572 points, followed by Tyler Rivet of Raceland, La., with 532, John Cox of DeBary, Fla., with 532 and Drew Cook of Cairo, Ga., with 529.
Cifuentes leads the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year race with 516 points, followed by Japanese pro Kyoya Fujita in second with 491 and Alabama’s Will Davis Jr. in third with 460.
The tournament was hosted by the Detroit Sports Commission, Macomb County and Chesterfield Township.
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