Despite enduring several painful losses, Arkansas rookie Joey Cifuentes III held on to sack up a final-round limit of 18 pounds, 7 ounces and win the Gamakatsu Bassmaster Elite at Lake Seminole with a four-day total of 85-2.
After placing sixth on Day 1 with 19-13, Cifuentes took over the top spot with a Day 2 limit of 26-1 — the tournament’s heaviest bag. He added 20-13 on Saturday and entered Championship Sunday with a lead of 4-1 over Tyler Rivet of Raceland, La.
In the final round, Cifuentes held off a serious charge by fellow rookie Kyoya Fujita of Minamitsuru, Yamanashi, Japan, who caught 19-15 on Championship Sunday and ultimately finished second with 76-6.
Along with his first blue trophy, Cifuentes collected the top prize of $100,000.
“I can’t believe this,” a visibly relieved Cifuentes said. “Today was so wild; you have to expect (pressure) when you have Tyler Rivet behind you.
“I knew I had a cushion, but I didn’t think it was going to take that much weight to do it.”
Cifuentes entered the final round with slightly more than a 4-pound advantage over the red-hot Rivet, who won last week’s season opener at Lake Okeechobee.
After fishing fairly clean on Day 3, Cifuentes struggled with several painful losses that threatened to derail his Championship Sunday effort, including a bass he estimated at 6 to 7 pounds that came unbuttoned right at the boat late in the day.
“I just tried to block out everything that happened; it’s really hard to do, but I just kept my nose down and tried to stay positive knowing I’d get a bite somewhere else,” Cifuentes said. “That was the key and I did that.”
Such concentration facilitated a plodding pace, as Cifuentes stuck with his week’s tedious pattern of targeting standing timber in a bay off Spring Creek. As he explained, this area offered the right mix of clear water, prespawn staging habitat and proximity to expansive spawning flats.
“I was using my Garmin LiveScope (forward-facing sonar) on the edge of the spawning flats on the outside edge of the grass,” he said. “I was looking for where the main channel swing came in, where fish would be coming and going.
“I went and looked at those places and I found fish. I caught them in practice and that’s what I did in the tournament.”
As the tournament advanced, Cifuentes noticed that his most consistent action came in areas where two to three trees clustered. Large cypress stumps also produced, but the key factor, he said, was the spawning crappie that likely provided a food source for prespawn bass.
Cifuentes spent part of Sunday on the spot he’d previously fished. After losing fish on that spot, he moved to a similar area, also in Spring Creek, where he ended up catching everything he weighed.
He caught his fish on a drop shot with a 1/4-ounce weight and a 6-inch hand-poured finesse worm in the morning dawn color. To minimize his snagging risk, he Texas rigged his bait on a 1/0 hook.
Cifuentes also beefed up his Abu Garcia spinning tackle by spooling his Revo SX reel with 15-pound Berkley x5 braid and adding a 15-pound Berkley 100% fluorocarbon leader.
“With that heavier tackle, I could put more pressure on the fish and steer them through the timber,” he said.
Fujita, who missed his first victory by a margin of 8-12, spent all four days in the Flint River. He caught limits of 16-12, 16-5 and 23-6 and 19-15.
“I am so happy,” Fujita said. “Today, I caught big fish. The key for me was to find clean water.”
Fujita fished docks with a 4.8-inch Deps Bull Flat in green pumpkin with a 6/0 hook and a 3/32-ounce weight. The bait produced 10 fish, including two of the largest ones he weighed. He also caught bass on a unique cube-shaped Japanese bait with small appendages on each side.
“I used that bait to catch fish that were cruising the shoreline,” Fujita said.
Fujita said he received a rude awakening when he saw firsthand the hazards of Seminole’s treacherously shallow wood.
“I (damaged) my boat during pre-practice, so I got a new boat,” he said.
After making a strong run at back-to-back wins, Rivet finished third with 74-2. Also fishing the Flint, he turned in daily weights of 17-4, 19-11, 25-11 and 11-8.
“I still feel like I’m dreaming; everything has happened perfectly,” Rivet said of his two Top 10 finishes to open the season. “Today was the only day I just didn’t know what was going on.
“But I have a new favorite lake — Seminole. It looked like home and that’s what helped me get into my comfort zone.”
Rivet targeted spawning bass, but he said he was not able to see the fish in the turbid water. Watching for the movement of territorial fish chasing off bream and other intruders gave him visual guidance for targeted casts.
The first three days saw Rivet catching bass on a prototype Xcite Baits popping frog and an Xcite Baits Xtreme Stix (stickbait). He caught all of his final-round fish on an Xcite Baits Sucka Punch creature bait in the junebug and magic craw colors.
Rivet took home an additional $3,000 for being the highest-placing entrant in the Toyota Bonus Bucks program while Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., earned $2,000 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
As part of the Yamaha Power Pay program, Fujita earned an additional $2,500 as the highest-placing entrant and Pat Schlapper of Eleva, Wis., claimed an additional $1,500 for being the second-highest placing entrant.
Cifuentes earned the $1,000 daily bonus for catching the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day Sunday, a 5-12 largemouth. He also won the $2,000 VMC Monster Bag award for his Day 2 catch of 26-1.
Fujita also won the $2,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the tournament with the 8-6 he caught on Day 3; however, South Carolina angler Brandon Cobb’s 8-12 at Lake Okeechobee is still leading the field for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Year honors.
Hunter Shryock of Ooltewah, Tenn., won the $1,000 BassTrakk Contingency award for the most accurate weight reporting.
Rivet leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 206 points. Australian Carl Jocumsen is in second with 193, followed by Cifuentes with 190, Cobb with 187, and Brandon Card of Salisbury, N.C., with 184.
Cifuentes also leads the Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings.