It was a fight to the finish during Thursday’s Championship Round among the very best anglers in the sport, but when time ran out it was Mercury pro Ryan Salzman of Huntsville, Alabama, whose name sat at the top of the SCORETRACKER® at the General Tire Stage Five on Watts Bar Lake Presented by Covercraft in Spring City, Tennessee. The Bass Pro Tour newcomer weighed 13 bass totaling 24 pounds, 3 ounces, to earn his first Bass Pro Tour win – as well as his first major career win – and take home the big red trophy and the top award of $100,000.
“Right now, I’m just putting all my trust in God, and that’s the only way I can rise up to this moment, because it’s too big for me,” Salzman said in the final moments as the clock ticked down. “Words just can’t describe how I feel even being in contention to win this event, especially going up against some of the greatest anglers in the world. Fishing against my childhood heroes, it’s just amazing.”
Moments later, time expired and Salzman was announced the General Tire Stage Five Champion on Watts Bar Lake.
“I never in my life thought I would win this event,” Salzman said excitedly, amid cheers from fans and followers who surrounded him on the water. “I knew the winning fish were in this area, but I didn’t know if they would bite today. I’ve lost several fish this week, even lost 2 or 3 today that would have given me more of a cushion at the end of the day, but I’m just speechless and so thankful for this opportunity.”
Thursday marked the first time the Alabama pro has qualified for the Championship Round on the MLF Bass Pro Tour since joining the tour in February and culminated in a moment he said he will never forget.
“First and foremost, I have to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Salzman said. “I’ve been a mess the last few years but have made a lot of life changes and attitude changes, so to go from where I was 3-4 years ago, to where I am today, there just isn’t anything that He can’t do.”
Salzman said he found his winning area above the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Watts Bar Dam during practice and knew it had potential, but as the tournament progressed, he realized the bass were only schooling and feeding during certain time windows.
“This has been a week of highs and lows and the way my tournament began, I didn’t think this win was a possibility,” Salzman said. “I found this spot above the dam on the first day, with hundreds of bass schooling and stacked up against this wall. I knew there were enough fish here to win the event, I just had to figure out how to catch them.”
Salzman hit the first obstacle during his Qualifying Round, in large part because the fish in his winning area weren’t schooling. He finished in 15th place after his first day and ended the second day in 16th place to advance to the Knockout Round – and that’s where the fun really began.
“On Wednesday, the TVA began running water through the dam, generating 30,000, 40,000 watts, stirring up the bait fish and in turn, the bass,” Salzman said. “Once they started moving the water, this spot really lit up. The majority of the fish I caught this week were right here in this spot, on a 4½-inch morning dawn-colored Roboworm with an 1/8-ounce Titan Tungsten ball weight.”
Salzman’s flurry halted to a stop about an hour and a half prior to the end of the tournament day, as the TVA turned down the generators and the bass around him stopped feeding. Not to be deterred from the win, Salzman made a quick pivot to another place on the dam, boating a 2-pounder.
“With only 25 minutes left in the day, that kicker fish made all the difference,” Salzman finished.
The Mercury pro earned the win by a slim 11-ounce margin over Academy Sports + Outdoors pro Jacob Wheeler of Harrison, Tennessee , who finished Championship Day in second place with a total of 10 scorable bass, weighing 23-8. Although Wheeler missed the $100,000 win by mere ounces, he earned valuable points in the 2022 Bally Bet Angler of the Year (AOY) race. Wheeler, the reigning 2021 AOY winner, currently leads again with 379 points after five regular-season events, while Jordan Lee sits in second place with 341 points. Dayton, Tennessee’s Andy Morgan sits in third with 315 points. Kevin VanDam is in fourth place with 302.5 points, while Randall Tharp rounds out the top five with 302 points.
The top 10 pros at the General Tire Stage Five on Watts Bar Lake Presented by Covercraft finished:
1st: Ryan Salzman, Huntsville, Ala., 13 bass, 24-3, $100,000
2nd: Jacob Wheeler, Harrison, Tenn., 10 bass, 23-8, $45,000
3rd: Dakota Ebare, Brookeland, Texas, seven bass, 16-4, $38,000
4th: Randall Tharp, Port St. Joe, Fla., seven bass, 14-12, $32,000
5th: Mark Davis, Mount Ida, Ark., six bass, 13-12, $30,000
6th: Kevin VanDam, Kalamazoo, Mich., seven bass, 12-9, $26,000
7th: Alton Jones, Sr., Lorena, Texas, four bass, 10-11, $23,000
8th: Brent Ehrler, Redlands, Calif., four bass, 8-13, $21,000
9th: Fletcher Shryock, Guntersville, Ala., five bass, 8-7, $19,000
10th: David Walker, Sevierville, Tenn., two bass, 4-0, $16,000