Welcher takes Day 2 lead in Bassmaster Elite Series event at St. Lawrence River

If you’re going to have a superlative moment, do it when there’s a lot on the line.

Following that sentiment, Kyle Welcher of Opelika, Ala., sacked up the biggest bag of smallmouth bass he’s ever caught and surged into the lead on Day 2 of the Minn Kota Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence River with a total weight of 53 pounds, 6 ounces.

“Today was an absolutely phenomenal day,” said Welcher, who also leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. “That was, by far, the best day of smallmouth fishing I’ve ever had. Yesterday was my second-best day of smallmouth fishing.

“There’s still two days to go. It’s fun to catch them really well, but it’s like the saying, ‘What a difference a day makes.’ I’m just going to try to make good adjustments, stay on top of the fish and catch them.”

After tying Matty Wong of Honolulu, Hawaii, for fifth place on Day 1 with 25-10, Welcher added 27-12 — the second day’s biggest bag. He anchored his Day 2 bag with the day’s biggest bass — a 6-8.

Heading into Semifinal Saturday, Welcher holds an 8-ounce lead over Canadian superstar Chris Johnston, who won the 2020 Bassmaster Elite at the St. Lawrence River.

Along with the $100,000 first-place prize and the coveted blue trophy, the final event of the season will award a berth in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota scheduled for March 22-24 in Tulsa, Okla. Welcher said that positioning himself well for the AOY title and a Classic qualification follows his season goals.

“That’s been the plan all year, from the first tournament,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to make that plan come to fruition.”

Generally repeating his Day 1 strategy, Welcher swung hard and made a long run to Canadian waters. His bites started early, but amassing his big limit took most of the morning.

“I think the pressure from me sitting on them affected them,” Welcher said. “When I first got there this morning, I caught three or four really quickly, and then I kept going up and down the same stretch and could tell, by the hour, they were getting smarter.”

Welcher said his main area had two stretches of 100 and 120 yards, where he fished scattered rock in 20 to 25 feet. Welcher caught all of his bass on a drop shot. Strategic weight selection was essential to his success.

“I’m trying to throw the lightest weight that I can get away with because, from what I have found, a big smallmouth wants to come up and get a bait,” Welcher said. “They don’t like to get it off the bottom.

“Especially if there are two or three of them there, I feel like the biggest one likes to come up. So, I like to have (a weight) that sinks slower.

“I use a 1/4-ounce if I’m in over 20 feet and if I’m out past 25, I’ll throw a 3/8, just because it’s hard to hit them in the wind.”

The light to moderate winds of Day 2 dramatically contrasted the opening round’s blustery complexion. With strong Southeast winds roiling Lake Ontario, Welcher faced a rough, soaking ride through waves of 6-plus feet.

“It was a lot easier to navigate today, but I had some boat issues, so the ride today was actually scarier,” Welcher said. “I just had more time to fish the good areas today.”

Hailing from Otonabee, Ontario, Johnston is in second place with 52-14. After weighing 28-3 on Day 1, he added a second-round limit of 24-11.

“I’m looking forward to getting back out there,” Johnston said. “I know (no one) is going to feel bad for me, but it was a little tougher day today. I caught lots of fish, but they were all 3 to 4 pounds.

“It’s hard to complain about that, but tomorrow, I could go to those spots and there could be 5s and 6s. You never know about that. I’m usually cursed with one bad day on this place and hopefully, today was my bad day.”

Johnston fished some of the spots he worked on Day 1 and then ran new water. Targeting a mix of rockpiles and breaks in 12 to 25 feet, he caught most of his fish on a drop shot with a SPRO CJ Smasher.

Taku Ito of Chiba, Japan, is in third place with 52-5. After placing ninth on Day 1 with 24-14, Ito added 27-7 — Day 2’s second-heaviest catch (behind Welcher).

Ito, who won the 2021 Elite Series event at the St. Lawrence, said he focused on one spot in Lake Ontario. Taking advantage of the day’s relatively calm conditions, Ito made an hour-long run and found a congregation of heavyweights.

“I fished an area with many 5-pounders, 6-pounders,” Ito said. “Yesterday, I fished in 15 feet. Today, I fished in 25 feet.

“Yesterday, there was too much wind, so (not many) bites. Today, I got more bites. I’m a little bit worried about all this change.”

Ito said he caught his bass on a drop shot and a Neko rig. He enhanced his soft plastics with a Japanese scent formula.

Welcher won the $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Day award for his 6-8. Paul Mueller of Naugatuck, Conn., still leads the race for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the Week with the 6-11 he caught on Day 1.

Bryant Smith of Roseville, Calif., holds the lead for VMC Monster Bag of the event with the 29-5 limit he caught Thursday.

Welcher leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings with 756 points. Brandon Cobb of Greenwood, S.C., is in second with 728, followed by Patrick Walters of Summerville, S.C., with 714, Drew Cook of Cairo, Ga., with 699 and Joey Cifuentes III of Clinton, Ark., with 699.

Cifuentes leads the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year standings with 699 points, followed by Japanese pro Kyoya Fujita with 695.

Saturday’s takeoff is scheduled for 7 a.m. ET at the Antique Boat Museum. The weigh-in will be held at the museum at 3 p.m., with only the Top 10 anglers advancing to Championship Sunday for a chance at the $100,000 first-place prize and automatic Classic berth. FS1 will broadcast live with the leaders beginning at 8 a.m. with continuing coverage on Bassmaster.com.

The tournament is being hosted by the 1000 Islands Clayton Chamber of Commerce.