HOUSTON - Brent Ehrler is trying his best to stay grounded.
He’s saying all the right things.
But after two big days, there’s just no denying that he’s one step away from the biggest accomplishment of his professional bass fishing career.
The 40-year-old California angler caught five bass Saturday that weighed 20 pounds, 1 ounce and pushed his two-day total to 43-4 in front of a giant crowd at Minute Maid Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros. That was good enough to lead the 47th annual GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods on Lake Conroe by more than 2 pounds going into Sunday’s final round.
“I didn’t know what I could catch today in the area where I’ve been fishing,” Ehrler said. “I thought I could go in there, and if I caught a limit, they’d weigh 15 to 16 pounds. You just don’t know what’s there until you start pulling on more of them.
“I could go in there tomorrow and not have a limit. I could go in there and catch 13 or 14 pounds, or I could have 25 pounds.”
Unlike Day 1 when the winds blew 20- to 30-mph, things were relatively calm on Conroe Saturday. Ehrler said that helped his cause - even though his weight was slightly lower than the 23-3 he caught Friday.
“I think it was better,” said Ehrler, who still hasn’t been open about how he’s catching his fish with one more day to go. “I would prefer to have less wind.
“I think in the best-case scenario, if it was slick calm, I could probably really catch them.”
After taking the early lead Friday, Ehrler said he prefers to start a little farther back and slowly work his way up the leaderboard by the final day. But he knows he’ll begin Championship Sunday as the man everyone is trying to top with a $300,000 first-place prize on the line.
The tournament has long been considered the Super Bowl of professional bass fishing, with a total purse of $1 million - and this year’s event is considered perhaps the biggest in history with chances for all-time attendance records to be set. Thousands of people have already lined up each day for takeoffs at Lake Conroe Park, the Outdoors Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods at the George R. Brown Convention Center and the daily weigh-ins at Minute Maid Park.
Many of the 52 anglers in the field have never experienced this kind of pressure - and Ehrler admitted he’s feeling it a little bit.
“You have that target on your back, and it’s really a hard thing to do,” said Ehrler, who still leads the race for Berkley Big Bass of the event with the 9-12 largemouth he caught Friday. “It’s harder to sleep. I would like to be back and have that confidence that if I caught a big stringer, I’d have that ability to win.
“Right now, I have to worry about stumbling. In this position, you have to worry about everything.”
Ehrler certainly doesn’t have much margin for error with six anglers within 7 pounds of his total, including three former Classic champions. Pennsylvania pro Dave Lefebre is second with 41-1, followed by defending Classic champ Edwin Evers of Oklahoma (39-0), Oklahoma angler James Elam (37-13), Bradley Roy of Kentucky (37-10), the 2003 Classic winner Michael Iaconelli of New Jersey (37-8) and four-time Classic champion Kevin VanDam of Michigan (36-3).
Lefebre, who won the 2009 Toyota Texas Bass Classic on Conroe, said he has stayed in one creek all week and used just one lure on one rod.
“I’ve got 100 spots to fish on this lake, and 25 of them are in that creek,” said Lefebre, who caught 20-6 Friday and 20-11 Saturday. “I don’t think I’m going to leave that creek. I tried to leave about 10 of them for Sunday, but I had to hit them all today.”
Predictably, with the better weather, Lefebre said there was more boat traffic in the area he was fishing Saturday. But he thinks his technique is different enough to help him overcome the crowds.
“You can’t just fish around in there any way you want to and catch them,” Lefebre said. “I’m fishing areas the size of a light socket, and I’ve got a bait that I think the fish are keying on. I might have to make seven casts to that light switch, but they’re eventually eating it.
“I pulled in behind some of the best fishermen on Earth today and still caught them.”
Evers, who fished three distinctly different patterns to win last year’s Classic on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, said he’s been making subtle changes each day this year as well.
“Friday was a little bit different from today,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff you can try on this lake. I’ve probably used six or seven baits - just switching up a little bit, depending on the time of day and the conditions.
“As for the wind and the conditions tomorrow, I’ll take it either way.”
The Top 25 remaining anglers will take off at 7:20 a.m. CT from Lake Conroe Park in Montgomery. The final weigh-in will take place at Minute Maid Park, with doors opening at 3 p.m. for B.A.S.S. Life and Nation members and at 3:15 p.m. for the general public.
The Outdoors Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods will be open Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.