And that means his hopes of reaching his third Bassmaster Classic remain intact.
The 47-year-old Shelby, Ala., resident caught only two bass Thursday that weighed 4 pounds, 7 ounces. The 19-5 limit he caught a day earlier, however, was strong enough to give him 23-12 overall and a spot atop the leaderboard.
Carden’s been in this position before. He finished second in the Nation Championship on the Ouachita River in 2014 to qualify for the 2015 Classic on Hartwell, where he finished 15th overall. He also fished in the 2014 Classic on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville, placing 24th.
Carden knows he’ll have to improve on Thursday’s weight to make a personal trifecta of Classics. He’s prepared to make changes to get there, too.
“I’m not going back to the spot I’ve been fishing,” Carden said. “The area takes a lot of commitment. It takes an hour and 20 minutes to get there. It’s dangerous to get there. Tomorrow, I’m going to play it more conservative and go in places where I can run a bunch of different water.”
The spot was obviously fizzling out anyway.
“I only had five bites today, and I caught all five,” he said. “But there were three shorts in there. It’s all about decision-making. I’m going to really try to get my primary area out of mind and go fish a bunch of different things … maybe I can figure something out.”
So, too, will the 13 other anglers who survived Thursday’s cut. They include, second, California’s Matty Wong, 23-4; third, Wisconsin’s Jim Barczak, 22-3; fourth, Arkansas’ Chris Johnson, 21-14; fifth, Kansas’ Ray Cates, 21-12; sixth, Rhode Island’s Mike Wolfenden, 20-8; seventh, Oklahoma’s Jared Miller, 20-3; eighth, Utah’s Ben Byrd, 18-14; ninth, Arizona’s Zack Holwerda, 18-6; 10th, South Africa’s Justin Karan, 18-5; 11th, Wisconsin’s Dustin Drath, 17-15; 12th, Washington’s Taylor Smith, 17-7; 13th, Pennsylvania’s Aaron Green, 16-2; and 14th, Minnesota’s Richard Lindgren, 14-13.
The Top 10 boaters made Friday’s final cut. In addition, Cates advanced by winning the nonboater division and Drath by having a nonboater weight that ranked among the Top 10 boater weights. The Top 2 anglers from each of the five Nation regions (and not in the Top 10 overall) also advanced — Green from the Northeastern Region and Lindgren from the Northern Region.
Wong briefly held the overall lead on Day 2 after catching limits of 12-2 on Wednesday and 11-2 on Thursday.
“It was nice to go into today with the bag I had because it helped me keep an open mind and keep the pressure off,” he said.
Wong said he’s dreamed of reaching the Classic since he was a boy growing up in Hawaii.
“I’m speechless just knowing it’s within reach,” he said. “But I’m not going to think about it. I just have to go fish my brains out.”
Barczak said he’s slow rolling a white/chartreuse spinnerbait around cypress laydowns to catch his best bass. He’s fished near other top competitors on both days of the tournament, but none close enough to compete for bites.
“I’ll spend all day there again tomorrow and hopefully I’ll be alone,” he said.
This week’s winner will collect a $20,000 Nation’s Best first prize presented by Nitro/Mercury. The champ also will earn a spot in the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2022, including the use of a fully-rigged Nation’s Best tournament boat for the season. If he declines the invite to the Elites, he’ll instead have all entry fees paid into each of the 2022 Bassmaster Opens. The second- and third-place anglers also will have their entry fees paid into the Opens in all divisions.
Cates was awarded the Louis “Pee Wee” Powers Memorial Trophy that goes to the top nonboater. He also collected $10,000 courtesy of Nitro/Mercury for finishing atop the co-angler division and another $500 for having the big bass in the nonboater division (4-15).
“I’m going to stay on the main river tomorrow and try to find some fish,” the 59-year-old Overland Park, Kansas, resident said. “It’s a challenge fishing from the back of the boat, especially behind these really good fishermen. I’m looking forward to having some clean water in front of me.”
Drath won $7,500 for placing second among nonboaters. Rounding out the Top 5 in the division are third, Jake Morrison of Scottsdale, Ariz., 15-14; fourth, Joe Sodora of Garfield, N.J., 13-11; and fifth, Mark Pierce of Kadiz, Ky., 11-4. The Top 12 nonboaters split $31,500 of the total prize money.
The third and final day of the event will begin Friday with a 7:15 a.m. CT takeoff from Forsythe Park. Weigh-in will be held back at the park at 3:15 p.m.
The championship tournament is being hosted by the Monroe-West Monroe Convention and Visitors Bureau.