TAVARES, Fla. -- Within one charged hour of fishing Thursday, Randy Howell fought an alligator to retrieve a pricey lure, and lost out on a 6-pound-plus fish that he said probably weighed more than the gator.
He told the story while he waited to weigh the five bass he was able to bring in (10-10 for 56th place after one day):
"I was fishing for a 6-pounder on a bed. After about an hour of fishing, behind a pontoon boat with my Power-Poles down, I was kind of blind-casting to the bed, couldn't see anything. I felt a thump, and the line started moving, and I set the hook.
"It was about a 3 1/2-foot alligator, and it had my bait in its mouth, and it was a $40 bait. I couldn't lose it, so I kept playing it. I remembered seeing on Swamp People how to grab a gator, so I did it — and got the bait out of its mouth and let it go.
"About 30 minutes after that, I got that fish to bite. I missed it a couple times, and when I did hook it, I foul-hooked it, so I had to throw it back. It probably weighed 6 1/2 pounds, so that was disappointing."
In a Bassmaster tournament, a fish must be hooked inside the mouth to be counted as a legal catch.
"But I rebounded and caught enough to keep me in the hunt for tomorrow," he said.
Solid foundation: "Fifteen pounds ain't the lead, but it's something to build on." - Jason Williamson, 8th with 15-1
Rattled: "This 'Chain' gives me heck every time we come here." - Paul Elias, 95th with 3-5
No room for error: "Every bite that I had, I caught. That's what you've got to do here. And that's hard to do, as thick as the cover is." — Kevin VanDam, tied at 4th with 17-9
Slow Lane: Plagued by engine trouble Thursday, Bobby Lane had to abandon his sight-fishing game plan. The result was a small bag: 6-1 for 87th place. It was not the first-day performance tournament watchers predicted for the Florida largemouth expert.
"I was boat No. 7 going out, and I was really excited about that," said Lane, whose plan required an early start.
Service crews got him going again. Water in his fuel caused his engine to sputter and cough and the boat wouldn't get on plane. Lane said he suspects the problem stemmed from the long, hard runs on the Louisiana Delta during last month's Bassmaster Classic.
He got back out, but with only one of his two gas tanks operating, which cut his range. Just as critical, he lost almost 90 minutes of fishing time.
"My salvage stuff didn't really do anything — I caught only three little fish. Maybe Friday I can shape it up a little bit," he said.
Cryptic conversations: Fred Roumbanis was in a few minutes early Thursday, nursing what appeared to be a decent-sized bag (and what turned out to be 14-3 for 15th place). He was the first to the tanks, plenty of time for a quick Q&A:
Why are you back so early?
I had one of my fish hooked a little funny but it turns out he was all right.
Got a 5-pounder in there?
Where were you fishing?
The magic canal.
Magic because everyone else was there?
I saw some but couldn't catch them.
What kind of weight you got?
I don't know -- hopefully 14 pounds or so.
That could be on track for the winning weight.
I know, right? I got a late number (for) tomorrow, I'll just take my time, try to catch a few good ones. The last 30 minutes in the day were the best anyway.
He's the Otter: Ott DeFoe's real first name is Arthur, but he's been called Ott since he was a kid. It's a hand-me-down nickname once owned by a relative. Playing on the name, the rookie from Tennessee adopted a logo just in time for his first Elite event.
Designed by his agent, J.D. Blackburn, the logo incorporates a cartoon-like otter lounging against billowy letters forming his first and last names. The logo appears on the gunnels of his Elite boat wrap.
Centered: Scott Ashmore's new rig for 2011 is a slick center-console design.
It's a new Gambler model named Sterling, and Ashmore says he is the only person who has one. He got to be the first to because 1) he's an Elite pro and 2) he's also the national sales manager for the boat maker.
"It's such a balanced boat, very comfortable, you can see all your buttons and switches and GPS. You can walk all around while you're fishing, fight a fish all around it. It's a new tool for my work out here. I've never had a center console boat before, and I'll never go back," he said.
Ashmore and Rick Clunn are the only two Elite pros to embrace the center console. The two consoles look very different from each other. The one on Clunn's Nitro sits almost upright, while the console on Ashmore's Gambler sports a lower profile.
Consistency will win it: If anyone knows the meaning of the word consistent, it's Kevin VanDam, six-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year and, as of last month's Bassmaster Classic, a four-time world champ.
VanDam said that one day of heroics would not take the win on the Harris Chain of Lakes this week. He had just weighed in 17-9 to tie at 4th.
"The key here is consistency," he said. "If you can catch them every single day, that's how you win. That's how Mike McClelland won here before, he didn't have any jammer days, he didn't have a huge day, he just was solid every single day. That's what it's going to take."