LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For the second time of the Bassmaster Elite Series season, bass fishing legend Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Mo., took the lead on the first day.
And on what was arguably the toughest first day of any event in the 2011 Elite season, Brauer’s 14 pounds, 10 ounces of Arkansas River bass was just enough to command the top spot in the Diamond Drive on Thursday. He was 2 ounces ahead of Ish Monroe of Hughson, Calif., in second place with 14-8, and more than a pound in front of Keith Poche of Troy, Ala., third with 13-8.
In fourth place was the only pro from Arkansas to slip into the top five. Billy McCaghren of Mayflower brought in 13-3, managing 3 ounces more than Shaw Grigsby, who won the season opener on the Harris Chain of Lakes in his home state of Florida. In sixth was Michigan’s Kevin VanDam, who had 12-12.
Brauer, a 16-time Bassmaster event winner, was understandably closed-mouthed about his successful day.
“Come Day Four, I’d be happy to share that information — if I’m here on Day Four,” he said.
Brauer was making the point that the river was fishing so tough that even the first-day leader had no guarantees of following his own act. Of the 99 pros — the best bass anglers in the world — only 28 brought limits to the scales Thursday. Six pros came up empty-handed.
“I got fortunate today,” Brauer said. “What will happen tomorrow, I don’t know.”
He recounted a practice that began with few fish and was filled with a comedy of errors.
“I only caught one keeper, got stuck five times, and had to be towed off twice, and hit a rock jetty. But I regrouped mentally and went out the second day and found a few fish.”
Those were the fish he caught and brought in Thursday, he said.
Brauer said he fished three different pools of the Arkansas River, which meant he spent the time to lock through twice. He said he was having to adapt to the rapidly fluctuating water levels of the river, and had a few ideas of new strategies to try.
“I really don’t have a clue if I can catch another one,” he said. “This is a better fishery than we sometimes give it credit for."
Monroe said he “just went fishing” Thursday. That approach is part of his newly adopted attitude to have fun when he’s competing.
“I started having fun and I started making cuts,” said Monroe, who broke a dry spell with a top-12 cut just last month on Georgia’s West Point Lake, and who won Berkley Big Bass of the Tournament in April on Toledo Bend with a 10-15 lunker.
He said he is keying in on “little tiny things” — subtle differences that other Elite pros fishing near him are not. The river’s fluctuating water levels are helping him, he said, and he’s minimizing downtime by electing to lock through just one lock.
“It’s too hard to catch them in four hours on a fishery that’s not that strong,” he said.
Of the leaders in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, VanDam in sixth place fared the best after one day on the Arkansas. Alton Jones and Terry Scroggins, VanDam’s fiercest AOY competitors, stumbled on Thursday: Jones was 58th with four fish that went 5-3; Scroggins, the current AOY leader, was in 71st place with two fish that weighed 3-13.
Points are not awarded until the end of the tournament, a fact not lost on Scroggins, who fished near VanDam on Thursday.
“Tomorrow, I think I’ll lock down just one pool and that will give me six hours to fish instead of just three and a half,” Scroggins said. “Today I swung for the fences. With the position I’m in, I had to gamble. Here, there’s so many things that can go wrong, and for anyone.”