MONETA, Va. — Ish Monroe was sure that someone would figure out how to catch fish on Smith Mountain Lake. He just didn't figure he'd be among them.
On the first day of the Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts, 2007 Bassmaster Classic champion Boyd Duckett sacked 19 pounds, 5 ounces to take an appreciable lead over rookie Bryan Hudgins (2nd, 16-6), who himself took the lead from Monroe (3rd, 16-3), who stole it from Rick Clunn (4th, 15-11).
While most anglers were predicting an average weight of 13 pounds would win this, the sixth event on the Bassmaster Elite Series tour, Monroe maintained Thursday morning that this limpid mountain lake would cough up 18 pounds a day for some intrepid angler.
"Any time the lake has the fish, somebody is going to figure out how to catch them," he said after weighing his limit.
Said Clunn: "I'm not just impressed with my catch. I'm impressed by all the 13-pound stringers."
Unsurprisingly, the lake also ate the lunch of many of the anglers. Only 74 of the 104 anglers who finished the day brought limits to the scales. Four of the others caught just a single keeper. After weighing 13-15, enough for eighth place, Timmy Horton said of Friday: "It's gonna be grueling."
The healthy, chubby smallmouth swirling around the 20,000-acre lake were in a variety of spawn stages, anglers said. Some caught fish in 30 feet of water, while others, such as Mark Menendez (9th, 13-13) caught them fishing "super duper duper duper shallow."
Finding fish was far easier than force-feeding them shaky head worms. "If you cast a thousand times," said Casey Ashley (49th, 11-1), "you might get one bite. If you're around them."
Temperatures Thursday topped out around 90 degrees, with sparse clouds and stingy wind. Duckett credited his success to having a late enough return time — 4:10 p.m., whereas the first flight returned at 2:50 — to take advantage of the increasing wind. Though Smith Mountain Lake is new to him, it reminds him of lakes he has fished in Tennessee.
He pitched a Berkley bait all day and "got some really big bites," he said, which incidentally is how he captured his Classic win in February. Since that tournament, he's been in a season-long funk in which he has yet to finish in the top 20 despite some productive days on the water. "I can't seem to finish it off," he said. "Maybe I can turn it around this week."
His day was so good, in fact, that he's going to stick with the pair of red-and-black Nikes he wore Thursday. Generally Duckett, being a bit of a sneaker dandy, changes kicks each day of a tournament. "It's nice to have a little lead," he said.
Hudgins briefly held the first lead he has enjoyed in an Elite Series event Thursday. He did it by racing around and targeting fish in 12 to 18 feet of water. "These deep water fish don't have any company," he said. "And I think boat traffic pushes them up to feed."
Asked how he was finding the particular deep points he was fishing, the rookie demurred: "You can tell it when you see it. I'll put it that way."
Other notables from Thursday: Morizo Shimizu (5th, 15-3), Virginia Beach native Rick Morris (6th, 15-1), Angler of the Year points leader Skeet Reese (t-17th, 13-1) and superhuman bass vacuum Kevin VanDam (9-15).
"This is a tough lake," said Preston Clark (38th, 11-14). "I'm sure there are a bunch of brush piles out here holding a lot of fish, if you know where they are.
"It's still anybody's tournament. Anybody's."