BUFFALO — He didn't catch the biggest bag of day — that distinction went to Paul Hirosky's 21 pounds, 11 ounce limit — but Darrin Schwenkbeck on Thursday managed to survive perhaps the most harrowing outing on an unforgiving Lake Erie. And on the first day of the Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors, that was really saying something.
Schwenkbeck started by making a long run north across the whitecaps of wind-whipped Erie, rolling without incident until he speared a tall wave and cracked his hull, dislodged his gas tank and broke a fuel fitting. The motor choked, and the smell of gasoline invaded the boat.
But at least he had left prepared, because it was no secret Erie was going to be a dune buggy ride. He called a marine service center in Ontario called Mohawk Marine (Schwenkbeck would like to send a shout-out to Mike and Sue), and got a tow to the shop. About four hours later, he and his co-angler dashed out to drift six times along a 150-yard stretch where Schwenkbeck bagged 15-7 on five fish. Then the men raced two hours back to the weigh-in, with their boat a mess.
"I left a lot of big fish up there," Schwenkbeck said. "I'm lucky to have a fish. One fish."
But that was the story on Day One: Big waves, big scares, but big bags nonetheless for the anglers of the Bassmaster Elite Series. Nine anglers finished the day within 2 pounds of Hirosky's total, including Matt Reed (2nd, 21-6), Kevin Langill (3rd, 21-5), Greg Hackney (4th, 21-2) and Kevin Wirth (5th, 21-0) all with at least 21 pounds. The 50-angler cut weight stands at Schwenkbeck's 15-7, right about where anglers said Wednesday they expected it to land.
Some loved the intensity of the day. Rick Morris, for one, sounded like a kid who had been given his first skateboard when he described his day scaling 12-foot waves. Reed fished until about 9:30 for his limit, then "coasted my rear end home," he said. In between, he was yanking frenetic smallmouth out of the tops of huge waves. "They'd jump out of the top of the lake," he said, "and go over your head."
Hirosky, who fishes Erie frequently, acted as though the rough waters were just another day at the office. "They were just there, man," he said. "It was grind it out, all day long." He got his sack by dragging on rocky areas along flats and break lines.
Said Langill: "I was out there in the great blue sea." He also had to drift past rock piles and reefs that he had found in practice, using his trolling motor to snag a dozen keepers off of 20 different spots.
Other anglers questioned strongly whether BASS should even hold events on such a punishing lake as Erie. After Lee Bailey, one of the first to weigh fish, told the crowd quite sincerely that "everybody needs to say a private prayer for the guys who are still out there," he described his day. It took him five hours to return to the marina, with his bilge pumps overburdened and him fearing once that his boat would sink.
"We should never have been sent out today," Bailey said. "This tournament is going to cost some people the Classic, the cut for the Major, and some of them, their career.
"What's the big deal if we sit on the dock for a day? There's no other outdoor sport in the world that puts their athletes through what we went through today. I drove that boat for five hours and I can barely stand up."
About an hour later, Jeff Kriet echoed his concerns. "I don't think we should ever compete in a body of water where you can't go out in the wind," he said. "It's too dangerous in 8-foot swells — it's all cool until somebody drowns. I don't like it. I stayed scared to death out there."
Anglers accustomed to this, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, said that some competitors were perhaps lured into a false sense of safety by the unusually placid waters they enjoyed during practice earlier in the week.
To Rick Clunn, the fact that the field caught them as well as they did on a blustery, damp, hazy day such as Thursday is evidence of the Elite Series' anglers skill and their fortitude.
"There's no lake in the country that would be half as bad as this lake, on its worst day," Clunn said. "If nothing else, I hope this (day) puts an end to day cancellations (in other tournaments)."
BASS' back-up plan for this tournament, if the wind is too dangerous, is to have anglers fish the Niagara River, a scenario they find highly unattractive because of a lack of good fish there, they said. Erie may be a gauntlet, but as Gary Klein told the approving audience, "This is truly probably the greatest smallmouth fishery in the world."