HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — How tough was the bass fishing Thursday on Old Hickory Lake? Kevin VanDam, the hottest angler on the Elite Series tour is in 63rd place, and even leader Kevin Wirth isn't comfortable.
Wirth, the former jockey from Crestwood, Ky., caught a five-bass limit weighing 17 pounds, 2 ounces to top the leaderboard on Day One of the Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn.
"I like what I'm doing, but I've never had to catch them here at the depth I'm catching them at," Wirth said. "I'm not comfortable with it. I don't know how many I can catch a day.
"I might have caught all I can catch."
But on a day that featured a lot more lows than highs, Wirth had plenty to be happy about. At 2 p.m., his limit included one largemouth bass barely over the 14-inch minimum length limit when he caught the Purolator Big Bass of the day, a 6-4 largemouth.
Even with another hour of fishing time, Wirth didn't care to push his luck. After culling the 14-incher and replacing it with the 6-pounder, he pulled up the trolling motor and headed to the Sanders Ferry Park weigh-in site.
"I'm real happy with how the day went," said Wirth, who rode in the 1981 Kentucky Derby. "I got fortunate."
Four-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Marty Stone has been riding a long stretch of bad luck. But his fortunes turned Thursday with a second-place bag of 16-5.
And defending Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Skeet Reese saw his luck change as well.
Reese thought he'd eliminated himself from defending the TTBAOY title with a 29th-place finish at Kentucky Lake two weeks ago. But he got right back in the hunt with his third-place total of 15-9 Thursday.
Like most everyone else, Reese felt his chances were blowing in the breeze on Old Hickory Lake for most of the day.
"That was unbelievable," he said. "I had two little knot-heads at 12:30. I was not a happy camper for a long time today.
"The biggest fish I caught came in the last 20 minutes. I'm just grinding."
For most of the rest of the field, it was a long day. Even VanDam, who has finished second and first in the last two Elite Series tournaments, struggled with a limit weighing only 7-5. Based on the standings from Thursday, which aren't official until Sunday's finale, VanDam also gave up his lead in TTBAOY points with that 63rd-place ranking.
Todd Faircloth, who was 65 points behind VanDam coming into this event, would have a 20-point lead based on his 22nd-place total of 11-3.
The whole Angler of the Year race would tighten considerably if Thursday's rankings held through the weekend. Reese would be only nine points behind VanDam, after entering the tournament 145 points back.
And Mike McClelland would be only 45 points away from the lead after beginning the tournament fourth in TTBAOY points, 94 behind VanDam. The Bella Vista, Ark., angler caught an 11-pound limit Thursday, which put him in 26th place in the Tennessee Triumph.
There are only two events left after this week in the 11-tournament Elite Series schedule. The Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year title carries a $250,000 paycheck for the winner this year.
"This is one of those tournaments where you felt like you really needed to just tread water (in the TTBAOY race)," McClelland said. "Anybody in the field can go out and zero here."
Ish Monroe did just that Thursday. He wasn't able to catch a single bass that met the 14-inch minimum length limit for largemouths, the 12-inch minimum for spotted bass or the 18-inch minimum for smallmouths.
Former Bassmaster Classic champion Ken Cook just barely beat Monroe, weighing in only a 14-ounce spotted bass.
There were plenty of other hard luck stories. The Elite Series pros predicted this was going to be an extremely tough tournament. There is an abundance of bass in Old Hickory's 22,700 acres — several anglers reported catching over 100 fish Thursday — but the keeper-size bass are hard to come by.
Only 60 of the 106 pros caught limits on Day One. And Mark Tyler's two fish weighing 7-4 were only one ounce shy of VanDam's five-bass limit.
As it stands now, the cut weight for Friday, when only the top 50 qualify to fish Saturday, is 17-10. Ben Matsubu weighed only three bass, but his total weight of 8-13 was enough to put him in the 50th spot.
No one is confident of being able to repeat a good performance again Friday.
Greg Hackney, who is in 17th place with 11-13, had to laugh when he saw the media gathering around him after taking the early lead during Thursday's weigh-in.
"I've been interviewed before after catching one fish that weighed 11-13, but never after catching five fish that weighed that much," Hackney said.
On his chances for Friday, Hackney said, "I'm just fishing on a prayer right now."
And that's also a source of hope for VanDam and every other angler who needs to make up ground on Day Two.
"It's hard to be consistent out here," said VanDam, the three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year. "It was just a struggle out there for me today.
"You watch. In the end 12 pounds a day will win this thing. Guys that did it today won't do it tomorrow."