MANNING, SC — Preston Clark came in to the dock 45 minutes early Thursday, because he wanted to take no chances with the fish in his livewell.
"This was my best tournament day ever," Clark said. "I had a good year last year but there was never a day like this one. Today I whacked 'em."
Clark eventually weighed in 39 pounds 6 ounces.
"This was better than the first day of the Classic this year," Clark said, referring to the day he set a new CITGO Bassmaster Classic record for the heaviest fish with an 11 pound 10 ounce lunker.
As Clark sat on the bank waiting for his flight to weigh in, he was asked several times how much weight he had. He was hesitant in his answer.
"It's really hard to judge how much I've got because you just don't get many chances to see stringers this big."
"I passed up seven and eight pounders after I got my limit. I wanted to save them for tomorrow. If I caught another seven or eight today, I could only improve my weight by a pound (after culling a similar large fish). I think my smallest fish is seven pounds."
Clark's best day came after a not so great practice on the Santee Cooper Lakes.
"I just had a horrible practice. I only caught two fish in the first two days," he said. "But after watching the weather carefully, I consulted an old Bassmastermagazine. I keep them all. I referred to the issue that detailed Kelly Jordon's win here and realized that this tournament was setting up just like it did that year."
When Jordon won at Santee Cooper in 2004, the late March event was preceded by a cold front and followed by a warming trend. Many of the pros have seen similarities this week with some claiming the water temperature rose 10 degrees between Monday and Wednesday.
"It was 32 degrees here on Monday and Tuesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon it warmed up into the mid 70's and started warming the shallow water up."
Warming water on a lake that is ready for the spawn means the big fish will start heading to shallower water to bed.
"You could sit in the mouth of a pocket and watch five pounders coming in yesterday," said Clark. "Today I would go by beds that didn't have any fish on them. Then 15 or 20 minutes later I'd go back by them and there would be an eight and a four there."
While water temperature played a big role in today's fish activity, Clark also believes he found the right spot.
"I looked at a lot of places in practice and saw many areas that showed evidence of previous spawning activity. So I just made the assumption that when the fish came up, those were the places they would go. When I saw old spawning areas I had a hunch the fish would move right in there when things got right."
After starting in the eighth flight, Clark said he caught most of his fish before 9 a.m. Thursday. Friday he is in the third flight and has a plan for how to start the second day of competition.
"I've got a big one to go to right off the bat in the morning," he said.
Whether his lead holds up or not, Clark knows his memory of his experience today will not fade any time soon.
"I've been fishing tournaments since I was s15 years old," he said. "I've had some incredible stringers, but this has been the best fishing day of my life. I just wish my dad could have been here to see it."