LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The first two days of the Bassmaster Legends presented by Goodyear were about as difficult as they come for the anglers competing here on the Arkansas River.
Since this tournament began on Thursday morning, soaring water temperatures, bluebird skies and a non-existent current have been the norm. That combination created a slow bite for many of the world's best anglers as they struggled to catch keepers, much less limits.
Twelve of the Elite anglers clawed their way into Saturday's cut, however, and set off at 6:50 a.m. this morning from downtown Little Rock in search of lunkers and an early lead for the tournament title that will net $250,000 for the winner.
Gerald Swindle led the anglers into the weekend as he managed to catch a two-day total of 21 pounds, 12 ounces. But the 2-pound plus cushion the Alabama pro put between himself and the field was erased as each of the remaining 12 anglers had their weights zeroed to begin Saturday's action. After several of them made lengthy runs to areas far-flung from the launch, the pros now will focus their attention on a six-hole course established on the river between Burns Park upriver and the Interstate 440 bridge downriver.
The pros selected their starting holes in order based on their standings in the Angler of the Year race. They each have to fish 70 minutes per hole and then will enjoy a "happy hour" — an opportunity for them to cap their day in any area of the course they choose.
An intriguing group of anglers joined Swindle in the Elite 12. Among them are three Arkansas residents (Scott Rook, Mike McClelland and Kevin Short), an Arkansas native now living in Louisiana (Greg Hackney), two-time Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin VanDam, 2006 rookie of the year Steve Kennedy, three living legends in the sport (Gary Klein, Rick Clunn and Shaw Grigsby), the ever-competitive Dean Rojas and Missouri resident Brian Snowden, this tournament's leader after Day 1.
Short, who lives in Mayflower, Ark., said he's never had the chance to fish a "hole format" and is excited about the prospect. His knowledge of this section of the Arkansas River certainly didn't dim his enthusiasm, but he did admit to a few pre-fishing butterflies in the stomach.
"I'm a little bit nervous," he said. "You've only got 70 minutes in each hole and that's really not a lot of time in one little area to try and figure out what's going on. But the advantage that I have is I know what's in each of the little holes. I don't have to go looking. I've fished here so much, I have a pretty good idea of what's in there in terms of grass, rocks, wood."
Short is starting his day in Hole No. 5 which lies on the southern shore of the Arkansas River. He said he'd rather start elsewhere, but said regardless of where he begins, the key will be finding the keepers that have been so elusive this week.
"I feel really good about it," he said.
Hackney has fished a six-hole course before (most recently at the Bassmaster Memorial in Texas). Like Short, he's familiar with the Arkansas River, but mostly the areas farther downstream — outside of Saturday's fishing limits. With that in mind, Hackney plans on keeping all of his options open.
"I don't really know what to expect, so I'm going to leave it wide open," he said. "I was thinking every time I've always fished a tournament here, I've always ran away (to the southeast). I never chose to stay here. But I do know historically that this is probably the best of the three pools around here. I know that because of the guys that do well here. I feel when I used to run away from here, I didn't know as much about fishing as I do now. I've got 20 rods out and I'm just going to fish what comes by."
Hackney said bait selection will be the key to surviving the cut to six anglers Sunday.
"There's a lot of fish in the river," he said. "They're just hard to catch right now. You have to be dialed into them at the right time. You know, hole four may be fishing with one rod and hole five a totally different thing."
Grigsby's squeaked into the cut with a 12th place standing (11-15) Friday and also has fished six-hole events in the past.
"I love them," he said. "They force you to focus intensely. It actually is a better fishing situation. It forces you to move, to adjust minute by minute. And to me, that's the best challenge you can have fishing."
Grigsby has had success earlier in the week in this pool. He caught two keepers just outside of the course.
"I have an idea of what to do and how to find it," he said. "And I haven't run the course … but it's just a matter of winging it right now."
Kennedy, who is second in the Angler of the Year standings, had first choice of holes and opted for No. 3, which is downriver and on the north side of the course. With productive backwater areas, the hole is similar to what he fished earlier in the tournament.
"I'm looking for a morning bite back there," he said. "I fished in this pool … everyone thinks that's weird. So maybe (the similar conditions) will help me a little bit."
Swindle, who along with Rook will start in Hole No. 1, said he'll continue to focus Saturday on what he thinks is going to produce the biggest fish.
"I'm sticking with the backwater grass a little bit off the main lake," he said. "I fish grass from one to three feet. I fish grass clumps around the thin stuff and I'll shake the lure. Hole one had the most of that stuff."
Swindle also offered a prediction.
"The winner of this tournament is going to catch a 4-pounder on a buzzbait," he said. "You can go ahead and write that down right now. It's going to happen."
Swindle also said he caught two keepers Friday throwing (what else?), a buzzbait.
Weigh-in is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. CST at the Statehouse Convention Center.