DECATUR, Ala. — Sacking 18 pounds, 6 ounces, of Wheeler Lake bass, Bassmaster Elite Series rookie phenom Ott DeFoe of Knoxville, Tenn., took the first-day lead at the Dixie Duel, the June 16-19 regular-season finale. He led fellow Tennessean David Walker by just 4 ounces.
DeFoe, who leads the Bassmaster Rookie of the Year race, also raised the stakes Thursday in the overall points race to the postseason. If DeFoe can finish the Dixie Duel even close to how he started, he could find himself inside the Top 8 cut for the July Toyota Trucks All-Star Week.
“It’s game-on now,” the 25-year-old pro said. “I want to make that postseason.”
And, while two anglers more seasoned than DeFoe battled Thursday for points to capture the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year crown, the rookie put himself in contention not only for the postseason, but for the Dixie Duel trophy and its $100,000 prize. He’d also win an instant Bassmaster Classic qualification — a prize DeFoe already has enough points to claim.
DeFoe has serious challengers for the points and the Duel’s top prizes: Walker of Sevierville, Tenn., was second Thursday with 18-2. Only 1 ounce behind Walker was Chad Griffin of Cresson, Texas, third with 18-1. Paul Elias of Laurel, Miss., pinned down fourth place with 17-5, and Russ Lane of Prattville, Ala., weighed 16-6 for fifth place.
DeFoe started his day with at least one thing most others in the Elite field did not: private water, a shallow area. He said his morning bite geared up slowly, and his first fish was a small keeper — so small, it turned out later to be the one he culled in exchange for a 4-pounder.
He changed locations once, he said, and built up his bag over the day, still without having to share with anyone else.
“Both places I fished today were all mine,” he said, adding he’d found them during a previous event on Wheeler Lake. He said he has confidence the area will produce for him again Friday, especially because he intentionally laid off it early Thursday.
“And then I got dumb-lucky, too, and stopped on the way in, and caught a 3 1/2-pounder. That didn’t hurt,” DeFoe said.
Walker, after ending in 98th place at last week’s Bassmaster Elite Series event in Arkansas, showed the field on Thursday what a 180-degree recovery looks like. His first-day weight alone could prove to be what pushes Walker back above the final cutline for the 2012 Bassmaster Classic, a standing he lost after his Arkansas River bomb.
Unlike DeFoe, Walker’s sharing water.
“Wheeler Lake has a lot of ledges, but is famous for having a few really good ledges,” Walker said. “It’s not a surprise (to have to share). Everybody knows exactly what to look for, and with the Elite Series, the lake ends up fishing small. To find something nobody knows about? That’s an anomaly here.”
He said he caught a 4-11, his largest bass, on his first cast. That was the sign he needed that the day would go his way, he said.
“To me, it (the catch) was quite a relief,” Walker said. “To finish here in the Top 20 like I need to, I knew I had to catch a limit and get one big fish. When I got it on the first cast, the pressure was gone and I knew then that I had the hard part over with.”
Walker has appeared in six Bassmaster Classics, but not since 2006. Now 46, he was a successful FLW Tour pro for years, but dropped that circuit after 2010 to fish the Bassmaster Elite Series and have a chance at the Classic title once again. At 46th in points, Walker needs to move up about 10 ticks. Thanks to double-qualifiers, the cutline now hovers around 36th-37th place.
Griffin said he had a limit soon after 8 a.m. and was culling up by 8:15. He had mirror anchor fish, each 3-15.
“By 10 o’clock, I was wrapped up and done,” he said. “I went and sat under a dock and tried to take care of my fish.”
Griffin said he’s not sharing water, and that the spot is likely to replenish enough to do him good on Friday. He said he’s dragging a 6 1/2-inch Hag’s Tornado ringworm on a 3/4-ounce shakey head jig with a 5/0 hook, a jig by Ezee Jigs.
Griffin checked in a hour early because he was concerned about fish care. He knew he’d incur one 8-ounce penalty for the one he lost.
“After the practice I had, I knew 18 pounds was pretty good and I didn’t want to lose any more,” he said.
Edwin Evers of Talala, Okla., and Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., left as the only two contenders for the 2011 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year crown, fished Thursday for points. VanDam ended the day well ahead: eighth place to Evers’ 43rd.
“I covered a lot of ground. It’s not easy out there at all,” VanDam said.
VanDam has only to stay even with Evers to snap up the 2011 crown, which would be VanDam’s fourth consecutive and seventh of his career. But for Evers, just being on pace with VanDam wouldn’t help. Evers has to make up the 55 AOY points VanDam has on him — and, of course, add at least one more to tip the total his way — to win his first AOY title.
Both Evers and VanDam will compete Friday. The outcome after two days could decide the AOY crown.
“Anything can happen tomorrow,” VanDam said. “It’s a long ways from over.”
The largest bass weighed on Thursday was a 6-1 by Marty Robinson of Lyman, S.C. At tournament’s end, the best single fish over four days will win a Berkley Big Bass of Tournament bonus of $500. The big fish might prove to be the bass that helped Robinson earn enough points to get into the 2012 Bassmaster Classic, his first qualification.
The Dixie Duel taking place on Wheeler Lake out of Ingalls Harbor in Decatur, Ala., will be a designated drop-off point on Saturday, June 18, and Sunday, June 19, for donations to Tackle the Storm. Any type of usable tackle will collected by the Decatur Convention and Visitors Bureau and distributed to children affected by the April 27 tornadoes that devastated many areas of Alabama.