PALATKA, Fla. — With few anglers catching the five-fish limit Thursday on the stingy St. Johns River, Chris Daniels of Panama City, Fla., claimed the first-day lead as the Bassmaster tournament season kicked off the first Bassmaster Southern Open.
Daniels brought in a haul of 25 pounds, 9 ounces — topping his closest competitors by more than 8 pounds.
"Today it started out great, I got to my first spot, there was nobody there," said Daniels, who has fished these waters just twice before. "I had a limit before everybody stopped going by me. It happened pretty quick this morning."
Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala., was in second place with 17 pounds, 3 ounces, and Jonathan VanDam, the nephew of Bassmaster Elite Series pro and three-time Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam, was in third with 16 pounds, 2 ounces.
Elite pro Preston Clark, of Palatka, Fla., was in fourth with 16 pounds, 1 ounce, and Jacksonville's Peter Thliveros, also an Elite pro, rounded out the top five with 15 pounds, 10 ounces.
Daniels, 26, was one of the few competitors who didn't sight-fish Thursday. "I'm deep, I'm not shallow. I'm not looking at them, I'm catching staging fish."
Daniels came in two hours early because of motor problems that he didn't want to interfere with his arriving at the weigh-in on time.
Weather played a role as the pros and their co-anglers adjusted to the windy but warmer conditions — Thursday afternoon's temperature at weigh-in was 84 — after three days of temperatures in the 40s during practice and a wind chill that scattered the bass.
Using a homemade jig and a Gambler cricket, Pugh relied on sight-fishing for what he knew was going to be a tough day. He said he was surprised to be one of just a few boats Thursday morning to try Salt Springs.
"I had some fish located," Pugh said, "and I figured if it clears off the locals are going to go in there and really clear them out, so I thought I'd try it the first day and see what happens."
Clark, fishing his hometown waters, echoed Pugh's thought that if the field had been fishing in sunshine all day, more anglers would have come in with a big bag.
"Some of the best sight-fisherman we have in the tournament, they struggled today," Clark said. "Tomorrow might be a different story. If the weather's right — and we're getting closer to a full moon — the more fish are going to want to come to the shore."
"Tomorrow's a key day, if they're not going to come up tomorrow, they're not going to come up."
Clark fished everywhere from 3 feet to 15 feet and had his limits by casting to shell bars. Daniels, who had the Purolator Big Bass of the day with a 9 pound, 4 ounce lunker, said he fished 6 to 15 feet.
Fred Hood of Georgia leads the co-anglers after Day 1 with 12 pounds, 7 ounces.
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Russ Lane was cited for a violation of Bassmaster Opens Rule 6iii for speeding, and his first-day weight was disqualified.
The top 30 anglers after Day 2 will advance to Saturday's final round of fishing.
Live, streaming footage of the weigh-ins will be available on http://www.ESPNOutdoors.com. Real-time leaderboards can be accessed on the site. Game stories and standings can be found online after the completion of weigh-in each day.