DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — A $100,000 game of musical chairs has unfolded after Day One of the Bassmaster Elite Series Douglas Lake Challenge. Don't get caught without a school of bass under you when the music stops and the fish start biting.
"Everybody is playing musical chairs out there," said Britt Myers, who is tied for third with a five-bass-limit weighing 21 pounds, 1 ounce. "It's a grind."
Andy Montgomery hardly sounded like a contender with his 21-1 that tied Myers' total.
"I struggled," said the Blacksburg, S.C., angler. "I really, really struggled. I finally found a school that saved the day. I just kept confidence that if I kept rotating and rotating I could catch them.
"I've got about 12 schools. I just kept rotating and rotating and finally hit on them at the right time."
Timing – that's the word that was repeated over and over by the anglers at the top of the leaderboard Thursday.
"It's all about timing, and my timing was right one time today," Montgomery said. "The rest of the day, it was pretty bad."
Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., is leading the tournament with 23-14. Martens has struggled through the first three events of the Elite Series this season, but his timing was perfect Thursday. It helped that Douglas Lake is known for its deep-water bite, which is right in Martens' wheelhouse.
"Aaron is the best there is with the electronics," said Randy Howell of Springville, Ala., who is in a three-way tie for 12th with 16-1. "He's running and gunning lots of schools all day. It's just about getting one to bite when you get there."
Martens said he caught a five-pounder on his second cast of the day and a four-pounder on his third cast. And he also said that for the first time in seven or eight years he pre-fished here, coming to Douglas twice before it was off-limits to look over the lake when it was about 50 feet lower than it is now.
"I can't believe how much it helped me," Martens said. "I knew this would be the lake where it would help because it's all graph-related. That's my strength."
It's not Howell's strength, but he knew this tournament wouldn't be won by fishing shallow.
"I'm video-gaming them," Howell said. "I'm watching them (on sonar) down there. I'm around so many big fish that are under my boat."
But being around them is one thing. Getting them to bite is another. Matt Reed of Madisonville, Texas, is second with 21-14. He admitted that he panicked early Thursday morning, after he couldn't get a bite deep. So he moved shallow, then realized he had to stay out deep to be in contention. However, nothing is guaranteed in the offshore bite.
"I'm seeing tons of fish," Reed said, "but rarely do you get them to bite. If you don't get bit in the first 15 or 20 minutes, you might as well pack up and go look for another school. You might come back later and they'll bite."
But you might come back later and find another angler fishing over that school of bass.
"It's hard to find a place to park," Reed said. "There's a limited number of places where it's going on, and there's quite a few guys doing it. The guys with the big sacks are doing the same thing. You just run until you find some place you can get on where you know (the bass) are.
"The spot where I caught most of them, I was at least the second guy there."
Hence, the high-stakes games of musical chairs.
Ott DeFoe of Knoxville, Tenn., is one of the local favorites here. He's fished Douglas Lake many times. When asked if it fished differently than any other place he'd been, DeFoe replied, "Different than any place I've ever been in the world."
Why is that?
"Fishing pressure," DeFoe said. "Everybody around here knows these fish are out deep, and everybody fishes that way. I've always said these are the smartest deep-water fish I've ever seen.
"Every place (on the lake) is kind of different. It's all about timing. But I don't know all the secrets."
And it's no secret that one of the leaders on Day One could fall flat on his face on Day Two.
"These fish are weird," Reed said. "They don't want to bite, they just don't. There are some huge schools of fish, but they don't want to bite. The first bite is the deal, then you've got to turn that into two or three or four.
"But you just don't know if it's going to happen. You could zero."
And you'll have no place to sit when the music stops.