MANNING, S.C. — By the time Preston Clark weighed in Thursday during the first round of the Santee Cooper Showdown presented by MotorGuide, three anglers had already weighed in sacks that were heavier than 30 pounds.
Then Clark crossed the stage and blew those numbers out the water.
Clark, who lives in Palatka, Fla., landed a monster bag of bass that sent the scales soaring to 39 pounds, six ounces. His catch was the third highest one-day total in BASS history and easily the biggest five-fish limit he's landed in his professional career.
"It was an awesome day today," Clark said. "It was like magic."
Clark honed his sight-fishing skills in central Florida and, like most anglers competing here on the third stop of the Bassmaster Elite Series, relied on sight fishing to land lunkers on Santee Cooper Reservoir. The combination of warm temperatures, clear water and spawning bass helped five anglers top the 30-pound mark Thursday — a 180-degree turnaround from several difficult practices slowed by a recent cold snap.
Texas pro Alton Jones is in second place with a 35-pound, six-ounce limit. Terry Scroggins, who like Clark is from Palatka, is third with 33-6. Oklahoma's Bradley Hallman is fourth with 32-5 and Texas' Kelly Jordan, who won the last BASS event held here in 2004, is fifth with 31-15.
In most tournaments, the numbers that quartet put up would be the talk of the day. But Clark's huge catch stole the spotlight. He said he worked a five or six mile area, often using a push pole to maneuver his boat near beds so his boat motor wouldn't disturb the bass. He said the areas he fished, combined with his stealthy movements, aided his cause.
"I think sneaking up on them a little, it helped," Clark said. "When I spotted a fish, I would back up and could barely see the bed. Then I would cast to it from a long distance."
Clark started his day by targeting two bass he spotted in practice and his first two casts produced 18 pounds of fish. But Clark didn't stop there. He said he had 25 pounds by 8 a.m. and passed up as many as 200 fish he felt he could have boated.
"It's hard when you go by a seven-pounder and say 'That one won't help.' I was passing those up because I needed the 'big' fish."
Clark was pleased enough with his bag that he arrived at the dock almost an hour before his scheduled arrival time.
"I wanted to make sure I was here and everything was fine (with his boat and his bass)," he said.
Jones landed the big bass of the day — a 10-pound, 1-ounce giant he found during Wednesday's practice. He said he was working on another 10-pounder before heading in Thursday.
"The females have come up and they're real hard to catch, they're spooky," Jones said. "I've got a bait I've got a lot of confidence in. I've got baits I catch the males on. They're not too hard, those two to four pound males. But catching the ladies is really important. You've got to catch those females and fortunately, I've got a bait that's working."
Scroggins, an avid sight fisherman, said he located as many as 20 quality bass during Wednesday's practice. But while moving around during the tournament's first day, he spotted new ones.
"A lot of the fish I caught today, I found today," Scroggins said. "These fish are starting to move up good and I just think it's going to get better as the tournament progresses."
Clark feels the bags will be heavy again Friday, but realizes flirting with a 40-pound limit is unique. He has a game plan, however, that could bring him close to that magic number again if things go his way.
"I've got one I looked at in the last half hour or so, it's got to eight or nine pounds," Clark said. "That's going to be my starting fish … I think I can do 25 to 30 pounds tomorrow. I think that's achievable. But 40-pound bags don't come around too often."