Bassmaster Elite Series pro Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala., dipped into his Smith Lake past to take the lead Thursday at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open, the second event of the Southern Open series. Years ago, before he cemented his fishing legacy as the 2004 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Swindle's career began on Smith Lake in an aluminum boat with his father, Tommy.
"I actually cut my teeth here on this lake," said Swindle, who is 35th in the Elite Series' Angler of the Year standings. "My dad and I would launch from this parking lot when I was a kid. I fished here for years until I had won enough money to quit my job and become a professional. The lake has changed a lot, but today I fished some of the areas I used to years ago."
Swindle said he has won most of his money on Smith doing what he did today, junk fishing.
"This lake keeps you guessing every day, it's never the same two days in a row," said Swindle, who qualified for the Bassmaster Elite Series Postseason last year. "Every subtlety out there changes the fish from day to day. You hear a lot of guys catching them one day but not the next. The key to winning is going to be to execute where I think fish will be Friday, not where they were today. You're always trying to call the next play."
Swindle relied on a few key bites he got in practice that clued him in to the most productive areas. His 14 pounds, 3 ounces, puts him in front of 20-year-old Justin Hamner of Birmingham, Ala. Hamner, a big fan of Swindle, worked through dozens of short bass – not of legal size – to boat five bass registering 12 pounds, 14 ounces.
"It takes all day to get five that measure," Hamner said. "It's an all-day grind. Right at the end of the day I culled one that was close length-wise. I'm pumped going in to Friday facing Gerald. I look up to him a lot. I don't know if I'll get any sleep tonight."
Hamner was targeting spotted bass Thursday but stumbled across a largemouth pattern as well that contributed to his mixed bag of spots and largemouth.
In third was Brian Morris of Cullman, Ala., with 12-1. One spot behind Morris in fourth was David Walker of Sevierville, Tenn., with 11-10. Fresh off a second-place performance on Alabama fishery Lake Guntersville last week, Elite pro Davy Hite of Ninety Six, S.C., was fifth with 11-8.
Two notables in the field were lurking close in the standings. Jonathon VanDam nephew of five-time Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year, was 16th with 9-1. In a tie for 17th was Pam Martin-Wells of Bainbridge, Ga., with 9-0. Martin-Wells qualified for the 2010 Bassmaster Classic via the now-defunct Women's Bassmaster Tour and is looking to get back to the Classic through the Open division.
In the co-angler division, Timothy Arnold of Cullman, Ala., primarily worked a swimbait to build a 6-8 total. Robert Hatfield of Morehead, Ky., posted 6-5 for second place while Brandon Woods of Blountsville, Ala., registered 5-15 for third.
Pros are competing for the first place prize of approximately $45,000 and co-anglers will be fishing for a Triton/Mercury rig valued at $34,000. The full field will compete Thursday and Friday. The top 30 in each division will advance to Saturday, the third and final day.
Fishing fans are invited to watch how it all comes down. Free and open to the public are the daily launches and weigh-ins at Smith Lake Dam, 640 Powerhouse Road, Jasper, AL 35504. Boats are scheduled to take off at 5:45 a.m. CT; weigh-ins will begin at 2 p.m. CT.