BIRMINGHAM — It's only fitting that with severe thunderstorm warnings and the possibility of tornadoes moving through Alabama late Saturday, two-time Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin Van Dam would storm to the front of the field as he seeks his third title.
Considered by many as the best angler on the tour and a threat on any lake, Van Dam slammed a five-fish limit weighing 19 pounds, 14 ounces on the scales Saturday to take the lead with 32-15.
"I've been targeting largemouths the whole time," he said. "I got a couple of bites today that told me what I needed to be doing."
The top 25 from the field of 50 will compete today for $500,000 and the most prestigious title in the sport. Weather reports Saturday called for increasingly bad conditions Saturday night and possibly this morning. Anglers reported winds kicking up from the south all day, creating problems with navigation and time management.
"It got pretty rough out there because the wind was coming from the south and the river current was going against it," said Kevin Waterman of Maryland, one of the Bassmaster Federation Nation qualifiers.
Skeet Reese of California is right behind Van Dam with 32-6, followed by Terry Scroggins of Florida with 30-15 and first-day leader Boyd Duckett of Demopolis with 30-13. Other Alabama pros in the top 10 include Timmy Horton of Muscle Shoals (5th, 29-11), Steve Kennedy of Auburn (7th, 28-9) and Randy Howell of Springville (10th, 27-8).
Equally stormy on Saturday was the disqualification of the second-day catch of Gerald Swindle of Hayden, who lost his catch of 12-7 for violating Bassmaster Rule 5 (safety) and Rule 6-ii (sportsmanship). Tournament director Trip Weldon said Swindle drove his boat too closely to Howell and boats with media members and fans watching Howell.
Swindle gave an emotional apology to the fans at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, who did not know of the rules violations until he told them on the weigh-in stage. The crowd fell silent and then cheered as Swindle apologized; it then gave a smattering of polite cheers and boos to Weldon after his equally emotional explanation.
Swindle and Howell, among others, were fishing upriver on Lay Lake in a portion of the impoundment with narrow channels and shallow, rocky areas. Media boats and fans watching Howell were floating near him but also in a portion of the channel, which forced Swindle to have three options: shut down and idle through, swing through a dangerous rocky area or shoot a gap between boats.
Video of the incident showed Swindle motioning to Howell, who later said he waved him to come on through. Swindle adjusted the direction, shot between two boats near Howell and then throttled up to full speed on up the river.
"I was not there with a measurement, guys, but it was too close," Weldon said. "Close enough to be unsafe."
Howell said Swindle did nothing that bothered him or his fishing, and "I hate to see it for him."
The incident was reported to Weldon by a member of the B.A.S.S. photography staff, Charles Beck, who was in one of the boats and told Weldon he believed Swindle came too close. Video can be watched at espnoutdoors.com.
About two hours after the weigh-in, Swindle addressed the media with his explanation and another emotional apology to fans and his fellow competitors. Several of them, including Horton and Aaron Martens of Leeds, said he had nothing to apologize for.
"I made a mistake … and at no time during this interview do I want any of you to think I am defending what I did," Swindle said. "At no time did any part of me feel I put someone's life in jeopardy. I trusted my judgment … which was poor. I felt like I was safe. I was wrong."
Swindle tried to explain how the anglers "live on the edge" in an attempt to do their best, sometimes making decisions they trust because they're on the water so often in their boats that others might not choose or understand. But in the end, he said the desire to do well and to trust his instincts as other anglers do in tournaments caused him to make the split-second decision.