GROVE, Okla. — Two weeks ago, after a merely human 39th-place finish on Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake, Kevin VanDam wasn't a happy man. But the two-time Bassmaster Classic champion and three-time BASS Angler of the Year was smiling again after the opening day of the Sooner Run presented by Longhorn Tobacco on Grand Lake.
"When things go your way, it makes you happy," said the 39-year-old VanDam.
Things went VanDam's way Thursday to the tune of a five-bass limit weighing 21 pounds, 11 ounces, to put him atop the leaderboard. Rookie Marty Robinson of Landrum, S.C., is second with 20-0. Mike Iaconelli and Ben Matsubu are tied for third with 19-8. Another rookie, Lake Amistad winner Derek Remitz, rounded out the top five with 19-1.
Everyone is catching fish. Of the 116 pros, 102 weighed limits. But the key is, can you catch a few four- and five-pounders in that limit?VanDam's bag was anchored by a 5-13. Two other anglers, Edwin Evers (10th place, 18-4) and defending champion Mike McClelland (11th place, 17-15) caught big bass weighing 5-13. Aaron Martens (8th place, 18-8) took big bass honors for the day with a 5-14.
"At full pool, like this lake is now, there is so much bait here," said VanDam, who started out flipping the flooded willow trees, then used a spinnerbait and a buzzbait to help put him over 21 pounds. "And this lake is clearing up. That's helping some guys and hurting others."After heavy rains in the Ozarks last week, flood gates were opened at the Grand Lake Dam to help pull the water level down quickly. The floodgates are closed now, but there's still plenty of willow trees in the water."With those flood gates shut down, the fish feel safe staying in a foot-and-a-half of water," VanDam said. "They don't feel like the sky is falling down on them."
However, there's an interesting shallow vs. deep scenario setting up in this tournament. The deep brushpiles McClelland used to lap the field in winning with a 15-pound margin last year aren't likely to be a factor now. But several anglers culled their weight above 15 pounds by starting shallow, then working down to depths of 10 to 15 feet on main lake points near flooded buck brush and willows.
"I started shallow early," said Jeff Kriet of Ardmore, Okla., who is sixth with 19-0. "There must have been 15 guys within sight of that first place I started. Every time I looked around, someone was smoking a fish.
"I caught 10 to 12 keepers shallow, but I ended up culling everything I caught shallow. All those fish had hook marks in them and were all beat up."Kriet moved to deeper water, slowed down and worked a variety of lures — jigs, crankbaits, Carolina rigs and big plastic worms to get his 19-pound bag.
Aaron Martens lost a 6-pounder at the boat, only a few casts after he landed his 5-14. He could have topped VanDam is he hadn't missed that lunker, but he wasn't complaining much.
Martens is concentrating on depths of 8 to 12 feet."I like fishing deep," Martens said. "There's a whole lot less guys doing it."However, the two rookies in the top five aren't among the shallow water bunch. Remitz went back to his Lake Amistad technique, a jig on deeper structure."I think the fish are starting to get on these points pretty good," Remitz said. "And I think it's going to get progressively better every day."Robinson culled most of his early morning shallow fish in compiling his 20-pound second-place total.
"I caught a limit fairly early, then I started changing things up a little bit," Robinson said. "I started going deeper and slowing down. You've got to hit enough points to find some big bites. I probably fished 30 to 35 points, but I fished slow when I got to them."All these points are holding lots of gizzard shad, and I think that's what the big fish are keying on."
This second chapter of the Sooner Run shallow vs. deep story will be written Friday, after which the field will be cut to the top 50.
Editor's note: ESPNOutdoors.com invited the University of Oklahoma bass fishing team to join coverage of the Sooner Run. The collegiate anglers will post a regular blog and appear on Hooked Up, the live Internet shows that air at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET on Sunday in advance of the live weigh-in. Bob Cobb, creator of Bassmaster Magazine and Bassmaster television, will be the special guest on Hooked Up.
Daily live weigh-ins and a realtime leaderboard will be at 4 p.m. ET. Please feel free to post comments to this blog via the ESPN Conversation feature at the bottom of this and every news page on this site.