BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Randall Tharp didn't think local knowledge of Lake Guntersville would be a factor during the 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Diet Mountain Dew and GoPro. When the best bass fishermen in the world come to town it rarely is.
But the storm that blew through here with high wind and heavy rains Thursday night threw many of these 55 anglers a curveball. And Tharp was sitting on a curveball.
"The fish are in some places now that I haven't seen them in seven or eight years," said Tharp, who took the Day One lead with a five-bass limit weighing 27 pounds, 8 ounces.
Others who entered this event with high hopes were waiting on a fastball — a prespawn slugfest — and the muddy water that started flowing into Lake Guntersville last night caught them off guard.
"Without a doubt today was a curveball for me," said Kevin VanDam, who has won four Bassmaster Classics, plus an Elite Series tournament at Guntersville in 2007. "I'm stunned I had 16 pounds (today). I thought I had about 12. I can tell you right now I'm a little bit mad. It's time to get even."
Overall, the fireworks predicted for Guntersville were dampened a bit by the rain and muddy runoff. There were still 13 bags of 20 pounds or more, headlined by Tharp's 27-8. And everyone believes that the next two days of 60-degree weather with sunshine are going to make the bass fishing better and better.
Edwin Evers is second to Tharp with 26-13 — a result that Bassmaster veteran Zell Rowland predicted at noon Thursday, while working a booth at the Expo. Rowland's words were almost dead on the mark, and his opinion carries some weight, since his long career includes wins on Guntersville in 2005 and 1991. Evers finished third in that 2005 event.
"I know where these fish go and when they move," Rowland said. "Edwin was my toughest competitor. He knows the subtle spots. They're not 10 feet long. I can tell you he's got stuff he won't use until the last few days.
"This lake doesn't change a whole lot. What changes is the fish. This lake is really easy for the guys who really know it — the shell beds, the little spots on the ledges.
"Edwin knows how to dial this place in."
But Rowland could just as well be describing Tharp, who lived most of his life in the area before moving back to his birth state of Florida. Nobody had a better day than Tharp, and not just in total weight. He caught fish in lots of places and caught them on a variety of lures without much competition in those spots from other tournament anglers.
"I'm not seeing a lot of other competitors," Tharp said. "I probably caught 17 or 18 keepers. I culled maybe six or seven times."
Tharp's bag included a big bass of 8-5 and two 6-pounders.
"This tournament will probably be decided on a lipless crankbait, a (lipped) crankbait, a jig and a jerkbait," Tharp said. "I'm doing all four things."
What has to be scary for the rest of the field is Tharp's confidence here.
"Guntersville I would consider to be my home lake," he said. "I wouldn't be here today if not for Guntersville. This is where I fell in love with tournament fishing."
Like Rowland said of Evers, Tharp knows how to pick apart this lake, under any conditions. His comment about seeing fish in places he hasn't seen them in seven or eight years hints at the extent of his knowledge.
"I probably visited two dozen places today," he said. "I've probably got 48 or 50 places that I could fish in this tournament, if I felt I needed to."
What has to be fretful, even for the guys right behind Tharp and Evers, is that those two leaders are unlikely to falter as the fishing gets better.
"I think you could still win it with 22 or 23 pounds (Friday)," said Evers. "But you're going to have to back it up with a couple of 27s."
Only David Walker (third with 24-13), Casey Ashley (23-2), Fred Roumbanis (23-2), Coby Carden (22-4) and Jason Christie (22-3) could possibly fit those criteria.
"I salvaged the day," said Christie, who almost whiffed on the curveball, before adjusting during the day.
The question is: Can anyone outside the top seven salvage a Classic victory from a big Day One deficit to Tharp and Evers, who might know this lake better — under all conditions — than anyone else?