BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A warming trend was the boost the 51 competitors needed for a productive Day 1 at the 40th Bassmaster Classic, and sunny skies Friday afternoon were accommodating for most as several limits of more than 16 pounds were brought to the scales at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex arena.
Starting things off with a bang was 2009 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich. The second angler to weigh in — behind reigning Bassmaster Classic champ Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif. — VanDam secured the Day 1 lead early with a five-fish limit that weighed 19 pounds, 8 ounces.
The perennial powerhouse competitor and two-time Classic winner waited out the 49 remaining anglers as they weighed in through the late afternoon and early evening.
"I have a lot of confidence in fishing this time of year," said VanDam, who weighed four largemouth and one spotted bass. "It's the way that I like to fish and I was fortunate to have a good day. It was kind of a grind. Mentally it's tough — always in the Classic. When the water's real cold like that and you have to work real hard for them, you better be confident in what you're doing."
At 7 a.m. CT, the Bassmaster Classic kicked off with temperatures hovering at freezing on Lay Lake, roughly 47 miles south of Birmingham, but by midafternoon anglers welcomed increasingly warmer temperatures — so much so that second-place finisher Todd Faircloth of Jasper, Texas, said he was happy to take off his jacket for the first time since he arrived in Alabama.
Faircloth weighed in 18 pounds, 2 ounces of largemouth and said the fishing Friday was markedly better than any of his practice days. He fished the same southerly area of Lay Lake as VanDam, not too far from the launch point of Beeswax Creek Park in Columbiana, and he added that they had quite a bit of company.
"I felt like if I caught 13 or 15 (pounds) today that would put me in really good shape," he said. "I was fortunate to exceed that by 3 pounds. The warmer water's helping out for what I'm doing."
Faircloth was in 2 to 7 feet of water for most of the day and caught a limit early and then went after a few productive spots he found in practice. He was able to cull after he landed two or three good-sized bass.
"Whenever you have a long cold span, like we've had here for so long, and you get some warmer weather the fish get more active," he said. "They want to get up high in the water, in the sun, and soak some of that warmth in. I think that's why it made it better today."
Rounding out the top five were Jeff Kriet of Ardmore, Okla., in third with 16-7, Cliff Pace of Laurel, Miss., in fourth with 16-3 and 2004 Classic champ Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas, in fifth with 15-7.
Asked how the seemingly slim pickings of the practice periods this past week turned into several good weights in the high teens Friday, VanDam said much of the field likely spent the four official days of practice scouting, not hanging out in any particular spot for too long.
"When it's tough in practice, nobody's really working their areas to see how many fish are there, you don't want to burn anything," he said. "And guys stumbled onto the right area and there was a group of fish there — and that's typically what happens in the winter and early pre-spawn bite, they'll be grouped up. I was pretty confident that I had an area that was going to have some fish in it; I just didn't know how active they were going to be. It was not easy — by no means."
VanDam said Lay Lake fish have been lethargic and hard to entice, so he refused Friday to back off or save anything for Saturday or Sunday.
"You can't really do that," he said. "When you have that opportunity and those bigger fish are biting, you better catch them. So I'm going to worry about tomorrow, tomorrow."
VanDam is fishing a few similar patterns, and said he is trying to fish methodically in more obscure areas.
"Sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn't," he said. "These guys are the best guys in the world and they don't miss much, so I'm hoping I've got something for three days."
Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark., the Bassmaster Elite Series Rookie of the Year, had an impressive Day 1, finishing sixth with 15-4. McCaghren said he fished slowly with a reaction bait — one he typically fishes fast. He was in shallow water up to about 6 feet, and had a limit before 9 a.m.
"I culled twice by 10:30 a.m. and totally changed up, looking for one really big bite," McCaghren said. "I'm pretty excited. I'm trying to treat it like any other tournament and not for what it really is — the Bassmaster Classic. I'm trying to keep my mind on the fishing, but it feels great, I'm excited to see my name up there with the greats in fishing."
Other notable results Friday: 2003 Classic champ Mike Iaconelli of Pittsgrove, N.J., had the big bass of the day with a 6-pound, 10-ounce largemouth; he weighed in 14-9 for seventh place. Reese is 37th after Day 1 with three fish and an overall weight of 5-2. Pam Martin-Wells of Bainbridge, Ga., just the second woman in history to fish the Bassmaster Classic, finished Day 1 in 30th place with a limit at 6-13. Boyd Duckett of Demopolis, Ala., the home-state favorite and 2007 Classic winner at Lay Lake, brought one fish to the stage, at 1 pound, 2 ounces, for 48th place heading into Day 2.
Saturday's forecast for the Lay Lake area calls for continually warmer air temperatures, with a high of 63, according to Weather.com. That would make Saturday the first day in more than a week with a high above 54.
The public is invited to attend the Classic in Birmingham and witness the crowning of the 2010 Classic champion, who on Sunday will claim a first-place prize of $500,000 from the total Classic payout of $1.2 million.
Launches are set for 7 a.m. CT Saturday and Sunday at Beeswax Creek Park in Columbiana. Daily weigh-ins will be at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex arena. Doors open daily at 3 p.m. CT. All events are free and open to the public.
The 2010 Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by Dick's Sporting Goods will be at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Show hours are set for 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. With no admission fee, the Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo offers hours of quality family fun. Exhibitors are slated to offer activities such as free games with prizes, autograph sessions with top bass pros, raffles and product giveaways.
ESPN2, www.ESPN360.com and Bassmaster.com will provide extensive coverage of the three-day competition. Click here to view the Bassmaster Classic Day 1 leaderboard.
Sponsors of the 2010 Bassmaster Classic: Toyota Trucks, Berkley, Evan Williams Bourbon, Mercury, Humminbird, Minn Kota, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha Marine