BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — No one enters the Bassmaster Classic to work on a tan, but the 51 competitors who took to Lay Lake were undoubtedly pleased to see a day of sunshine. After a tough practice marred by extremely cold conditions, the sun came out and the fish started biting.
Daytime temperatures reached the upper 50s, and that warmed the shallow creeks where largemouth like to roam. Moreover, a full day of intense sunlight sent the invigorating radiation into the water column to stimulate some of the fish that had been laying low. Thirty anglers found limits, and only three blanked.
Two-time Classic champion Kevin VanDam grabbed the early lead with a limit weighing 19 pounds, 8 ounces. Understandably guarded with his details, VanDam said he was using a trio of baits to "effectively cover the range of water in the area that I'm fishing."
With the lake temperature remaining in the low to mid-40s, VanDam said he found the fish mostly concentrated in small areas, but he expects the next two days — with more sunny conditions in the forecast — to see the fish spreading out.
"People see the big weights that some of us caught and they may think that fishing's easy, but it's not — it was a struggle today," VanDam said. "You'd catch several fish and then go two hours without catching another one."
VanDam said Day 2 could see big movement in the leaderboard.
"Lay Lake is full of fish," he said. "This lake has the potential to produce a 25-pound bag, so anyone within 10 pounds of the lead has a chance to win."
Behind VanDam was Todd Faircloth of Jasper, Texas, who caught a limit weighing 18-2. Fishing reaction baits, he caught about 10 keepers — a mix of spots and largemouth. Faircloth secured his limit of spots by about 10 a.m., then upgraded with three largemouth.
"I was just covering some water and staying in the four areas that I have confidence in," Faircloth said. "I fished three of them today, and I caught fish in two of them.
"I caught them better than I thought I was going to catch them today. Practice was tough for me. I caught some fish, but I wasn't getting a whole lot of bites."
In third place, Oklahoma pro Jeff Kriet fished mostly a Sebile Flats shad, but mixed up his presentation with a jerkbait. He caught a limit of 16-7 in a backwater creek.
A shad die-off caused by the week's cold weather still haunted many, as the fish had plenty of easy targets. However, Kriet said the area that he and his top two competitors fished appeared to have suffered little.
"I haven't seen nearly as many shad dying in there as in other places,"he said.
Mississippi pro Cliff Pace sits just 4 ounces behind Kriet in fourth place with 16-3. Fifth place went to 2004 Classic winner Takahiro Omori who sacked up a limit of spotted bass that went 15-7.
Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark., was in sixth with 15-4. Although he threw a lipless crankbait most of Day 1, he's expecting a strong flipping bite on Day 2. He said if the fish will turn on in the grass, "It's going to get good."
In seventh place with 14-9 was Mike Iaconelli, the 2003 Classic winner. He earned the day's big fish honors with his 6-pound, 10-ounce largemouth. The Pittsgrove, N.J., pro said he had his hands full when the hawg gobbled his finesse rig.
"I was kind of struggling before that fish, and when you get a big one on like that on light line, it leaves you breathless," Iaconelli said.
Rounding out the top 10 were Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., with 14-3; Russ Lane of Prattville, Ala., with 14-1; and James Niggemeyer of Van, Texas, with 13-3.