LAKE WALES, Fla. — As Elite Series anglers gathered for takeoff Thursday, a bright orange glow gradually lit up Lake Kissimmee. But it paled in comparison to the glow coming from first-day leader Byron Velvick.
Velvick's confidence was as swollen as the egg-laden bellies of the big female bass that helped him take charge on Day One of the Citrus Slam presented by Longhorn. He stood tall in the bow as he weaved through the maze of boats filling the narrow canal at Camp Mack's River Resort, flashing a broad smile as he talked excitedly with fellow competitors.
In light of Velvick's struggles in recent years, his cheerful demeanor is understandable.
"I know I'm a better angler than what I've shown over the past couple of years," said Velvick, who finished next to last in the 2007 Elite Series points. "I've caught 'em before. I know I can do it. It really feels good to come out here and catch 'em like I did."
Velvick, a BASS record-holder for the heaviest weight in a three-day tournament and a former WON Bass U.S. Open champion, is well-known outside of bass fishing circles for his appearance on the reality television series "The Bachelor." But just as his star rose in the wake of "The Bachelor," his success on the tournament trail bottomed out.
His first step toward redemption was a 25-pound bag on Thursday. But Velvick will have ample competition trying to stand between him and a reversal of his fishing fortunes.
Perhaps none is more dangerous than Florida pro Terry Scroggins, an angler with loads of local knowledge who's a threat to win any event on the Kissimmee Chain. Scroggins trails by less than two pounds.
Then there's Texas pro Kelly Jordon, third with 22-14; Oklahoma pro Jeff Reynolds, fourth with 20-12; and Arkansas pro Scott Rook, fifth with 19-14.
Dean Rojas, who set a BASS record for four-day tournament weight and single-day stringer in a 2001 event on the Kissimmee Chain, is lurking in sixth place.
The top three anglers all fished in the same area of Lake Toho on Day One, plucking big female bass off spawning beds. They'll likely be back together today, but even though Velvick and Scroggins blasted off only four boats apart on Friday, both said there wouldn't be a race to the spawning area this morning.
"I'm going to end up there before the day's over," Scroggins said, "but I'm not starting there."
"It's about big fish in this tournament," Jordon said. "That's the difference-maker in this event."
But even though sightfishing anglers occupied the top of the leaderboard on Day One, the size and strength of the spawning move, along with its duration, is still in question.
Anglers generally agree that the Kissimmee Chain bass are past the peak of the spawn. But they also point out that Florida bass spawn from December through April. A current warming trend, they say, likely will push a wave of spawning bass into the shallows.
"We're definitely past the peak, but I promise they're coming up," Velvick said.
"They're coming," Jordon agreed.
Scroggins wasn't so sure.
"It's going to run out," he said. "It's just a matter of time."
Regardless, a backup plan won't hurt, especially considering that weather changes could wreak havoc on sightfishermen. Cloud cover makes spawning beds much harder to locate, and wind has a similar effect. Scattered clouds were beginning to move into the area shortly after takeoff Friday, and strong winds are in the forecast for later today and Saturday.
Another consideration is location. The Kissimmee Chain is a combination of natural lakes along the Kissimmee River, including Toho to the north and Kissimmee to the south. In between lie Hatchineha and Cypress, and there's also the Kissimmee River below the dam on the lower end of Lake Kissimmee.
Toho typically offers clearer water for the sightfishing approach. There's also more cover in the middle of the lake.
"Toho is the best lake on the chain," Jordon said. "A lot of people will argue that. But when the fishing is really good, the tournaments are usually won on Toho. Even though it's smaller than Kissimmee, it fishes bigger. There's more grass out in the middle. On Kissimmee, you're pretty much just going down the bank."
Velvick also prefers Toho.
"It has clearer water and bigger fish," Velvick said. "Kissimmee is sort of a numbers lake, and Toho is the big fish lake."
For his part, Scroggins says he has no preference.
"I'm going to Toho this morning," Scroggins said. "But before it's over, I'll fish every lake on this chain."
Friday's weigh-in starts about 3:30 p.m. at Camp Mack River Resort near Lake Kissimmee State Park, with the first fish hitting the scale at 4:10 p.m.
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Citrus Slam on the Kissimmee Chain, from Lake Wales, Fla., March 13th–16th, 2008. Daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 4 p.m. ET. "Hooked Up" will air Sunday at 10 a.m., noon and 3:30 p.m. ET.