STOCKTON, Calif. — The only thing that has been predictable at the Trokar Duel in the Delta, the Bassmaster Elite Series season-opener, has been the unpredictability. Leaders nearly zero while others zip from the middle of the pack with little explanation.
Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La., was the hero Saturday, advancing from eighth to first with a 25-plus pound day, bringing his three-day total to 57 pounds, 5 ounces, enough for a 2-plus pound lead.
Changing weather conditions, unpredictable tidal flow and finicky fish have mystified anglers, but Hackney was able to capitalize Saturday except for a slow morning. The eight-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier said that he was able to rule out different patterns in the morning through experimentation before settling in with the flipping stick.
And when he committed, the move paid off in spades. Of his limit, three were massive — one weighed more than 8 pounds — and if not for two smaller ones, Hackney could have a sizable lead. Alas, the BASS millionaire is not the type of angler to think about what could have been.
"I'm not really worried. I just plan to go fishing," said Hackney, a three-time BASS winner. "Here, you just never know what is going to happen. One flip can result in an 8-pounder or a 2-pounder. Honestly, I just want to fish mistake-free. If I do that, I will be pleased with the results."
Hackney, 36, has been able to exploit three areas that he has largely to himself. He is switching up line choice between braid and fluorocarbon based on water clarity in the areas. Navigating a nearly 45-minute run from the launch site, Hackney is scouring his areas with short casts to the shallows.
"The areas that I have, they just suit me," said Hackney, who declined to reveal his lure choice. "I would consider them textbook deals for the way I am fishing."
Still, the conditions will throw another curveball to the 12 final-day qualifiers on Sunday. The forecast calls for slick, calm conditions — something that the competitors have yet to see during the competition.
For Hackney, that is encouraging news.
"That rules out a lot of things that other guys could do that could end up hurting me," Hackney said. "It makes things a little simpler. Definitely not easy though."
A fast start to the season was vital for the veteran Hackney. He is looking at the ultimate goal of qualifying for the 2011 Bassmaster Classic on another Delta, the Louisiana, which Hackney considers his quasi-home waters.
And that is the fishery that Mike Iaconelli scored his landmark 2003 Classic victory. The nearest challenger to Hackney this week is Iaconelli, with a three-day total of 54-10. Even though he was unable to move up, Iaconelli, the 2006 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year was happy he was still in contention.
"I went nearly six hours without a bite. It was really embarrassing," said Iaconelli, 37. "It was just an unbelievable struggle. I'm still not sure how I was able to scratch out a limit. I just don't know."
Experimenting with a bevy of baits, Iaconelli — like Hackney — finally worked the flipping stick and found late success. His margin of deficit is minimal and on a place like the Delta, one big bite could turn the tables on Hackney.
With calm, slick conditions in store, Iaconelli was still confident in his area. He has it to himself and was planning to use his late-day flurry as the groundwork for his plan on Sunday. Part of that strategy will be to stick with a bait alteration that he made that resulted in his late success.
Moving up to third was local favorite Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif, with 52-10. Reese is looking for redemption after a frustrating 2010 Bassmaster Classic and his local knowledge makes him a dangerous contender.
Slipping from third to fourth was John Crews of Salem, Va., with 51-14. In the surprise of the tournament, Stephen Browning, who had a 5-plus pound lead heading into Saturday, registered only one tiny, legal fish.
Browning, who finished the day in fifth, didn't have the tide with him and lamented a decision he made to stick with his area when he had originally planned to pack his bags and try new water. The one-time BASS winner put the humbling experience in perspective.
"I guess I'm just so good that I caught every single one of the fish in that area," Browning joked.
Behind Browning was a murderer's row of accomplished veterans including Shaw Grigsby of Gainesville, Fla. (7th); 28-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier Gary Klein (8th); four-time Classic champion Rick Clunn (9th); Zell Rowland (11th) of Austin, Texas and 1998 Classic champion Denny Brauer (12th).
Elite anglers are competing on the California Delta for a $100,000 first-place prize, points toward qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series postseason and 2011 Bassmaster Classic, and the title to the first of eight tournaments of the Elite Series' fifth regular season.
Stockton, the state's 13th largest city and seat of San Joaquin County, is situated on the San Joaquin Delta Waterway — also known as the California Delta because the area forms a triangle with the three points being Sacramento, Stockton and Pittsburg, Calif. The Delta encompasses 1,000 miles of navigable, fishable water in a labyrinth of sloughs, canals, channels and islands, one factor that makes tournament fishing there so tough — and so good.