FLORENCE, Ala. — With just over four pounds separating the top 12 anglers in the Alabama Charge, it seemed like every angler had a legitimate shot at victory going into the final competition day on Pickwick Lake.
Now it's even more wide open.
Bassmaster Elite Series tournament officials announced Sunday morning that the final day of fishing will be cut short by about four hours. Tournament director Trip Weldon informed anglers of the decision just a few minutes before take-off, saying a forecast for severe weather led officials to shorten the last day of competition. Anglers took off at 6:10 a.m. Sunday, and they'll check in for the final weigh-in at Florence's McFarland Park at 11:15 a.m.
It's the first time in Elite Series history that a final day has been cut short.
The weather system that has spawned deadly tornadoes and flooding in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee over the past 36 hours is moving east toward northwest Alabama. Forecasts call for chances of severe thunderstorms, including some capable of producing tornadoes, to increase throughout the morning hours. Doppler radar indicated a strong line of storms approaching Pickwick Lake this morning.
"The chances of severe weather go up after 11 a.m.," Weldon said, addressing the top 12 anglers on the dock just prior to take-off.
Anglers had mixed reactions to the decision, some lamenting it and others celebrating it. Tournament leader Skeet Reese, who has been locking through to Wilson Lake all week, had the strongest reaction.
"You've got to be kidding me," Reese said as Weldon made the announcement. "That's ridiculous, Trip."
Reese's response is understandable. He's the only angler in the top 12 who has been locking through to Wilson Lake, a process that requires about 45 minutes going into Wilson and another 45 minutes coming back into Pickwick. If Reese decides to go to Wilson this morning, he'll have just 3 1/2 hours to fish.
"I don't think you want my words right now," Reese said. "I have no friggin' idea what I'm doing yet. This pretty much screws my whole day up. It's not looking good right now. I don't know what I'm going to do. I'll make the decision in the next 20 or 30 minutes."
Most of the anglers chasing Reese from farther down the leaderboard viewed the abbreviated fishing day in a more positive light.
"It's going to make it interesting," seventh-place Dean Rojas said, smiling widely as he prepared to pull away from the boat dock. "Real interesting."
After struggling to catch just more than 10 pounds and landing in 83rd place on Day One, Rojas stormed back into contention with a nearly 19-pound bag on Thursday. Then he moved within striking distance with a 20-13 bag on Saturday, the heaviest limit of the tournament. He trails Reese by 2 pounds, 6 ounces.
"It's absolutely great from where I'm sitting," said Ohio pro Bill Lowen. "I'm catching a lot of 3-pounders, so I like it. And it shook a couple of guys up already, and that's always a good thing."
Arkansas pro Kevin Short, who led the tournament's first two days before slipping to a third-place tie with Alabama pro Aaron Martens on Saturday, wasn't upset by the decision.
"I'm diggin' it," he said. "I think I can catch them quicker than anyone."
It took Short a few hours to get the bite going Saturday, but he said he finally figured out an area that could be productive today.
"I realized after a while that the fish seem to be wadded up on one little stretch of trees," Short said. "I'm going straight there this morning. I don't think you're going to see any 20-pound sacks brought in today. If you can catch 13 or 14 pounds by 11 a.m. and you're already in the top five, that's going to be your winner."
Some competitors were indifferent about the short day.
"It could be a blessing," said Cliff Pace, who trails Reese by two ounces. "I'm not going to worry about it because it's out of my control. All you can do is go out and give it all you got and see what happens."
Mike Iaconelli, who has been spending 1 1/2 hours running from spot to spot each day, had mixed emotions about the decision.
"It's uncontrollable," he said. "But I don't like it. Honestly, I don't think that's enough time for me to make up the ground I need to make up. But hey, I'm here."
While anglers like Reese and Iaconelli figure to be adversely affected by the decision because of the time they're spending reaching their fishing holes, the short day will also have an impact on anglers like Pace, Martens, Steve Kennedy and Edwin Evers, who are all sharing a community hole near the Wilson Lock and Dam.
"I've been trying to catch big fish all week, but now I'm looking at just trying to catch some fish and not worry as much about finding the big ones," said Kennedy, who trails Reese by 1 pound, 5 ounces.
Kennedy was busy cutting off big baits and downsizing to smaller offerings in the last few minutes before take-off.
"[The short day] is not going to change where I go, but it's going to change the way I'm fishing," Kennedy said. "I may not be able to fish slow enough to catch a big one."
Martens said the area has been receiving a lot of pressure from local anglers, noting a night tournament was held on Pickwick last night.
"It took a while to get things going [Saturday]," Martens said. "There are a lot of things working against us up there."
Another factor for the community-hole anglers could be fluctuating water levels, or a lack of them. The Tennessee Valley Authority has been pulling water through Pickwick each tournament day, but Kennedy said water movement didn't start until after noon Saturday.
"I've already put up some rods I know I'm not going to use," Kennedy said. "It's just a lot to consider."