PARIS, Tenn. — The difference between the "haves" and the "have-nots" on the first day of the SpongeTech Tennessee Triumph was a matter of ounces per fish.
It takes just a hair over a three and a half pound average per fish to make the top 50 cut, but a three-pound average leaves an angler 20 spots out of the money. A quintet of solid four pounders will take you 20 places in the opposite direction.
At a time when many of the fish are spawned out and skinny, it may not be possible to eyeball a limit and tell what it weighs. As a result, some anglers were disappointed by the scales' readout while others were pleasantly surprised.
With 17 1/2 pounds as fishing's version of the Mendoza line this week, the quest for the entire field is to find a way to get up over 20 each day. But there's more than one way to get there. Five 4-pounders cumulatively weigh the same as four 3-pounders with an 8-pound bag mate.
The ideal situation, of course, is to get some of the larger "cookie cutters" and add a monster. That's what Bobby Lane did Thursday. He had the day's big fish, a 7-15 behemoth, and added four footballs to cull up to his eventual weight of 29-14. Kevin VanDam, trailing Lane by just over a pound, had two fish in the 7-pound class.
Are the larger bites just a matter of weeding through a lot of smaller fish, or is there a distinct way to target them?
"I wish there was an answer for that, but I don't think there is," said Dave Wolak, who caught five similarly-sized fish that totaled 18-13 and is currently in 38th.
VanDam invoked the old realtor's cliché of "location, location, location" in describing why some anglers caught the big ones and others settled for decent-sized but not exceptional clones.
"You've got to be in a place where you can catch them," he said. "There are lots of schools out there but not all of them have those bigger fish mixed in."
While his rationale echoed the realtors' maxim, he disputed the applicability of one of fishing's oldest rules, the concept that you don't leave biting fish to find more fish.
"It's easy to get caught up in catching them," VanDam said. "There are so many fish out there and it's easy to catch a lot of them. That's the trap that a lot of these guys fall into."
Kelly Jordon, who cut his angling teeth on famed Texas big fish factory Lake Fork, doesn't think that it's easy to add a six-plus pound kicker here. "This is not a big fish lake," he said. "A lot of places you can target big fish by flipping a big jig or throwing a swimbait all day, but this is not a place where you can fish for a big one."
He cited Lane's first day big fish as evidence that the truly full-grown specimens aren't here in great numbers, even if the overall population is booming.
"A lot of other lakes, if there were that many big bags you'd see at least a 9 or a 10," he said. "But this is almost like a northern lake."
Fred Roumbanis, currently in ninth with 23-7, said that while he didn't catch any truly large bass Thursday, he'll focus on the areas where he caught his better-than-average keepers.
"It all comes down to practice," Roumbanis said. "I found areas with 3-pounders all over them but I won't bother with those. You have to run to where you got your big bites, the key areas where the fish are migrating." He had three 5-pounders in the first 10 minutes of fishing off "one tiny little spot" and will start there again.
Charlie Hartley, mired in 92nd with 10-12, ran his spots in the wrong order and paid the price. He had one fish in the 6-pound class during practice, but didn't start on that spot in the tournament. "I didn't go there until 4 o'clock, like an idiot," he lamented. "Right away I caught my biggest fish. My only chance today is to go there and camp."
Veteran Gary Klein agreed with both Roumbanis and Hartley that timing can be everything, but he doesn't believe that living and dying on one or two spots is the way to go.
"I'm covering a lot of water," he said. "I caught five 4-pounders and I feel like I dodged a bullet."