DECATUR, Ala. — Three former Bassmaster Classic champions are separated by just 11 ounces after the opening day of the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel on Wheeler Lake. Alton Jones of Waco, Texas, the 2008 Classic champion, bagged 17 pounds, 12 ounces, to lead the field of 100 anglers on the third stop in the 2009 Bassmaster Elite Series season.
Right behind Jones is Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas, in second with 17-8. Omori who won the 2004 Classic. Mike Iaconelli of Runnemede, N.J., winner of the 2003 Classic, is third overall with 17-1.
All three anglers said they were surprised in being able to secure the larger weights among the field on Day One. During official practice earlier this week, each said that while he found plenty of fish, most of the bass were on the smaller side.
"It really was a good day and it went a lot better than my practice days," said Jones, 45. "I realized the conditions were going to change and had to practice for what those conditions were going to be on tournament days. I am really excited with what I had today and would have been pleased with 13 to 15 pounds."
The bulk of Jones' keepers Thursday were from one location and included a largemouth that tipped the scales at 7 pounds, the big bass of the day.
"I caught four of the fish I weighed in today in about 30 minutes," said Jones, a five-time BASS event winner. "I knew this spot had the potential to cough up good quality bites. I also lost a 3-pounder from here."
Jones didn't want to give up too much information about his strategy, as he has several competitors around him on Wheeler. He said he was concerned about Friday, as a thunderstorm unloaded during Thursday's weigh-in.
"Tomorrow will be a different stroke when the wind comes around from the opposite direction," Jones said.
Omori moved around Wheeler Lake frequently and used fast-moving baits to boat his limit. He said he also was uncertain about Friday's pending weather.
"I probably caught 12 keepers today, with the biggest being six to nine," said Omori, who also was sharing water with several competitors. "It was a quirky day. I got bites right before the storm came. Tomorrow will be a different day."
Iaconelli, who finished second at the 2009 Bassmaster Classic in February, also fished a lot of areas and a variety of lures. He was surprised by his actual weight because before weigh-in he estimated he had a 15-pound bag that included one large kicker fish.
"I had one in there that I estimated was a 4-pounder, but it actually ended up being 6-9, so that helps a little bit," he said. "I've had three tournaments in a row where I have found nothing in practice. I went out today with 15 rods on the deck and basically went junk fishing and I was able to put it together."
Iaconelli was able to catch fish throughout the day, he said, right up until the weather front moved in and it was time to check in.
"Unlike a lot of the guys in here, I don't have anything solid or a specific area, I don't have a pattern, so I am just fishing," Iaconelli said. "I'm catching them on multiple kinds of baits, I caught them as shallow as a foot-and-a-half and I caught my deepest one in about 20 feet of water."
Rounding out the top five are Rick Morris of Lake Gaston, Va., in fourth with 16-13, and Randy Howell of Springville, Ala., in fifth with 16-6.
Of the 100 anglers in the field, 97 pros brought a five-fish limit to the scales Thursday. Notables include last week's Elite Series champ Mark Menendez of Paducah, Ky., in seventh with 16-1, and 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., in eighth with 15-10. Jason Williamson of Aiken, S.C., who won the 2009 season opener on Texas' Lake Amistad, is in ninth place with 15-7.
If Jones can hang on to the lead, he could overtake the No. 1 position in the chase for the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. Right now, he is in second with 514 points, 46 points behind reigning Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich. VanDam, a four-time AOY, leads the title chase with 560 points and is tied for 36th in the Dixie Duel with 12-2 after Day One.
After Friday's competition, the field will be cut to the top 50 for Day Three. The final day of competition, Sunday, will feature the top 12 anglers.