HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Kevin Wirth mentioned that he was "not comfortable" with the water depth where he was catching fish Thursday, after he took the lead on the first day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn.
But that shallow water in Old Hickory Lake must be starting to feel like home. The Crestwood, Ky., pro stayed in the top spot for the second straight day by adding 15 pounds, 10 ounces to his 17-2 on Day One for a total of 32-12. It also marked the second time Wirth had the Berkley Big Bag of the day.
And for the second straight day, Wirth quit fishing his area long before his check-in time at Sanders Ferry Park.
"I lost a couple, broke a couple off, but I still had a limit by 8:30," said the 45-year-old former jockey. "I know there are limited numbers (of bass) in the area. I kind of put it in shutdown mode then. I eased around a little and tried to see what was really there."
Wirth said around 11 o'clock he made one pitch to an area he'd already fished that morning and caught a bass weighing 5 pounds, 5 ounces. He was able to cull a 2-pounder from the five-bass limit in his livewell.
"Once I did that, I totally left everything," Wirth said.
For the second Elite Series event in a row, Bassmaster legend Rick Clunn is putting pressure on the leader. The 61-year-old four-time Bassmaster Classic champion was second going into the final day at Kentucky Lake two weeks ago, and he's in second place going into Saturday's semifinals here.
Clunn moved up from seventh place with 15-1 Friday to give him a two-day total of 29-7 — only 3-5 behind Wirth.
"I like these tough lakes," said Clunn, who lives in Ava, Mo. "The fishing is not easy, but once you figure them out you can catch a decent bag. That's the whole key."
Another key is having the area to himself.
"The kind of water I'm fishing, you can't have a lot of boats," Clunn said. "I'm working my way through a real shallow flat with a creek channel in it, and then you work your way out."
And just like last week, Clunn is primarily relying on a crankbait. Provided he doesn't attract spectator boats or local anglers, Clunn thinks he can repeat the consistency he's had the first two days of the tournament. His Day One total was 14-6, only 11 ounces less than what he weighed Friday.
"I think I can get close to that," Clunn said. "But my other problem is I'm losing an inordinant amount of fish — for me. I had one other big fish I lost, and I've got to correct that somehow. That's more important than the follow boats and the local boats fishing.
"You're only going to get one or two clean passes in these areas, and if you don't put every bass in the boat, you're not going to get any more bites.
"I'm doing everything I know to keep them on, but I think these fish see so many baits that they're tentative. They don't completely commit."
That last comment addresses the decision that every angler in the 106-man field faced coming into this tournament. There are bass at every depth you'd want to fish in Old Hickory Lake's 22,700 acres. The last two Elite Series tournaments — at Kentucky Lake and, before that, Alabama's Lake Wheeler — were dominated by anglers fishing offshore main river ledges.
Many of the pros chose to stay offshore for this tournament, spurred by the thought that a shallow bite couldn't hold up for four days on this heavily pressured lake. But after two days, the top of the leaderboard is dominated by anglers on a shallow-water bite.
The notable exception is Randy Howell, who took Purolator Big Bass honors Friday with a 6-6, caught from the same spot he landed a 5-9 on Thursday. It's an offshore ledge that drops from 12 to 20 feet, but Howell has caught the two big bass on the upper part of the ledge.
His 15-8 total Friday — the second-biggest bag of the day — moved him into third place with 28-10.
"I must have made 50 to 100 casts before I caught that big one," Howell said. "It's just one little sweet spot."
The lack of current being pulled through this Cumberland River impoundment has made the offshore pattern a hit-and-miss deal, with more misses than hits.
Davy Hite made a significant jump Friday — from 15th place to fifth — with 14-8, giving him 26-12 overall. He's 6 pounds behind Wirth.
"If you can catch 14 or 15 pounds the next couple of days, you're going to scare somebody, if you don't win it," said the 43-year-old Ninety Six, S.C., resident. "I'm actually fishing shallow and deep, but the majority of my quality fish have been coming shallow."
Hite has found schools of bass in deeper water where you can catch one on every cast, but few meet the 14-inch largemouth minimum length limit.
"I've figured out you can't catch any quality fish like you need to win a tournament around those schools of fish," Hite said.
With no current to position the bigger fish in deeper water, Hite has probably abandoned his deep spots for good.
"The lack of current has really hurt our catches," Hite said. "But the guy who wins this thing is going to win $100,000, if there's any current or not."
Ohio's Bill Lowen is seven ounces in front of Hite — in fourth place with 27-3. He too is on a shallow-water pattern. Lowen has stayed among the leaders both days even though he hasn't caught a fish over 4 pounds.
"I just can't catch a big one," he said. "I've got one area I've been saving. I may go there and start in the morning."
Part of the reason Lowen has been saving that spot is because the water is so shallow around it that it's difficult to boat in there.
"I'm fishing shallow, just like I would at home (on the Ohio River)," Lowen said.
"The problem with fishing these areas is it's real hard for them to replenish themselves. When I catch one off a piece of wood, it may be tomorrow before another one comes, or two or three days from now. So it's real tough. You've just got to keep jumping around and grind it out."
Equally noteworthy as the top of the leaderboard was what happened at the top 50 cut mark. If Kevin VanDam ends up winning the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title, he may look back on Friday as the day he saved his skin.
But the three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year sure didn't feel that way when he came off the weigh-in stage with limit weighing only 9-13 after being in 63rd place Thursday with 7-5. In fact, VanDam lost a $1 bet with ESPN television host Mark Zona on whether he'd make the 50 cut.
The Kalamazoo, Mich., native made it by all of 3 ounces. VanDam was 49th with 17-2; Byron Velvick took the 50th spot with 17-0; and Aaron Martens finished just out of the cut with 16-14.
Combined with Todd Faircloth falling from 22nd place to 32nd Friday, Skeet Reese dropping from third to 35th, and Mike McClelland moving up slightly from 26th to 22nd, VanDam would maintain his No. 1 spot in the TTBAOY race that he had coming into this event.
But those numbers mean nothing now. With all four of the top contenders making the top 50 cut, it's Saturday that could prove to be crucial in the Angler of the Year race, since only two tournaments are left.
By squeaking in the top 50, VanDam stayed alive for one more day and still has a chance to move further up the standings. The field will be cut to the top 12 for Sunday's final. And only after that will official points be awarded in the Angler of the Year race.
"I'd love to have a shot tomorrow," VanDam said, before knowing he would. "I've got a whole new game plan because I know I've got to bust a big bag."
It's hard to imagine VanDam having three bad days in a row. But then again, the playing field this week is Old Hickory Lake, where anything could happen, as evidenced by five pros putting zeroes on the scoreboard Friday.
The Sanders Ferry Park daily launches begin at 7 a.m. ET and weigh-ins start at 3:30 p.m. ET both Saturday and Sunday.