JASPER, Texas — Stephen Johnston put his experience as a guide on Sam Rayburn Reservoir to good use today, putting 22 pounds of bass on the scales to claim the first-day lead in the Bassmaster Central Open.
"I came over here and did a lot of homework last week before the crowd got here," Johnston said. "The fishing's really been tough, and each day I had 12 rods out on my deck."
The Hemphill, Texas, pro said he used that same approach today, throwing everything from topwater to bottom baits.
"I just covered a lot of water and got a couple of good bites," Johnston said. "We probably fished 12 different places today."
He only got nine keeper bites all day, and admitted the fish are temperamental right now because local temperatures have been moderate compared to the normal blistering late summer.
"The fish are in transition," he explained. "It never gets this cold in August and early September, and it's really got the bait messed up."
Johnston said he felt good about his chances, based on a win he shared with his step son on the lake three weeks ago.
"We won with 19 ¾ (pounds), and you never win a team tournament with 19 pounds, so 22 (pounds) is definitely going to be a good start," he said.
Just less than two pounds behind Johnston going into the second day is a confident Bassmaster Elite Series pro, Bradley Hallman, with 20 pounds, 5 ounces.
"I think I found a pattern, and I think I understand exactly what they're doing," Hallman said. "I've got one bait that I'm throwing that I caught them all on.
"I don't catch a lot of fish, but when I catch them they're big."
While Johnston and Hallman were able to top 20 pounds, the bulk of the field struggled. It took only 11 ½ pounds to make the top 50, and the current top-30 cut was set by Texas' Jerrel Pringle at 12-13.
However, Johnston said he wasn't taking anything for granted.
"There are some of the top guys who live around here and some of the top guys in the country here fishing," he said. "There are a lot of guys here who can catch them."
The real question is the weather, which today turned cloudy from the bluebird skies of practice. Clouds are forecast to build tomorrow, with isolated thunderstorms expected by noon.
That could alter the entire tournament.
"That could make the topwater bite strong all day," Texas' Harold Allen said.
Johnston said that eventuality could really open the field.
"It we get some black clouds, the topwater bite will go nuts and everybody will catch them," he said.
On the co-angler side, David Ozio of Texas sits in the cat-bird seat with a 10-12 stringer. That gave Ozio a scant 13-ounce lead over Louisiana's Bill McCarty going into Day Two.
Competitors for the co-angler title were thrown a curveball yesterday, when it was announced that their limit would be cut to three fish.
"It's a conservation initiative," B.A.S.S. Tournament Director Chris Bowes said. "It's been so hot that we decided to hold down the number of fish being put in the livewells and the release boat to reduce levels."
Competition continues tomorrow, with a 6:45 a.m. blast-off at the Umphries Family Pavilion. The weigh-in will begin at 3 p.m.
Once the final fish is weighed tomorrow, the field will be cut to the top 30 pros and co-anglers for Saturday's competition.
All activities are free and open to the public.