GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — With a 29-pound, 6-ounce bag of largemouth bass, Randall Tharp of Gardendale, Ala., bested Matt Herren of Trussville, Ala., by a 2-pound, 13-ounce margin Thursday on the opening day of the Bassmaster Southern Open on Lake Guntersville.
It was as if the two Alabama pros had picked up where they left off at the Southern Open on South Carolina's Santee Cooper Reservoir last May, when Tharp won, leaving second place to Herren.
Tharp said he flipped to grass in 3 to 6 feet of water with a SPRO frog. Each bass in his five-fish limit averaged about 6 pounds.
"That's a pretty good sack of fish here anytime, but this time of year it's rare to catch almost a 30-pound bag," said Tharp. "I never got a 7- or 8-pound bite today. At 11 o'clock, I had pretty much what I weighed in, and I went and hunted that big one the rest of the day, but I never got her to bite."
Tharp, a full-time pro who competes regularly on Guntersville, was surprised by the weights brought in Thursday by the 168-pro field.
"Usually a 20-pound sack of fish in the fall here is good. I don't know how many 20-pound sacks were caught, but it was a lot."
Eighteen, as a matter of fact: It was a day when 20 pounds was only good enough for 18th place, and an 8-pound, 3-ounce lunker took the $1,000 bonus Purolator Big Bass honors for Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala.
Herren said he had livewell trouble late in the day, bringing him close to a fish-care penalty that would have hit him hard.
"I got them all in alive," Herren said. "It was an unbelievable day. I did not expect to catch that kind of weight."
Herren, like the rest of the field, likely will have to adjust Friday to changing weather conditions.
"I have other areas to go to. I'm just going to have to decide how I want to go about tomorrow, what the weather's going to do. I knew today was going to be a slugfest. We've got a front coming in and I look for the bite to really fall off tomorrow. It will be a matter of adjusting, but it will actually help me — I think."
Tharp was also unsure how the incoming cold front would affect his game.
"The last two fronts that came through here really shut the bite down," he said, "but I've got to go catch them no matter what the weather does."
Finishing the first day in third place was Chris Ludwig of Lawrenceburg, Ind., who toted 25-14 to the scales in his first entry in a professional-level tournament. Scoring fourth and fifth were two Bassmaster Elite Series pros, Bobby Lane of Lakeland, Fla., who had 25-3, and Casey Ashley of Donalds, S.C., with 24-2.
Southern Open pros will compete through Saturday for the event's $45,000 first-place prize. Also at stake are berths in the 2009 Bassmaster Classic and invitations to move up to the Bassmaster Elite Series — both big prizes for which the pros have been working all season.
When the season ends Saturday, the top three pros in the points standings will qualify for the Classic, Feb. 20-22 on the Red River out of Shreveport-Bossier City, La. The top 10 will have the door opened to them to join the upper echelon of competitive bass fishing, the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Leading the Southern Open points race going into the Guntersville event was Elite pro Peter Thliveros of St. Augustine, Fla., who won the season opener on the St Johns River in Florida. He was disappointed in his 77th-place standing after the first day on Guntersville.
"It was completely opposite of what practice had been all week for me," he said. "I really don't have an explanation. I fished the same type of water, same baits, I didn't lose any fish, so apparently the fish changed, they weren't as aggressive today, for whatever reason.
"It would have been nice to finish as the points leader," he added. "I know it's not over yet, but when you have 25 people ahead of you that is a lot of ground to make up."
Leading the co-angler division in the competition for the first-place prize, a $32,000 Triton-Mercury boat package, was Danny Clark of Cleveland, Tenn., with 22-13. He stayed in front of Keith Sykes of Clintwood, Va., who had 21-2 for second place. Rounding out the top five were William Helton of Calhoun, Tenn., with 19-11; Bill Poirier of Riverview, Fla., with 18-8; and Ty Story of Prattville, Ala., who had 17-12.
Purolator Big Bass honors on the co-angler side went to Jimmy Hayes of Fayetteville, N.C., for his 8-1 largemouth.
The field will cut to top 30 pros and top 30 co-anglers after Friday's competition.