BRANSON, Mo. — Mark Davis is having so much fun that he doesn't want to talk about it.
"I'm afraid I'll jinx myself," said the Mount Ida, Ark., resident, who has earned three Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year titles in his illustrious career. But the last one came in 2001, and the 50-year-old Davis is anxious to prove he's still at the top of his game.
Table Rock Lake would be the perfect place to do so. Davis won an pro level event here in 2004. After one day of the A.R.E. Truck Caps Elite Series event at Table Rock, Davis is only three ounces behind leader Aaron Martens, who caught a five-bass limit weighing 18 pounds, 11 ounces Thursday.
"This might turn out to be a special season," said Davis, who leads the AOY race after two events. "I love Table Rock. I always have. I wish we'd come here every year,"
Davis and Martens, the 2013 AOY champ, weren't the only ones singing the praises of Table Rock Lake. Another "hot" angler, Chris Lane, is in third place, only three ounces behind Davis. Lane won the last Elite Series event – at Florida's St. Johns River – just two weeks ago. Lane was more shocked than anyone about his 18-5 bag Thursday.
"I don't know what to say," laughed Lane, who grew up in Florida and moved his family to Alabama's Lake Guntersville two years ago. "I get in this clear water, and I can't catch fish. That's the bottom line."
But he did so on Thursday.
This will be one of those tournaments where the leaderboard shifts dramatically every day. The test will be consistency, and Table Rock is the ultimate test of that.
"This is not the kind of lake that you can go back to where you caught 'em the day before," Davis said. "When I won here in '04, I fished new water every day."
Table Rock received a big dose of "new water" Thursday when a thunderstorm swept across the area before noon. That's just one more element of the unknown this 43,000-acre Ozark impoundment will throw at the 108-angler field. Davis said it could significantly alter his strategy if a slug of muddy water is added to the back ends of major lake tributaries. Another thunderstorm hit the Branson area about 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
"If we get a 4- or 5-inch gulley-washer, I'll change everything I'm doing," Davis said.
Otherwise, unpredictable Table Rock Lake will fish as predicted:
1) A 12- to 14-pound bag kept you in the hunt. Kevin VanDam was 21st with 14-0, and Jacob Powroznik was 49th with 12-0.
2) A rare big bass was needed to separate you from the field. Martens had the biggest bass Thursday with an 8-0. Davis caught a 7-3. Lane had a 5-9 and a 5-4.
"It's huge," Martens said. "That made my limit 'whole.'"
Added Davis, "That 7-3 was like a 9- or 10-pounder somewhere else. Anything over 5 is a bonus."
Table Rock is the middle of three Corps of Engineers lakes on the White River. Beaver Lake is upstream and Bull Shoals is downstream. It has significant populations of largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass. While largemouths were the dominant species at Thursday's weigh-in, spots and smallmouths made significant appearances as well.
Jeff Kriet, who is tied with Rick Clunn for 15th place with 14-10, is targeting spotted bass
"I caught the hat trick – smallmouths, spots and largemouths," Kriet said. "But I'm fishing for spots big-time. I caught a couple of 4-pounders in practice. If I can catch three big spots, I can get to 16 ½ or 17 pounds. I got six bites in 15 minutes right before check-in."
Table Rock produced an amazing number of bites – from all three species – Thursday. All three require a minimum length limit of 15 inches here.
"I caught fish on my first 15 casts," said Terry Scroggins, who is 42nd with 12-5. "But only three were keepers."
VanDam has spent a lot of time on this lake competing in tournaments and working with his major sponsor, Bass Pro Shops.
"It's been awhile since I've had a day like this," he said. "It's an incredible lake. I probably caught 50 or 60 fish."
It's been awhile since Davis has had a year like this. He has made three top 12 cuts in a row, dating back to last season. If anyone in this tournament can put together a consistent four days on Table Rock Lake, it's probably Davis. But it won't be easy for anyone.
"You've got to change every day," Davis said.
The 108-angler field will be cut to the Top 50 after Friday's weigh-in.