MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. — Matt Herren came into this week’s Bassmaster Elite at Bull Shoals/Norfork, with a free-wheeling attitude.
“My motto for the week is just to fly by the seat of my pants,” Herren said. “Since we’re fishing two different lakes, I figure that’s all you can really do.”
So far, the strategy has worked very well.
Herren caught five bass Thursday on Norfork Lake that weighed 17 pounds and took the lead in the first-of-its-kind, two-lake Elite Series event. His catch was bolstered by a 6-pound, 1-ounce largemouth that bit during the final minutes.
In an unusual format, the 108 Bassmaster Elite Series anglers will divide their time between two nearby Ozarks lakes near Mountain Home. After competing today on Norfork, the full field moves to Bull Shoals for Friday’s round, after which the field is cut to 50 anglers, who will again compete on Bull Shoals. The Top 12 anglers after Saturday will return to Norfork for the final round.
Herren feels confident now as the tournament shifts to Bull Shoals Lake for the next two rounds before coming back for Championship Sunday on Norfork.
“I just had a really fortunate day,” Herren said. “I got on something early and had a good limit of fish. But with about 15 minutes left in my day, I caught a 6-1. It was kind of an out-of-the-blue fish, but I’ll take it.”
Thursday's round began with a fog delay that lasted almost two hours, but things happened quickly for Herren after that.
The Alabama pro got off to a good start, with five bass that he estimated would have weighed about 14 pounds. Then with the day winding down — and the next two rounds scheduled for a different lake 20 miles away — he desperately wanted to add a kicker fish.
So he decided to make a quick stop on the only place he’d seen a big bass in practice.
“I listened to that little voice that said, ‘Go do it,’” Herren joked. “I pulled in there, and it happened ‘bam’ — just that fast.”
The big fish helped Herren separate slightly from a Top 5 that includes Kentucky pro Mark Menendez with 16-12, Californian Chris Zaldain with 16-2, Alabamian Keith Poche with 15-13 and Florida pro Randall Tharp with 15-8.
Menendez said it was an early 4-pounder that sparked his good first round.
“I got a good bite this morning, and it slowed me down,” he said. “I just got really thorough in an area and managed to get three of those better-quality bites during the day.
“I caught a 4 1/4-pounder late in the day that culled a 2-pounder, and that helped a whole bunch.”
Although he said he’s all for fishing new venues, Menendez made it clear that he’s not a fan of the split format. He believes there will be an element of luck involved for whoever lands in the winner’s spot Sunday.
“I could find the winners on Norfork, not catch them at Bull Shoals, and fall completely out,” he said. “That’s an element we’ve never had to deal with.
“I’m looking at this as four separate tournaments. Each day is a one-day event, and I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth.”
On the flip side, Zaldain said the format really suits the “run-and-gun” style of fishing he prefers. He had no fear of pressuring the fish hard at Norfork on Day 1, knowing his best spots will have two days to rest before he returns.
“I fished all new water today and established a pattern with a bait I have a lot of confidence in,” Zaldain said. “It’s a winding-type bait, and I literally had a look at over 20 pounds today. I had a lot of big ones come up and push it out of the way.
“I’m really, really looking forward to getting back out there on Day 4 — hopefully.”
The tournament will continue Friday and Saturday, with take-offs at 6:15 a.m. CT from Bull Shoals Boat Dock. Sunday’s take-off will be at 6:15 a.m. from Lake Norfork Marina.
Daily weigh-ins will be held at 3:45 p.m. on the campus of Arkansas State University in Mountain Home.