CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Thirteen is the loneliest number in the Bassmaster American presented by Advance Auto Parts. That's because only a dozen pro anglers advance after two days of this event on Lake Wylie and have a chance to compete for the $250,000 first prize.
After one day it's apparent the competition for those top-12 spots will be fierce. With 55 fishermen in the field, only 2 pounds separates fourth place (12 pounds, 9 ounces) and 20th place (10-9) in this second of three Bassmaster Major events.
Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., leads the field with 16-04, which practically assures him a spot in Saturday's semifinals. But with every angler starting at zero on the third day and the format changing to a "hole tournament" on water that is currently off limits, that's all it does.
The story Friday will be who else can catch enough bass to claim one of those top-12 spots.
"I was very much surprised by how unaggressive the fish are," said VanDam, who dropped from first place to second place on the all-time BASS money list just two weeks ago.
Lake Wylie's water level has also dropped in the past 48 hours, and that seemed to confuse much of the field.
"I still think you will see a 20-pound stringer," said Jason Quinn, who lives on Lake Wylie and has worked as a fishing guide on the lake, as well as competing frequently in tournaments here.
But Quinn had a disappointing day, weighing in a five bass limit of 9 pounds, 2 ounces — good for 32nd place.
"I honestly thought I could catch 15 pounds pretty easy," Quinn said.
Only one angler other than VanDam hit the 15-pound mark — Dave Wolak of Warrior Run, Pa., caught the big bass of the day (5-07) to anchor his 15-06 total. Lee Bailey of Boaz, Ala., got close to 15 pounds with a 14-15 total.
Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., and Peter Thliveros of Jacksonville, Fla., are tied for fourth with 12-9 and lead that group of 17 anglers bunched within two pounds of each other.
"I still think 11 pounds a day will get you in the top 12," said Gerald Swindle of Hayden, Ala., who is tied for eighth place with 12 pounds even.
"I guarantee you the weights will drop (Friday)," said Alton Jones, who is tied for 30th place with 9-3. "A lot of the easy fish were caught today. This is the thing I've learned about Wylie. It's all about consistency. I could catch the same thing (Friday) plus one big fish and get in (the top 12)."
VanDam caught the big bag of the day by "PFing" — that's his term for combining power fishing, where you try to cover a lot of water in a hurry, and finesse fishing, where you slow down and use smaller lures to entice a bite.
"I fished the same baits (for power fishing) but I fished real slow," VanDam said. "I'm fishing offshore structure. I'm trying to be real observant of the conditions (like current and cloud cover)."
While most of the anglers who had found fish shallow in practice were disappointed Thursday. Lee Bailey discovered a shallow pattern in practice that held up and produced his 14-15 total.
"I think the key is reading the water," Bailey said. "I'm just junk fishing. My primary bait was a jig, but I also caught fish on a Senko and a topwater (lure). But all of my fish were in three feet of water or less."
Wolak, who celebrated the birth of his first child between the Bassmaster Elite Series event at Lake Champlain two weeks ago and the start of this event, had a day similar to Bailey's. Catching that 5-pound, 7-ounce big bass of the day was huge for him.
"It's weird how they're biting," Wolak said. "It's just totally random. This lake has a huge fish population. But it's hard to figure them out right now. I still think 12 pounds (each day) will get you in the cut."
The proof of that will come Friday in the weigh-in beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET at the Charlotte Merchandise Mart , where an ounce or two will likely be the difference between a happy dozen anglers and the loneliest number in pro bass fishing.