Prince burned one gallon of gas

DECATUR, Ala. — Cliff Prince didn’t have to go far from takeoff to catch his fourth-place total of 19 pounds, 4 ounces. He was boat No. 24 at the 6 a.m. launch Thursday, ran out to the Decatur Flats and sat on one spot all day long. The 54-year-old Palatka, Fla., angler hopes he burns only another gallon of gas on Day 2 of the Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Wheeler Lake.

“Nobody tried to get on it,” he said. “If they would have (on Day 1), I would have let them in. But if somebody is on it (Friday), they’re going to get a dog cussin’, I can promise you.”

Prince found this spot on the first day of practice. And it’s literally a spot, about 10 feet by 10 feet, a hard spot in the midst of the grass, probably a mussel shell bed. On the third day of practice Prince went back to check it, and he watched a local angler catch a bass on every cast there, including one that looked to be every bit of 5 pounds.

“That was about two o’clock (Wednesday),” Prince said. “So, I’m like, well, (the bass) are still there.”

He had his five keepers early Thursday. But hot spots are hard to find in Wheeler Lake right now, and Prince wasn’t about to leave this one.

“If you don’t cast in that spot, you won’t get bit,” he said. “I fished all around it and caught two after nine o’clock. That’s because I wasn’t casting on that spot.”

Included in his bag was a 5-pound largemouth and a 4 1/2-pound smallmouth. He repeatedly checked on the condition of his fish throughout the day. On his last look, right before leaving to check in, the smallmouth was dead. That 4-ounce dead fish penalty kept Prince out of second place after Day 1.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said. “I checked those fish all day long. It kills me to kill a fish.”

Prince said if he’d noticed any kind of struggle among the keepers in his livewells, he would have made the short trip to the tournament venue and put some ice on them … and burned another gallon of gas.

Hackney lands a 7-9 — Greg Hackney caught some good quality fish in practice this week, but no numbers to speak of, not even small fish numbers. He was concerned about catching a five-bass limit when the tournament began.

The 50-year-old pro from Gonzales, La., experienced a reversal of that Thursday. The numbers were there – “I caught about 15 fish,” Hackney said – but the quality wasn’t, until a big one bit. It weighed 7 pounds, 9 ounces and easily took Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors for the day. Hackney is in fifth place with 18-5.

“My second biggest fish didn’t weigh 3 pounds,” he said. “I really didn’t catch the quality I had been catching in practice.”

Unsurprisingly for a noted jig fisherman like Hackney, the big bass bit a jig.

“I probably should become a little less versatile,” laughed Hackney. “I told my Marshal, ‘This is my favorite way to fish. Why do I do anything else?’”

Welcher likes it hot — Unlike Cliff Prince, 2023 Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kyle Welcher burned many gallons of gas on Day 1. He fished almost the entire 60-mile length of Wheeler Lake in catching a limit weighing 15-6, which put him in 21st place. And he had fun doing it.

“I burned a lot of gas today,” said Welcher, 31, from Opelike, Ala. “I went a long way two ways. I didn’t go to both (Guntersville and Wheeler) dams, but I went pretty close to both of them.

“I love whenever it gets hot. This lake is not as good as some of the other ones in this area. But anytime you have a river system that has moving water, the fish get to places where I like for them to get.”

And just where is that? Depth-wise, it’s anywhere from 6 inches to 28 feet. That’s where his fish came from Thursday, he said.

“I don’t have that many rods on the deck,” Welcher said. “I’ve got eight or nine confidence baits, and I just kind of run around and throw those at everything. I don’t like to muck around and beg for a bite. I just run really, really fast, and I realize you’re just not going to get that many bites.”

Palaniuk made the most of practice time — Elite Series rules for practice days allow the anglers to be on the water basically from sunrise to sunset. Never one to leave a stone unturned, so to speak, Brandon Palaniuk put his boat on the trailer about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, with official takeoff time for the tournament only 10 1/2 hours away.

Those extra hours on the water paid off for the 36-year-old two-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year from Rathdrum, Idaho. He finished Day 1 in 17th place with 15-12.

“It looks so much better on paper than it actually was,” Palaniuk said. “I don’t know what to expect (Friday). I caught one on my third cast, one on my sixth cast and one on my seventh cast. Then I lost one on my eighth cast, and I lost one on my ninth cast. I ended up catching three more bass all day long.

“I caught some big ones later in the day. That’s what paid off. It was stuff I found after five o’clock (Wednesday). Sometimes it pays to grind a little.”