Ashley breaks rules, leads on Day 1

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James Overstreet

LA CROSSE, Wis. — Man, they’ll let you get away with anything on the Bassmaster Elite Series these days. Casey Ashley was a) on tournament waters well past legal practice hours Monday, and b) received information from a non-competitor while doing so.

Yet Ashley is leading after Day 1 of the Plano Bassmaster Elite at the Mississippi River presented by Favorite Fishing. Go figure.

Most importantly, you should understand that the above was written in jest. The five-bass, 17-pound, 10-ounce limit Ashley weighed-in Thursday was near miraculous considering what happened to him Monday. Making it even more unlikely, four of the five bass he brought to the scales, including two 4-plus pounders, were smallmouth bass, a species he “hates.”

If you haven’t heard Ashley’s Labor Day tale of woe, the short version is he ran his boat aground as he was headed to the boat ramp around sunset. It was after midnight before he got rescued. It was 11 a.m. the next day before he got his boat back.

Between sunset and midnight, the Mississippi River mosquitoes almost sucked him dry.

“I think I lost about a pint of blood,” Ashley said.

The Donalds, S.C., native is notoriously cold-natured, so he always carries an emergency cold weather kit consisting of gloves and a stocking cap. Without any bug repellent onboard, Ashley’s best defense was to put those on and cinch his rainsuit tight around his face, hands and ankles, leaving only his flip-flop clad feet exposed.

“(The mosquitoes) were eating my feet up,” Ashley said. “So I took my hoodie and put my feet through the sleeves.”

Ashley’s cell phone was working, and he’d relayed his coordinates. But it’s not easy to find a rescue boat on Labor Day evening, especially one that can run in the skinny water where Ashley’s boat was lodged.

The “information” he got from a non-competitor? Well, it came from a raccoon.

“It was pitch black,” Ashley said. “I saw a silhouette. There are geese everywhere. I can hear ‘em honking, and I thought this was a goose. Finally, it comes out to the point where I can see (the raccoon). He’s not 15 feet from me.

“He just kind of looked at me like, ‘You know (fish) don’t live here. My belly ain’t even wet. You ain’t gonna catch nothin’ in here.’

“I just nodded my head and let him go about his business.”

Ashley discovered Thursday that he’d gathered all the information he needed before he ran aground Monday.

“I found these fish the first day of practice,” he said. “I caught ‘em pretty good. But I didn’t know what I’d find (Thursday) with all the changing conditions. I hadn’t been back to it.

“My first fish this morning was about a 4 ½-pounder. I caught a limit there in about 20 minutes. Then I started jumping from spot to spot. The next place I caught that big largemouth. (The only largemouth he weighed-in.)”

It was around 10 a.m. at that point, and Ashley was almost ready to call it a day, based on his better-than-average start. But he decided to hit one more place where he’d caught one in practice that had about 15 others with it in the 2 ¾- to 3-pound range.

“I thought I could go in there and cull up a little bit,” he said. “The first fish I caught was another 4-pounder. At that point, I just saddled up, came on back down here (to La Crosse) and fished the Black River the rest of the day.”

Ashley’s trying to keep a lid on his optimism, especially with more rain forecast Friday. Everything might change. But then again, maybe he’s got some strange mojo working.

“As weird as it is, I’m catching smallmouth, and I hate smallmouth,” Ashley said. “I’m not a smallmouth fisherman. But I think I’ve got a shot to win.”

The smallmouth bass Ashley dislikes are the ones on deep structure in big lakes.

“These aren’t deep – three feet or less,” he said. “It’s textbook river fishing. And the good thing about it, I never saw another competitor.”

Well, duh. What angler in his right mind would follow Casey Ashley after what he did during practice Monday? However, Ashley will definitely have some eyes on him Friday, as the Day 1 tournament leader.

Just don’t ask the raccoon whisperer to donate blood. He’s running a pint low.