LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Denny Brauer of Camdenton, Mo., called dibs on the Diamond Drive lead Friday with a limit of 19 pounds, 7 ounces of Arkansas River bass.
Brauer, who led the first day by only 2 ounces, put more than 8 pounds between him and his nearest challenger, Kevin VanDam. Brauer has a two-day total of 34-1 to VanDam’s 25-11, a surprisingly big lead in an event that’s been stumping many in the Bassmaster Elite Series field.
Brauer held at the top, but that was about the only leaderboard consistency over two days. Local favorite Billy McCaghren of Mayflower, Ark., climbed from fourth into third with 24-7. Fourth place was claimed by John Murray, who rose five ticks with 23-3 over two days. Fifth was Takahiro Omori, up from 15th place to anchor the top five at 22-6.
The field was cut to the top 50 for Saturday’s competition. The finale will be Sunday, when the top 12 go against each other for $100,000 and a 2012 Bassmaster Classic berth.
Brauer, owner of 16 Bassmaster titles over his venerable career, didn’t see his lead as assurance of a 17th win. One concern is local boat traffic.
“We suddenly got more company today, so I don’t know if it (area) will hold up,” said Brauer, whose five-fish bag was anchored by a 4-4 largemouth. “Tomorrow is a Saturday, the area I’m fishing is going to have a lot of traffic, and a lot of people know where I’m fishing.”
Brauer, unlike many of the pros, said he has not been affected by the river’s fluctuating water level and flow. He played it close to the vest, saying only that the reason he’s immune “has something to do with my proximity to deeper water.”
He said he milked his spot harder today than he did yesterday, but the difference wasn’t much: two hours the second day as opposed to only an hour and a half the first day. He’s leaving the area to make a two-lock trip back to the check-in point.
The fish he caught were postspawners, he said, and they’re pulling off deeper in a “classic” pattern. But he isn’t confident that will hold.
“I’m looking for many of the fish to be leaving, going to the main river, and that’s what worries me. That can happen overnight,” he said.
If Brauer feels his 8-plus-pound lead is tentative, the big number has the attention and respect of his nearest challengers.
“It’s very easy to stumble here. It could happen to me, it could happen to him. Denny usually doesn’t. He’s one of the best closers in the business,” VanDam said, adding that Brauer himself taught him how to take chances to win.
“I don’t expect him to stumble, but I’d sure like to be there if he does,” the superstar from Kalamazoo, Mich., added. “Who knows about tomorrow, it’s going to be a lot tougher. There’s pressure in the areas that have fish. But everybody’s in the same boat there.”
McCaghren, whose lack of a fifth fish kept him almost 10 pounds out of the lead, said that Brauer would have to go down hard for anyone to catch up. Like VanDam, McCaghren would like to try.
“It’s going to be tough,” said McCaghren, who’s been preparing for this tournament since the day he heard the announcement that the Elite Series was coming to his home water.
“I’m trying to fish stuff other people aren’t,” he said. “I beat on my areas pretty hard the first day, and lost two today. You can’t afford to lose a fish when you’re competing against these guys.”
VanDam’s strong performance so far in the Diamond Drive has helped his bid for a seventh and fourth consecutive Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title. He was only 19 points behind AOY points leader Terry Scroggins going into the week; if the tournament were to end after two days and points awarded, VanDam would be leading the points race.
“The thing about the Angler of the Year race is that when it gets down to the end, and it’s tight, you can’t be conservative,” VanDam said. “You can’t go out and say ‘I just need to survive this tournament.’ You have to go out and try to win the thing.”
Brauer, VanDam, McCaghren and many others are locking through to fish multiple pools of the Arkansas River. Because of heavy commercial traffic at the Murray Lock and Dam, six pros were not able to lock back into Pool 6 in time to meet their official check-in time. According to B.A.S.S. rule C18, the late penalty is 1 pound for each minute late. The rule also stipulates that “any competitor more than 15 minutes late shall lose all credit for that day’s catch to include points credit under Rule C19."
Commercial traffic always has priority for lock use, and anglers were advised by B.A.S.S. officials of the locking times and protocol, and of the fact that backed-up commercial traffic due to recent flooding could shut a pro out of a lock at any time during competition.
Zell Rowland of Austin, Texas, was Friday’s big bass leader with a 4-14, the Berkley Big Bass of the Tournament so far.