LAKE WALES, Fla. — Byron Velvick might have been one of the happiest men on Earth when he walked across the weigh-in stage Thursday at the Bassmaster Elite Series Citrus Slam, presented by Longhorn.
Velvick, who finished next-to-last in the point standings among 108 Elite Series pros last year, caught a five-bass limit weighing 25 pounds and took the first-day lead on the Kissimmee Chain.
"I smoked 'em, dude," Velvick said. "It's about time I showed up in one of these tournaments, isn't it?"
The answer to that question would be, "Yes." Velvick had to re-qualify for the Elite Series, and did it by winning the WildCard qualifier on Dec. 1 last year at Florida's Lake Okeechobee.
"The last tournament I won, there was no money," said Velvick, who got a trophy and a chance to fish the Elite Series, but no check. "I just got a bill for $55,000."
Velvick was referring to the entry fees for the 2008 Elite Series.
"Hey, congratulations, you won the WildCard — now give us $55,000," he said with a laugh. "That's no way to win a tournament."
Velvick will at least get a check for $1,000 this week, for having the Berkley Heavyweight Bag on Day One. But he's hoping for much more.
He caught his bass by sight-fishing spawning beds and casting a reaction bait when looking for another spawning bed to fish. Today he fished in both Lake Toho and Lake Kissimmee.
"This time of year, they are few and far between," Velvick said, in reference to active spawning beds. "You've really got to cover a lot of water. There's no use keeping your hands in your pockets when you can throw something.
"You've got to stay shallow enough that you can cover water while you're casting."
The Del Rio, Texas, resident will have plenty of competition for that $100,000 first-place check. Chief among them will be Terry Scroggins, who is second with 23-2. Scroggins has won his last two tournaments held out of Camp Mack, the headquarters for this event.
With the weather warming into the high 70s Thursday and no wind, sight-fishing proved to be the strongest pattern. After the three practice days this week, there was hardly an angler who thought sight-fishing would be this strong when the tournament started.
"In practice, I didn't sight-fish at all," Scroggins said. "I found these fish in the last two hours [Wednesday]. I know where they bed here. I might find some more tomorrow."
Scroggins, who lives in Palatka, Fla., will start Friday on a big bass he left on a spawning bed Thursday.
"There are some left," he said. "I actually fished for a 6-pounder for three hours and got it to bite 15 times. But it just wouldn't take the bait right, just bite and spit it out. Those big fish, if you hook them, you pretty much mess them up if you don't get them in the boat."
There were four 20-pound bags weighed Thursday. Kelly Jordon of Mineola, Texas, took third place with 22-14.
"There were great conditions for sight-fishing," he said. "This tournament is all about the big bite. I tried the same thing at Harris [last week] and fell flat on my face. It worked out here.
"It's real easy to go out and work your butt off and catch a 7-pound limit. Real easy to do. It's a freaky time of year."
The standings were proof of Jordon's statement. The field will be cut to 50 after Friday's weigh-in, and in 50th place Thursday was Bernie Schultz, with five bass weighing in at 9-7.
So over half the field was in the neighborhood of that 7-pound limit Jordon referred to. Or lower.
Jeff Reynolds of Idabel, Okla., had the other 20-pound bag with 20-12, but he didn't do it sight-fishing.
"I got in a wad of them," he said. "My (co-angler) and I caught a limit apiece in about 30 minutes. I think it really was just a feeding thing. If you get there at the right time, you can catch them. You can cover three miles of bank, then catch them all in 50 yards."
Jared Lintner of Arroyo Grande, Calif., stayed in contention Thursday, thanks to one big fish at the end of the day. Lintner took Berkley Big Bass honors with an 8-13. It weighed considerably more than his other four bass combined, as he is tied with Mike McClelland for 17th place with 15-0.
"I caught that fish around 3 o'clock while flipping mats," said Lintner. The lunker bit a Berkley Sabertail Tube lure.
It took 17-12 to make the top 10 Thurday. That list includes: 5th, Scott Rook, 19-14; 6th, Dean Rojas, 18-13; 7th, Bobby Lane, 18-10; 8th, Kevin VanDam, 18-0; 9th, Brent Chapman, 17-12; and 10th, Bryan Hudgins, 17-9.
Everyone in the top 10 has a back-up plan if the sight-bite goes away, or, like Reynolds, isn't sight-fishing at all.
"I was catching 15 pounds a day during practice," Scroggins said. "That would be pretty strong when the sight-fishing runs out."
Velvick, too, said he had a catch-a-limit plan, which he might start with Friday, before he switches back to the catch-a-lunker plan he employed so successfully Thursday. The five fish he weighed included two 7-pounders and a 6-pounder.
However, this latest warming trend put a lot of fish back on spawning beds Thursday that weren't there earlier in the week. So there's a strong feeling that the sight bite might hold up for awhile.
"I hope with these warm nights and the moon [phase], there may be a big wave coming," Velvick said. "The moon is halfway to full now, and it's up in the sky early, which is good."
Velvick said that he won his first bass tournament in 1991 by sight-fishing, but there were very few other sight-fishermen then.
"You've got to work them," he said. "That's the trick. All these guys know how to do it now. It used to be an art. Now everybody has figured it out.
"This time of year, it's like an Easter egg hunt. Today, I caught all the Easter eggs."
Visit Bassmaster.com for full coverage of the Elite Series Citrus Slam on the Kissimmee Chain, from Lake Wales, Fla., March 13th–16th, 2008. Daily weigh-ins with live streaming video and real-time leaderboards start at 4 p.m. ET. "Hooked Up" will air Sunday at 10 a.m., noon and 3:30 p.m. ET.