Carden, who lives in Shelby, Ala., caught a five-bass limit weighing 19 pounds, 5 ounces to seize the lead on the opening day of the championship on the Ouachita River in north Louisiana. Pennsylvania’s Aaron Green is in second place with a 15-6 limit and Wisconsin’s Jim Barczak is third with 13-4.
In all, 101 anglers from 47 states and three foreign countries are competing in the championship. The top three anglers in the three-day competition will earn berths into the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk which is scheduled to be held March 4-6 on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell.
Carden got a jump on the field with his 19-5 bag, anchored by a 5-7 largemouth that was the heaviest of the day. However, an unfortunate equipment malfunction almost made it “the catch that didn’t happen.”
“I set the hook on that fish, and when I did, the reel seat in the rod broke,” Carden said. “The reel fell off into the boat. I had to stick the rod under my arm and pull the line in with my hands.
“It was a cluster for a few minutes there,” he said, chuckling at his good fortune.
Carden has had success on Ouachita before, having finished second in the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship held there in 2014. That qualified him for the Bassmaster Classic in 2015 on Lake Hartwell, where he finished 15th. He placed 24th in the Classic on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville a year earlier.
The 47-year-old angler made a long run on the 605-mile-long Ouachita to start Day 1 — a particularly harrowing trip considering temperatures were below 50 with rain.
Carden fished with a half dozen other boats to start the day before working back down the river, fishing some new water along the way. He said he pitched a creature bait around cypress trees and expects to do the same Thursday.
The sun is expected to make an appearance on Day 2 and Carden isn’t sure how that affects his catch. Still, the nearly 4-pound cushion he built Wednesday certainly won’t hurt his championship cause.
“I thought I could catch 13 pounds today and instead wound up with 19,” he said. “Who knows what happens tomorrow?”
Green didn’t catch a bass until 10:30 a.m. on Day 1, but he relocated to an area that provided the bulk of the day’s second-heaviest bag.
“It was laydowns mostly,” Green said. “We knew they were there, but we had to narrow it down. Once we did, we caught them pretty quickly.”
Barczak said he’s fishing in a cut approximately 45 minutes from the takeoff at Forsythe Park. He said the bass he found were in shallow water, but he thinks they’ll reposition under sunnier skies.
“Most of the guys who are up in the top (of the standings) are in the same area I am, I think,” Barczak said. “I’ll stick with it. It’s all I have.”
Arkansas’ Chris Johnson is in fourth place with 12-12. Trailing just behind him are Rhode Island’s Mike Wolfenden (fifth, 12-4), Minnesota’s Richard Lindgren (sixth, 12-3) and California’s Matty Wong (seventh, 12-2).
Ray Cates of Overland Park, Kan., leads the nonboater division with five bass weighing 13-12. That limit included a 4-15 kicker — the heaviest caught by a nonboater on Day 1. Wisconsin’s Dustin Drath is in second place with 13-9, including a 4-2 largemouth that anchored his bag.
Competitors qualified for the championship through five regional championships held earlier this year. And per usual, B.A.S.S. welcomed the Paralyzed Veterans of America Angler of the Year to the event.
The field is vying for $96,000 in prize money, including a $20,000 Nation’s Best first prize presented by Nitro/Mercury that goes to the top boater. The champ also will earn a spot in the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2022, including the use of a fully-rigged Nation’s Best tournament boat for the season. If the Nation champion turns down the Elite Series berth, they will instead be awarded paid entry fees to the Basspro.com Bassmaster Opens for all divisions. The second- and third-place boaters, as well as the nonboater champ, will have their entry fees paid into the Bassmaster Opens in all divisions.
The top nonboater after Thursday’s weigh-in will collect $10,000, also courtesy of Nitro/Mercury.
Day 2 will begin Thursday with a 7:15 a.m. CT takeoff from Forsythe Park. Weigh-in is scheduled at the park for 3:15 p.m.
After Thursday’s round, the Top 10 boaters and the winning nonboater will advance to fish Friday. The Top 2 boaters from each of the regional tournaments (if not already inside the Top 10 overall) will also make the cut, as will any nonboaters that have totals that rank among the Top 10 boater weights.
The championship tournament is being hosted by the Monroe-West Monroe Convention and Visitors Bureau.