DECATUR, Ala. — By nature, fishermen can be storytellers, and the top-shelf professional anglers that make up the Bassmaster Elite Series are no exception. Before the tournament began, the vast majority of the 108-angler field claimed the three official practice days were very unproductive — if not downright difficult.
It's standard procedure for tournament anglers to hold their cards close to their chest, especially during the days leading up to official competition. However, practice was certainly difficult for some at the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite at Wheeler Lake.
Reality or a well-played bluff, all but eight anglers weighed five-fish limits of bass during the first round of competition on Wheeler. In all seriousness, effectively and consistently catching bass immediately following the spawn can be a difficult prospect as the fish are in need of recuperation. And, that is exactly what the anglers are faced with in in northwestern Alabama.
John Crews of Salem, Va., admittedly struggled to find the size bass he felt were necessary to win this tournament. Crews managed to do very well, however, weighing a limit of bass totaling 20 pounds, 7 ounces and taking the first-day lead.
"The fishing has been tough on Wheeler this week," Crews said. "I was able to develop a couple of patterns that I thought might be productive, but I was pretty surprised to catch the quality of bass I did today."
This is the time of year when an exciting morning bite typically occurs, but for Crews his day started out pretty slow.
"I was able to put together a limit after about an hour and a half this morning," he said. "But it was slower than I expected. Fortunately, I found better bites later in the morning, which helped me cull out some smaller fish. I didn't catch a bass during the afternoon that would have helped my cause. That means I need to be very productive during the morning hours on Friday."
Crews believes bass are continuing to move into his area, which makes him confident that he can keep on the right fish during Friday's second round of competition.
2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic Champion Casey Ashley said he went dam to dam on Wheeler in search of the competitive pattern with few results. Regardless of his struggle, Ashley still managed to catch an impressive limit of bass on Thursday that weighed 19-12, which was good enough for second place.
"I really didn't know what to expect after a tough practice — I know a lot of guys said they struggled, but I actually did, until today," Ashley said, who weighed the day's Phoenix Boats Big Bass, a 6-14 largemouth. "I was hoping to catch 13 to 14 pounds, but catching that big one really helped push me up the leaderboard." If that bass remains the heaviest of tournament, he'll earn an extra $1,500.
Ashley said he caught a mixed bag of bass today. Three smallmouths and two largemouth bass made up his limit, which is not uncommon in this region of the Tennessee River.
Pennsylvania angler Dave Lefebre will be leaving the dock on Friday morning in third place after capitalizing on a good pattern that produced 18-12.
"I caught some good fish today, but I struggled, like everybody else, during practice," Lefebre said. "Earlier in the week, I had a couple of bites in the area I fished today. But, I wasn't able to produce a pattern anywhere else, so I'm pretty much stuck with one place — although it really surprised me today."
Lefebre has nothing to fall back on and is committed to one specific location for the remainder of the tournament. One positive, he said, is that he is fishing by himself, and believes his spot is capable of producing more solid limits of bass as the tournament advances.
After Day 1, the remaining Top 10 anglers include: Brandon Lester in fourth with 18-11, Kevin VanDam in fifth with 18-7, Josh Bertrand in sixth with 18-1, James Elam in seventh with 17-14, Boyd Ducket in eighth with 17-4, Davy Hite in ninth with 17-1 and Edwin Evers in 10th with 16-15.
A full field of 108 anglers will fish again during Friday's second round, and will be cut to the Top 50 for Saturday's semi-final round, with only the Top 12 advancing to Championship Sunday.
Daily take-offs are scheduled for 6:15 a.m. ET at Ingalls Harbor in Decatur, Ala., with weigh-ins scheduled at the same location each afternoon at 3:15 p.m.