HOUSTON — After finishing 29th or lower in 10 of his last 12 tournaments with B.A.S.S., Brent Ehrler has been open about his recent frustrations.
“It’s really been bugging me that I haven’t been able to put myself in position to win,” Ehrler said. “To me, that’s the thrill of tournament fishing — just being in position as the tournament is coming to an end — and I have not experienced it at all on the Elite Series.”
On Friday, Ehrler put himself in that position — and he did it on the biggest stage professional bass fishing offers.
The 40-year-old pro from Newport Beach, Calif., caught five bass that weighed 23 pounds, 3 ounces and took the opening-round lead in the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. His catch was anchored by a 9-12 largemouth that ranked as his biggest in four trips to Lake Conroe. It claimed the lead for Berkley Big Bass and gave him a nice leg up on the field of 52.
“I’m definitely in position, but we have a lot of tournament left,” Ehrler said. “What I really like to do is start a little back in the pack, then jump up a little bit and have a chance to be there at the end. I don’t like jumping out in front, but a 9-12 will do that.
“I basically had a 16- or 17-pound limit today with a 9-12 that really bumped me up.”
Ehrler had a successful career on the FLW Tour, winning more than $2 million before moving to the Bassmaster Elite Series in 2015.
In two-plus seasons since then, he’s done well enough to make the Top 50 cut and earn a check in 12 events, and he’s qualified for the Classic both years he was eligible. But he has yet to claim a victory with B.A.S.S.
He said Friday’s big fish was a complete surprise, and he isn’t certain his pattern will hold up for three days.
“I had one big bite and a bunch of solid fish,” Ehrler said. “I wasn’t expecting to catch any big ones like that. I’ve fished three Toyota Texas Bass Classics here, and I haven’t caught a big bass like that — not even in practice. I didn’t catch one in practice for this tournament.
“I’ve learned something here, and I can do it in multiple areas. But I don’t know how strong.”
The kicker fish in Ehrler’s bag provided a slim margin over a crowded leaderboard that included seven bags of 20 pounds or more. Kentucky angler Bradley Roy is in second place with 22-1, followed by Cliff Crochet of Louisiana (21-8), Michael Iaconelli of New Jersey (21-2), Clifford Pirch of Arizona (20-11), Dave Lefebre of Pennsylvania (20-6) and James Elam of Oklahoma (20-1).
Roy, who made waves during Classic pre-practice in January by catching a personal-best largemouth that topped 10 pounds, benefited from that hard-earned knowledge he gained in practice.
“I found some stuff when I was here before the off-limits that I liked,” said Roy, a 26-year-old angler making his first Classic appearance. “I didn’t know that I was going to get a chance to use all of it because I didn’t know which phase of the spawn these fish were going to be in.
“I was able to use a little more of it than I thought I was going to, and it worked out.”
Crochet, who qualified for the Classic by winning last year’s final Central Open on the Atchafalaya Basin in Louisiana, was animated and loud when he climbed from his boat with his bag of 21-8.
“I’ve been very intense in my approach,” Crochet said. “I made it here in the bottom of the ninth inning. I was down in the count, and I know what it means to be here.
“I’m going to keep my eye on the prize.”
Conditions were tough on Conroe with 20- to 30-mph winds causing 4- and 5-foot waves on many parts of the lake. Calmer conditions are in the forecast for Saturday, and Ehrler said he believes that will allow anglers to move around more and bring in some even bigger weights.
It could also lead to increased boat traffic, but Roy said that won’t bother him.
“If the wind will lay down a little, it’ll let me get to a few more of my areas that I didn’t get to fish much today,” Roy said. “Actually, one of my best days in practice was on a Sunday when there were a bunch of boats running around.
“That gives me confidence that I can catch them, no matter the conditions.”