CULLMAN, Ala. — Lucas Murphy and Mitchell Gunn live in Michigan, so they don’t have the chance to catch spotted bass very often.
But Thursday on the opening day of the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series at Smith Lake presented by Bass Pro Shops, the anglers from Grand Valley State University looked like naturals as they caught the big spots for which this fishery is renowned.
Murphy and Gunn caught a five-bass limit that weighed 18 pounds, 13 ounces, which put them atop the field of 250 teams competing in this three-day tournament. The heaviest of their five spotted bass weighed approximately 4 1/2 pounds, so the other four fish averaged a healthy 3 1/2 pounds each.
Murphy and Gunn’s Day 1 performance was drastically different than the one they had on North Carolina’s Lake Norman last month during the first Bassmaster College Series event of the year. That tournament marked the first time they fished specifically for spotted bass, and they didn’t fare well, finishing 115th overall.
To bounce back with a commanding performance at Smith Lake was the boost of confidence they needed.
“After Norman, our confidence was really low,” Murphy said. “Granted, it was stuff we had never fished before, and we knew it would be like that. But that beat us up. To finish 115th, we’re just not used to that.”
“Norman tore us up pretty good,” Gunn agreed.
Thursday on Smith, however, it was their turn to tear up the spotted bass. The Grand Valley State duo primarily targeted a pair of five-mile stretches of the 21,000-acre lake here in north-central Alabama. They only caught one keeper in their first area, however, so they made a 15-mile run to their second location.
The move was productive, as Murphy and Gunn quickly added four more spotted bass to their livewell.
“We had 15 pounds or so by 8:30 this morning,” Murphy said. “But we didn’t want to pound our areas too hard, so we moved on to some other things. We caught three fish from (areas) we never fished in practice.”
Murphy and Gunn enjoyed a nearly 2-pound lead on the field for most of Thursday’s weigh-in, but the University of Montevallo duo of JT Russell and Porter James nearly caught the leaders with only a handful of teams remaining at the tanks.
Russell and James weighed a limit that totaled 18-1, but unlike the leaders, they struggled early in the day and didn’t have a keeper bass until 10:30 a.m.
It was an impressive catch, though, as the 6-pound largemouth that James hooked was not only his personal best, but also was the heaviest bass caught on Day 1 of the tournament. It gave the Montevallo anglers the early lead for the Carhartt Big Bass Award, which goes to the duo with the heaviest bass of the tournament.
Montevallo is located just south of Birmingham, about 85 miles from Cullman.
“We came up to a pocket and I just pitched up shallow,” James said. “I was reeling back and when I got halfway back, the line went slack. I set the hook, and boom; it happened to be that big one. It was a great feeling to make that fish the first one of the day. We were nervous for a little while there.”
The leaderboard is jammed at the top, with 19 duos within 5 pounds of the leaders.
Trevor McKinney and Ethan Jones of McKendree University in Illinois are only 1 pound out of second place with a 17-1 limit. Fisher Overton and Alden Keel Jr. of Mississippi’s Blue Mountain College are fourth with 16-8, and Wyatt Reid and Gehrig DeFronzo of South Carolina’s Erskine College are fifth with 16-4.
Teams from 74 different schools and 28 states are represented in the tournament. In all, 233 of 250 teams caught at least one bass on Thursday.
The full field will fish again Friday, with take-off scheduled for 7 a.m. from Smith Lake Park. Weigh-in will begin at the park at 3 p.m.
The Top 12 teams after Friday’s weigh-in will compete Saturday and split a pool of $8,500 cash for their bass fishing teams. The winning duo will earn $2,500 for their school.
The tournament is hosted by the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce.