Hawk singing 'Sweet Home Alabama'

JASPER, Ala. — An Alabaman leads the way at the Bass Pro Shops Southern Open on Smith Lake. Kevin Hawk posted a Day 1 weight of 16 pounds, 7 ounces to claim the top spot with two days of competition remaining in the season finale. At stake are more than $50,000 in cash and prizes for the winner as well as a Bassmaster Classic berth and five invitations to join the 2013 Bassmaster Elite Series.

Hawk, a westerner by birth who now calls Guntersville home, caught his limit of Smith bass a variety of ways and on a multitude of baits.

“The bass I weighed in came from every level of the water column,” Hawk said, careful not to reveal too much with two days of fishing left. “The deepest were in 35 feet of water.”

Coming into this event, Hawk ranked second in the Southern Open points standings. The top 5 ranked anglers will earn invitations to join the 2013 Elite Series, so Hawk is looking good to claim a spot. If he can win this event, he’ll also take a coveted berth in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic on Grand Lake, Okla., Feb. 22-24. The Classic berth is restricted to Opens winners who fish all three tournaments in that division for the season.

“I think I can catch them again tomorrow,” Hawk said, modestly, “but I know it can go either way.”

North Carolina’s Hank Cherry ranks second with 15-9, and he may be fishing the most unusual pattern of anyone in the tournament.

“I’m mostly putting the boat in 60 feet of water and making long casts on 4- and 6-pound-test-line with 3- and 4-inch swimbaits,” Cherry said, greatly simplifying his pattern. “The key seems to be making a really long cast and getting the bait out away from the boat.”

Cherry’s swimbaits are homemade soft plastic models, poured by some friends in North Carolina. “They’re curly-tail and boot-tail models,” he said. “I use the boot-tail baits when there’s some wind and throw the curly-tail when the water surface is slick.”

In fourth place is 2004 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle of Warrior, Ala. He has 14-14 — just more than a pound and a half behind the leader — and he’s targeting largemouth bass rather the lake’s more plentiful spotted bass.

“Every bass I weighed in was a largemouth, and they all came from 15 feet of water or less,” Swindle confided. “I’m working a 1/2-ounce brown Arkie jig with a Zoom Super Chunk trailer around man-made brush piles and making 60 or 70 stops a day. I just keep moving because I know I’ll eventually find some quality bites. It’s tough out there.”

Swindle, accustomed to keeping the crowd in stitches with his well-known sense of humor, was poignant at the scales on Day 1, telling the several hundred fans in attendance that Smith Lake was where his dreams took shape.

“Launching out here this morning reminded me of when I was a teenager and fishing tournaments in a beat-up old boat,” Swindle recounted. “All I ever wanted to fish professionally. Now I’m fishing for tens of thousands of dollars and using the finest equipment anyone could ever ask for.”

Defending Bassmaster Classic champion Chris Lane doesn’t need a good finish here to qualify for the Bassmaster Classic or to re-qualify for the Elite Series. Because he’s qualified as the defending champ and through points in the Elite Angler of the Year standings, Lane’s spot in the Classic is nailed down a multitude of ways. By fishing this final Open, he’s also qualified through the Southern Opens since he won on the Harris Chain in January.

That means Elite pro Jared Lintner earns a Classic berth once Lane launches tomorrow. Lintner is currently on the bubble, but gets in when Lane triple qualifies.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Lane said of his appearance. “A Classic berth means a lot to all of us, including Jared and his sponsors.” Lane is currently in 10th place with 13-0.

The Carhartt Big Bass for Day 1 was a tie between Drew Benton of Panama City, Fla., and Brian Morris of Cullman, Ala., they came to the scales with matching 5-0 lunkers.

On the co-angler side, Travis Dehart of Greenville, S.C., leads the field with a limit of three bass weighing 8-7, including the Carhartt Big Bass among co-anglers at 5-2. Dehart was paired with Elite pro Charlie Hartley for the first day.

Lewis Smith Lake is a legendary spotted bass venue. Its 21,000 surface acres were impounded in 1961, and it produced several world records between the late 1960s and late ‘70s, including the former world record and current state record spot weighing 7 pounds, 15 ounces caught in 1978.