Lester's lunkers land lead

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Seigo Saito

PALATKA, Fla. — During the final round of practice for the Bassmaster Elite at St. Johns River presented by Dick Cepek Tires & Wheels, Tennessee angler Brandon Lester found a giant largemouth bass on a spawning bed.

He was so excited about the fish that he texted some of his family members and told them to pay attention to Bassmaster.com when the tournament began, because he thought he could make something special happen early.

Hopefully they took it to heart.

Lester went straight to the big fish Thursday morning — and caught it on his fourth cast — to set the tone for a fantastic day of sight fishing. The bass, which weighed 9 pounds, 3 ounces, anchored a five-fish limit that tipped the scales at 23-13 and gave Lester the opening-round lead.

 “Honestly, I thought the fish was about a 6 1/2- or 7-pounder,” said Lester, who is seeking his first B.A.S.S. win. “Once they get over 7 pounds, when they’re sitting in the water, it’s hard to tell.”

When anglers find fish on spawning beds one day, it’s usually a safe bet they’ll still be there the next. So Lester went prepared to fish for the giant bass Thursday morning with a heavy rod, strong braided line and a big lure.

After seeing that the big female fish wasn’t interested in heavy tackle, he switched to a lighter spinning rig in hopes of catching the smaller male bass that was guarding the bed.

But things didn’t work out like he planned.

“I picked my spinning rod up with a little wacky rig,” Lester said. “The male grabbed it, and I missed him twice. I pitched back in there, and the bait started swimming off again. When I set the hook, it was the big fish.”

That left Lester to battle a gigantic bass on a lighter rod with 12-pound-test line — in a tournament where landing nets aren’t allowed.

“It was chaos for a minute,” he said. “But it worked out O.K.”

With much of the field sight fishing for bedding bass, it could be difficult for anglers to duplicate their Day 1 results when Friday’s second round begins. Many of the fish that were located during practice were caught Thursday, and it’s hard to say for sure if more will move up during the tournament.

Still, Lester said he feels good about his prospects — and he doesn’t believe the approaching cold front will have much of an effect on the spawning cycle.

“We’re coming up on the full moon, so hopefully that’ll overtake the cold front,” he said. “The water is 76 degrees, so it should be warm enough that the cold front won’t drop it down — at least not enough to run the fish off the beds.”

Elite Series newcomer Drew Benton of Panama City, Fla., is second with 22-15, and Cliff Crochet of Pierre Part, La., is third with 22-14. Crochet suffered a 4-ounce penalty for weighing in a dead fish.

If the weather does turn nasty with wind and rain, Benton said it could actually work in his favor.

“A lot of the guys who can catch them when it’s slick and sunny are kind of struggling a little bit,” Benton said. “But when it’s cloudy and windy, that’s kind of when I excel. I’ve got young eyes, and I can see them a little bit better.”

Benton conceded, however, that the bedding fish could grow scarce after Friday’s second round.

“I spent the last half of the day marking some fish, and I plan to go out Friday and catch as much weight as I can,” he said. “Then I’ll just kind of scramble around the last two days.

“That’s the thing about sight fishing tournaments — you’ve kind of got to burn them and look for new fish as the week goes on.”

Despite the dead-fish penalty, Crochet had one of the better days he’s had in recent memory. After earning only one check on the Elite Series in 2015, he’s within striking distance of his first career win with B.A.S.S.

“About half-way through last year, I could tell things just weren’t going right,” Crochet said. “I’ve been waiting for a day like this pretty much since the end of the 2014 season.

“It’s been a long time coming.”