GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — After a two-day pre-tournament practice period that saw most of the 197-boat field from around the country struggle, it only makes sense that two local teams shot to the top of the leaderboard during Wednesday’s opening round of the Toyota Bonus Bucks Bassmaster Team Championship on Lake Guntersville.
Billy Sharp and Kevin Stubblefield, who qualified for the event through the Alabama Bass Trail, brought five fish to the scales that weighed 27 pounds, 6 ounces and claimed the Day 1 lead. Stubblefield is from right here in Guntersville, while Sharp lives in Albertville, less than 30 minutes from the lake.
“We grew up here, and we’ve been fishing here since we were just kids,” said Stubblefield, who teamed with Sharp to win the Alabama Bass Trail championship on nearby Lake Wheeler in October. “We were fishing history today, places we’ve fished before. We stayed off of them in practice, and the fish were on some of them today.”
Practice was tough for Sharp and Stubblefield just like it was for most of a field that includes anglers from as far away as Maine, Delaware, New Jersey, California and Canada. But when competition began, the leaders were aided by built-in knowledge of the lake and conditions that are slowly improving.
“We had kind of a hard time in practice,” Sharp said. “But the water is clearing up, and I think that’s helping us some.”
Sharp and Stubblefield were Boat No. 176 out of 197, meaning they were one of the last teams to leave the launch site at Lake Guntersville State Park during Wednesday’s takeoff that began at 6:30 a.m.
They weren’t sure they would get to their best spot before someone else did. But when they found the area vacant, they went to work quickly, catching much of their tournament-best weight by 7:45 a.m.
They’ll now have to sweat to see if they can win the race to their choice water Thursday.
“Some guys saw us catch them today, but we’ve got an early boat number for tomorrow (Boat No. 22 in the first flight),” Sharp said. “The plan is definitely to go right back where we caught them and hope for the best.”
The leaders’ catch of 27-6 was bigger than all but one daily catch recorded by the top bass pros in the world back in April during the Bassmaster Elite Series event on Lake Guntersville. But it was less than a pound better than Wednesday’s second-place finishers.
The Guntersville husband-and-wife team of Kent and Shannon Ware, who qualified through the Fishers of Men Team Tournament Trail, brought 26-9 to the scales to position themselves just 13 ounces out of the lead.
Knowledge of Lake Guntersville helped the Wares keep track of the fish as the tournament drew near and conditions changed frequently throughout the fall.
“The fishing was good during pre-practice,” Kent Ware said. “But then they jerked the water down, and it got bad. Then it came up during the off-limits. It was good the first day of practice this week, and then the second day it wasn’t as good.”
Ware said it’s still changing now that the tournament is underway.
“Now the water has been sucked back down,” he said. “We’re just trying to adjust to the water level. We caught one of our biggest fish on the last cast today, so hopefully they’ll still be biting when we get back out there tomorrow.”
Behind the two local teams in third place is the Texas team of Dean Alexander and Thomas Martens with 23-14. Christopher Risner and Timothy Eaton of Michigan are in fourth with 23-10.
“Today fished different than practice,” Alexander said. “We had some grass fish. We had some offshore fish. We just kind of mixed it up between those two, and the offshore was definitely better.
“Practice was really tough, but I think the wind and cloud cover helped today.”
The tournament resumes Thursday with a full field of 197 boats leaving Lake Guntersville State Park at 6:30 a.m. and returning for the weigh-in back at the park at 2:30 p.m. The leading team after Thursday’s weigh-in will be crowned national team champions. Then on Friday and Saturday, the six anglers from the Top 3 teams will compete individually against one another in the Bassmaster Team Championship Classic Fish-Off.
The winner of the individual competition will earn a bid to the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro on Oklahoma’s Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, March 4-6.