MONROE, La. — Jamie Laiche of Gonzales, La., only traveled four hours to get to the 2015 Old Milwaukee B.A.S.S. Nation Championship, so it seems like he would have home-lake advantage over the rest of the field. However, he had never fished the Ouachita River until he started pre-fishing it earlier this fall, and now he leads the event on Day 1 with 16 pounds, 6 ounces.
“I call the Atchafalaya Basin my home water,” said Laiche, “and so I’d call myself a shallow-water, stump, cypress tree fisherman. This is right in my wheelhouse.
“I’m used to fishing tough for seven to eight bites a day, which is how this is fishing,” he said.
Laiche is one of a handful of anglers who brought small boats to navigate the stumpfields of the Ouachita.
“I gambled a little and brought the smaller boat,” said Laiche, referring to his 17-foot Bass Tracker boat that is only 6 feet wide but floats in 7 inches of water. “It’s got a small motor on the back that floats high, and that’s key to getting into those shallow backwaters.”
The drawback to that small boat? “It goes 28 miles per hour,” said Laiche with a laugh. “They’re all passing me.”
He’s covering a lot of water in his area, though, just using his trolling motor. He’s relied a lot on a push-pole, too, which has left him muddy from each time he pulls it out of the water.
“I try to control the things I can control in a tournament,” said Laiche. He can’t control the depth of the water and certainly not the weather, but he can control what craft he drives. “It’s the best way to fish more effectively when the water is this low.”
If Laiche maintains his lead, he’ll qualify for the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro. And it will be eight years after his other trip to the Classic, back in 2008 on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could have that second day back,” Laiche said. The Ascension Area Anglers club member had qualified for the Classic that year through the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship. He had a great first day that put him in the Top 20. But then, the second day came.
“I changed my game plan because of the weatherman,” he said. “I should have stayed with my game plan.” He ended up finishing in 38th place.
“If you ever fish the Classic, all you can think about is going back,” Laiche said.
Laiche is not the only previous Classic qualifier in contention to go back to the big show. The top angler from each division will advance. Laiche currently leads in the Central Division, but he is trailed closely by Albert Collins of Texas, who qualified in 2013, and Doug Thompson, who qualified in 2014. Paul Mueller of Connecticut leads in the Eastern Division, and he has qualified for both of the last two Classics. David Watson and Jami Fralick in the Northern Division are in striking distance, as are Mark Pierce, Southern, and Tim Johnston, Western.
Laiche is confident going into Day 2, but he’s not counting his chickens before they hatch.
“There is no comfortable lead in the Central Division,” he said. “It’s got some phenomenal anglers. I can’t slip. I’ve got to make the right decisions, I’ve got to execute, and I’ve got to have all my equipment top-notch.”
Laiche added that he would be very surprised if he could follow up with another 16-pound sack.
Sixteen pounds was a larger bag than most people predicted. Many anglers expected the top weight on the first day to come in no heavier than 12 pounds. But besides Laiche’s 16-6 sack, Fabian Rodriguez brought in 14-8, and Albert Collins followed with 14-1.
The river is producing far better than it did last year when the championship was here during the same week under similar conditions. On Day 1 in 2014, only 29 anglers had limits and three had zeros; in 2015, 46 had limits and no one goose-egged. The overall weight caught on the first day is higher this year by nearly 150 pounds, even with the same number of competitors. And Alabama’s Coby Carden led on the first day last year with 11 pounds, 8 ounces — which would put him in eighth place this year.
The competition will shake out more on Day 2, when the air temperature is predicted to drop by as much as 10 degrees, and rain will likely come. The change in weather comes as a relief to some anglers and is worrisome to others.
The biggest bass for the first day was a 4-pound, 9-ounce largemouth caught by South Carolina’s John Proctor. Proctor is leading the Southern Division, looking for his first trip to the Bassmaster Classic. Other division leaders are Laiche, Central; Paul Mueller, Eastern; Fabian Rodriguez, Mid-Atlantic; Gary Adkins, Northern; and Robert Peixotto, Western.
Competition resumes at Forsythe Park in Monroe, La., Friday at 6:15 a.m. CT. The weigh-in will also be at Forsythe Park at 2:30 p.m. CT. The event concludes on Saturday, Nov. 7. Tune in to Bassmaster.com for updates and for live streaming of the weigh-ins.