McKendree takes Day 1 lead

smithlakefeb20day1-2.jpg

Chris Mitchell

CULLMAN, Ala. — While spotted bass dominated the weigh-in stage Thursday afternoon, Ethan Jones and Andrew Althoff of McKendree University weighed in four largemouth and one spotted bass to take the lead after Day 1 of the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series at Smith Lake presented by Bass Pro Shops.

The duo’s bag weighed 19 pounds, 13 ounces, giving them a 4-pound advantage over the second-place team of Landon Lawson and Donavan Carson from King University in Bristol, Tenn.

During the 2019 event at Smith, Jones and his partner Trevor McKinney targeted largemouth and came home with a fifth-place finish. This year, Jones intended to target spotted bass, but that plan was put on hold.

“Being early and colder (this year), I was like ‘Man, largemouth are not going to be a key player. It’s going to be all spotted bass,’” Jones said. “I spent a lot of time graphing and looking in practice, but I went back to some of those areas we had because we weren’t really finding any spots, at least nothing with size.”

After not finding a decent area to catch spotted bass, Jones and Althoff tried a few of the areas that worked for Jones last year, and caught several good largemouth. Jones said he was confident those places could produce a bag that would put them near the top, but didn’t expect to catch nearly 20 pounds.

After catching two big fish in the opening hours of the tournament, Althoff said he and Jones had to overcome a mid-day lull.

“We caught those two 4-pounders, one was at about 8:45 a.m. and the second one about 9:30. Then we went several hours without a bite,” he said. “He lost a keeper at about 1:30 p.m. and we thought, ‘Gosh that’s gonna be huge.’ We pulled up on a spot and ended up catching the spotted bass. He caught a couple keepers and we ended up culling a couple times.”

Jones said he and Althoff have had success with two key baits in 8 to 12 feet of water. While other boats have been in the same area, Jones added he doesn’t think that will affect their chances on the second day.

“We are really shallow for this lake. I think we will be alright,” he said. “They aren’t fishing the same way or the same specific spots we are fishing. I think it is just a matter of capitalizing on our bites. We only had six keeper bites today, so just going out and capitalizing will be the main goal this week.”

Lawson and Carson said they were hoping to fish for largemouth this event as well, but decided on spotted bass. The decision paid off as they weighed in the second largest bag of the tournament.

“(In practice) we didn’t really have much. We thought we could catch a limit each day, but nothing like that,” Carson said.

Blake Spradlin and William Phillips from Auburn University ended the day in third place with 14 pounds, 14 ounces of spotted bass, one of two teams from Alabama to place in the Top 10 on Day 1. Phillips said their day did not start well, as they watched a team fishing the same area catch three keeper fish.

Fortunes changed quickly, however.

“We went to the next place and within 10 casts we had all of our weight,” Phillips said. “We left that spot as soon as we caught the fifth one and tried to find other things. We had three or four other schools marked and we didn’t go to those today.”

After all, competitors practiced in 50-degree weather at the beginning of the week. But a cold front rushed through Wednesday afternoon, dropping the temperature to the low 30s overnight with a daytime high of only 46 Thursday.

Despite the weather, weights were consistent for the top half of the field. The fourth-place team of Nick Montilino and Chris Armstrong from Murray State caught 14-9, but have a 3-pound advantage over the four teams tied for 31st.  

East Carolina’s Curtis Dillon and Aaron Digh caught the Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the day, a largemouth bass weighing 5-14, flipping in shallow water.

The full field will take to the water again Friday with takeoff scheduled for 6:30 a.m. CT from Smith Lake Park in Cullman. Weigh-in will be held back at the park 2:30 p.m. The Top 12 teams will advance to Championship Saturday and will weigh in at Wallace State College in Hanceville.

The tournament is being hosted by the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce.