Niagara puzzle unsolved on Day 1

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James Overstreet

BUFFALO, N.Y. — No one knew quite what to expect in the new Bassmaster Classic Bracket match-play format, but everyone expected more than this on Day 1 at the Niagara River. Only half of the eight-man field caught limits, and only Kevin VanDam (10 pounds, 4 ounces) and Brett Hite (10-2) totaled double-digit weights.

“It’s just tough out there right now,” said Keith Combs, who caught three fish weighing 7-15 in his three-hour afternoon session on the water. That left him trailing Hite by 2-3 going into Day 2.

“This is a good fishery,” said VanDam, who built an 8-14 margin over his opponent, Drew Benton.  “It’s a place where you could make big jumps in a hurry. You can get on a wad of them for sure. But it hasn’t happened.”

Combs will be in a morning session against Lee on Day 2 – from 8:30 until 11:30. He’s hoping that time of day will make a difference, although he caught the big bass of the day – a 3-9­ – late in Tuesday’s 1:30 to 4:30 session.

“(In Monday’s practice) I never actually noticed a fish following my bait,” Combs said. “They all bit it. I had four keepers in the first hour or so. But they didn’t bite it this afternoon. I had four or five fish follow my bait in, and a couple were three-pounders. I had the potential to catch a 14-pound bag if everything would have committed to biting.”

While three of the four anglers in the morning session caught five-bass limits, and only one of four did so in the afternoon, the total weights for the two periods were almost the same: 30-6 in the morning and 29-11 in the afternoon.

So, yes, there’s a general state of confusion among these anglers on how to successfully tap the Niagara River. And the time constraints of this event leave little time to explore other options. The anglers had one day to practice – from daylight until 3 p.m. Monday.

“That three hours goes really fast,” VanDam said. “I didn’t fish everything I really wanted to because you just don’t have time. It’s time consuming to cover certain areas here the way you need to.”

For the four anglers who advance after Wednesday’s sessions, that will change. They’ll have six-hour competition periods in the semifinals and finals.

“I know you’re going to have to fish differently if you’re going to make it to the end here,” VanDam said. “If I get to the six-hour rounds, that’s not going to be near as intense to me.”

For Jordan Lee, a notoriously slow starter in Elite Series tournaments, simply having a 4-pound, 4-ounce lead over Dean Rojas was satisfaction enough, even though he caught only four bass.

“A lead out here is good because you’re just not going to catch a lot right now,” Lee said. “It’s going to be hard to catch that 12 to 15 pounds in three hours.

“I don’t see this place lighting up because they’re not grouped up like I thought they would be. They’re not all sitting on one spot where you can catch them every cast. Somebody will find them eventually, but it’s hard to do that right now in such a short time.”

Maybe the single best thing these Elite Series anglers do is adapt to the conditions presented them. Advancing to the semifinals will be about who can pick up a few more clues in solving the puzzle that is the Niagara River right now.