WAGONER, Okla. — When hometown angler Tommy Biffle of Wagoner, Okla., snatched the lead with 17 pounds, 10 ounces of largemouth bass Thursday, it appeared that the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Open presented by Allstate at Fort Gibson Lake was his tournament to lose.
Biffle, a storied Bassmaster Elite Series pro, is a heavy favorite to win this event. In fact, he fished only four hours during the three official practice days preceding the tournament, and he did so “incognito.”
As competition began Thursday, Biffle fished offshore sweet spots that have produced for him in the past. His home-lake advantage allowed him to cull through 10 bass and save plenty of good water for the remainder of the three-day event.
It comes as no surprise that Biffle caught all of his bass on a Gene Larew Biffle Hardhead dressed with a Gene Larew Biffle Bug. Both lures are his designs.
Since Biffle did not qualify for the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro via the Elite Series, he must win one of the final two Bassmaster Central Open tournaments to get there.
“I have to win this one,” Biffle said. He is especially intent on qualifying for the 2016 “Super Bowl of Bass Fishing” because it will be held on another of his favorite lakes, Oklahoma's Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees.
Brad Whatley of Bivens, Texas, who had never fished Fort Gibson before this week, edged Biffle when he weighed a limit that went 18-9 to nab the lead. Whatley said he had a “decent practice,” but that he grew concerned when he learned Wednesday evening that the lake level was rising.
“I nearly panicked last night,” Whatley said. “I went out today and threw away everything I’d found in practice.”
Whatley adjusted to the rising water better than anyone else in the tournament and boated 10 quality bass from which he culled his heavy limit.
In third place is another Texan, Tim Cline of Sherman, with 17-9, an ounce behind Biffle. Cline hooked nine hefty bass throughout the day by “junk fishing,” but landed only six of them.
 “It’s not a matter of getting bites, it’s getting them in the boat,” Cline said.
Chad Wiley of Pineville, La., caught the heaviest bass on the pro side of the event, a 5-15 largemouth. The pro who catches the biggest bass during the tournament earns a $750 Bass Pro Shops Big Bass award.
Skip Ibbotson of Green Forest, Ark., is atop the leaderboard for the co-anglers with a three-bass limit that weighed 10-9.
Dane Coale of Norman, Okla., landed the biggest bass caught by a co-angler, a 5-4. If no co-angler catches a bigger bass before the tournament ends, Coale will pocket a $250 Bass Pro Shops Big Bass award.
Dock talk prior to the tournament was dire. When several of the pros were asked if Fort Gibson would be as stingy as the Central Open here in September 2014, most said it would be worse. Elite Series pro Jason Christie won that event with a three-day total of 40-15.
The fishing today proved to be tough for most of the field. However, with five limits over 17 pounds, Fort Gibson is exceeding expectations. That may change due to the fluctuating water level, a chance of rain Friday and heavy fishing pressure.
Although Fort Gibson boasts 19,900 surfaces acres, many anglers complain that it “fishes small,” especially given the large, 166-boat field in this tournament. Offshore sweet spots are crowded, and visible shallow targets are being hammered.
The fluctuating lake level is proving to be a high hurdle. Over the past few weeks, Fort Gibson had finally dropped to normal pool after months of high water. A stable, normal pool level favors the offshore bite here, while high water makes for better shallow, target fishing.
Fishing resumes Friday morning with takeoff at 6:45 a.m. CT at Taylors Ferry North. Friday’sweigh in will be at the same location at 2:45 p.m. Saturday’s takeoff will take place at the same time and place, whereas the weigh-in will be held at 3:45 p.m. at the Bass Pro Shops at 101 Bass Pro Drive in Broken Arrow, Okla. Tune into Bassmaster.com for live blog updates, photos and more on Friday and Saturday.