LAKE FORK, Texas — When Chad Pipkens suffered a broken collarbone playing hockey back in early March, some people automatically assumed he was done fishing the Bassmaster Elite Series for the year.
But not only has he kept fishing, he’s actually been better since the freak accident happened.
The veteran pro from Lansing, Mich., caught five bass Thursday that weighed 31 pounds, 15 ounces and took the opening-round lead in the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Lake Fork.
The catch gave Pipkens a 4-ounce lead over Brandon Cobb of South Carolina (31-11) and a 1-5 advantage over Texas pro Chris Zaldain (30-10) on a day when 19 competitors managed at least 20 pounds for their five-bass limits.
“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to break anything else,” Pipkens said, laughing. “But being injured has definitely caused me to slow down and fish a little differently than I did before — and I think it’s showed in the way I’ve finished.”
Before Pipkens’ injury, he had 51st- and 54th-place finishes in the first two Elite Series events on the St. Johns River and Lake Lanier. After breaking his collarbone in three places and enduring a surgery that left him with a massive scar, he finished ninth in his next event at Lake Hartwell — his highest finish on the Elite Series since a fifth-place showing at the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship at Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., in 2015.
He actually got off to a slow start Thursday when he went looking for a couple of large bass he’d found on spawning beds during practice. When he realized those fish were gone, he tried to exploit a shad-spawn bite that has been hot all over the lake.
Since that particular bite happens early — and since he had wasted some time on the bedding fish — that didn’t work either.
Once he finally gave up on the supershallow possibilities, he started putting fish in the boat.
“I think my timing was just off in the morning, but it got right in the afternoon,” he said. “I rolled up to a place and caught a 4 1/2-pounder and nothing else. Then I went to another place and just lit them up.”
Since bass are weighed and released immediately after they’re caught during Texas Fest, Pipkens knew the weight of each individual bass he caught. His five biggest weighed 7-0, 6-14, 6-8, 6-5 and 5-4.
He said the major thunderstorms that moved through the region Wednesday night may have been the reason his early-morning tactics didn’t work.
“That thunder and lightning we had last night even shook me and woke me up,” Pipkens said. “I don’t know for a fact that it had anything to do with the fishing this morning. I just know the fishing wasn’t like it was in practice.”
Cobb, who grew up fishing for bass during the blueback herring spawn this time of year on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina, devoted some of that knowledge to fishing the gizzard shad spawn on Fork Thursday — and it eventually paid off with 31-11.
His biggest five bass weighed 8-12, 7-2, 7-0, 4-12 and 4-1.
“I think the lightning had them a little messed up last night,” Cobb said. “I didn’t have a fish at 10 o’clock — and after the practice I had, I really didn’t expect to catch a fish after 10.
“It was a really tough day for me until I hit one little flurry.”
That flurry produced most of his weight in about 15 minutes.
“That’s the way it’s been for me all week long,” Cobb said. “If you run into them, it’s good. But if you don’t, it’s really tough.”
While the other anglers were tightlipped about which baits they were using and where, Zaldain was open about using a swimbait to catch the bulk of his 30-10 weight.
His bass weighed 7-6, 7-4, 5-12, 5-12 and 4-8.
“I’ve had some good days this year, but this was the most fun I’ve had all season,” Zaldain said. “This morning was just unbelievable with two 7 1/2-pound fish, two that were almost 6 pounds and a 4 1/2.
“I’m around them. I have a good idea of what the fish are doing right now.”
In addition to the $100,000 first-place prize and the $1 million total purse that will be split by the 75-angler field, the angler who catches the Toyota Tundra Big Bass of the week will earn a new Tundra. The competition for that award could be as interesting as the overall tournament itself.
The Top 10 bass caught Thursday each weighed 7-2 or better, and Cobb and Oklahoma pro Luke Palmer tied for first place, each with an 8-12.
The tournament will resume Friday with takeoff at 7 a.m. from Sabine River Authority in Quitman and weigh-in back at the same site at 3 p.m. The anglers will take a break from competition Saturday to sign autographs, conduct seminars and meet fans at a special Outdoors Expo.
The Expo will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, with free demo boat rides, prize giveaways, food vendors and a live performance by country star Chris Knight at 4:15 p.m.