PALATKA, Fla. — Never have so many bass anglers fished in so small an area and been so successful as what took place in the Bassmaster Elite Series St. Johns River Tournament on Thursday.
At one point, over half of the 108-angler field was fishing in approximately 80 acres of water on the western side of Lake George. And somehow that area still produced 9 of the top 10 on Day 1.
The hole-course format has been used at various times to spice up a bass fishing tournament. But usually it was the top six anglers after two or three days of competition rotating through areas that gave them a few acres of water to themselves. Thursday at Lake George, it was 40 to as many as 57 anglers rotating through a shallow, spawning flat.
"I fished my three best areas this morning and couldn't get a bite," said Marty Robinson, who is tied for second with 24 pounds, 1 ounce. "I rolled up in there and it looked like a nightclub. I had to turn sideways just to get in."
But even with a late arrival, Robinson managed to catch a 9-pound, 9-ounce bass and another one in the 8-pound range.
Day 1 leader Randy Howell, with 27-3, drew a late boat number and figured he would be too late to the party. That wasn't the case. Howell had a chance at a 30-pound bag on Thursday.
"I had boat number 63," Howell said. "I caught an 8-pounder, then a I caught a 6. I still weighed a 2 ½-pounder."
Davy Hite was among the early arrivers at the party in Lake George. He is tied with Robinson with 24-1, which included the big bass of the day a 10-2.
"I had boat number 11, and I thought that would make a difference," said Hite. "I saw that 10-pounder and she bit on my first cast with a Trigger-X floating worm, but I missed her. Then I caught her 10 minutes later on a creature bait.
"Lake George gets that kind of pressure (during the spawn) all the time. I came here with my wife on our honeymoon 27 years ago. It was like that then."
Well, maybe not quite like this. This kind of pressure on one small area trumped anything most of these pros had ever seen.
"I could have shot a shotgun and killed about 45 Elite (Series) guys," said Jeff Kriet, who didn't land a lunker and is 38th with 14-11. "I've never seen anything like it."
Of the top 10, only Casey Ashley, who is ninth with 20-9, didn't fish in the tight quarters of Lake George.
"I hate fishing around the crowds," Ashley said. "I can't fish like that. I stayed out of the crowd and took the seconds."
Randall Tharp is 18th with 18-2 and he did the same as Ashley.
"I really don't like to fish in a crowd," Tharp said. "I was one of three boats that I saw that went north (instead of south to Lake George). I've never fished here before. But every day I've added to the area I'm fishing."
That sets up an interesting scenario for the rest of this tournament. Several anglers mentioned that the stable weather and rising water temperature is sending more fish shallow to spawn, even during competition Thursday. That's why Howell's late boat number didn't hurt him.
But sooner or later this week, you have to believe that the pressure in Lake George will have an effect.
"They're still there," said Mark Davis, who is 17th with 18-3. "But they're really getting hard to catch now. When they hear a trolling motor, they're headed the other way."