Weathering the storm

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — The elite anglers reached shore before heavy thunderstorms rocked northern Alabama Thursday afternoon.

 They probably won't be as lucky Friday.

 More foul weather is expected during the second day of the CITGO Bassmaster Southern Challenge presented by Berkley. There is a 90 percent chance of heavy rain in the area on Friday. Hail, which accompanied Thursday's storms, isn't out of the question either.

 That could make fishing difficult for the 104 elite anglers aiming to survive today's cut to 50 during the fourth stop of this year's Bassmaster Elite Series.

 Alton Jones and Denny Brauer vaulted to the top of the leaderboard Thursday with five-fish limits that weighed 20 pounds, 11 ounces. Terry Butcher and Kelly Jordon are tied for third with 20 pounds, 1 ounce with Takahiro Omori and Timmy Horton tied for fifth at 19-10. Behind that sextet of leaders is a crowded field including another 24 anglers that are within five pounds of the lead. Heading into Friday's action, the 50th heaviest weight (actually a tie for 49th) was 13-7 — just more than seven pounds from first place.

 Lake Guntersville, a 69,000-acre impoundment of the Tennessee River, has offered the anglers a variety of options to catch bass. Some anglers have targeted pre-spawn fish while others are sight fishing for bedding fish. Others are working the underwater ledges and mounds for fish that have already spawned and move farther offshore.

 If the weather cooperates, that variety of options has many of the anglers believing they have a chance to make a move on cut day.

 "I had 16-3 which puts me in 28th place, but I'm only three and a half pounds out of the lead," said Dean Rojas, who currently sits second in the CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year points' race. "Everyone is packed in. So I definitely think I have a good shot of staying close."

 Rojas said he has been throwing some topwater baits Thursday and in practice, but also has been able to use his favored sight-fishing techniques. Though there was a light rain when the anglers took off at 6:15 a.m., Rojas didn't seem too worried the weather would keep him from sight fishing again today.

 "It makes it a little more difficult, but I've caught them pretty good like this when it's kind of cloudy and drizzly," he said. "The overcast kind of helps the view because it takes all the glare off the water. The dark glare is there, but when you have sunlight, you have different shades — greens, yellows. Where as when it's overcast, everything is kind of drab. You don't have that bright glare hitting you."

 Jon Bondy, who is in 80th place with a four-fish bag of 10-14, wasn't as optimistic about the weather's effect on his area.

 "I've got a bad feeling when I get up there, it's going to be muddy," the Canadian elite angler said. "So I'm just going to go looking for new water, try to find some new fish and throw a spinnerbait all day."

 Bondy said he thinks the pros who make the biggest moves forward on Friday will do the same.

 "I think the sight fishermen are done, really," Bondy said. "There weren't a lot of sight fish to begin with and I think they caught them." 

Jones did a bit of sight fishing Thursday, but also did some blind casting to areas he suspected held bedding fish. The strategy worked for him and he's confident it will again Friday.

"I hope these conditions are better for my early morning bite," he said. "I've got it where I've been catching my biggest fish of the day in the first 30 minutes. I'm hoping that these low light conditions, and storms and a little bit of wind may lengthen that bite. Maybe it will last to 8 or 9 o'clock instead of 7:30 (a.m.)"

Friday's weigh-in is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. at Guntersville High School.