Duel in the Delta

STOCKTON, Calif. — After an underwhelming first day of competition, it took some ugly, frigid weather for the California Delta to come alive.

Friday, the fishery showed its true colors at the Trokar Duel in the Delta. Despite the polar-opposite conditions from Thursday, Stephen Browning of Hot Springs, Ark., was able to duplicate his first-day success, landing 20-plus pounds and building his two-day total to 45 pounds, 4 ounces.

Browning had to fend off a number of hard-charging anglers, including Mike Iaconelli of Pittsgrove, N.J., who weighed 25 pounds, 12 ounces, the largest limit of the event thus far. Yet Browning's consistency was enough to build a sizable 5-plus pound margin.

Scouring an area comprised of six to eight dead-end sloughs, Browning made a minor modification on his lure choice after encountering some early struggles. It wasn't a significant change but one that Browning said aided him mentally. Despite his success, Browning is mystified at what is turning the fish on.

"There is no rhyme or reason when or why they bite. You just never know when they are going to bite," Browning, 43, said. "And that means you have to be on your toes at all times. You really have to pay attention and capitalize when you get one of those bites because they are few and far between."

Changes are, again, in store for Saturday. The forecast calls for sunny conditions and clear skies and Browning, for one, will make a slight adjustment.

"I have an area that I found in practice that I know big fish live in," said the one-time BASS winner. "I just have to get it out of my system so I think I will start there Saturday."

Browning is fishing extremely calm and deliberate and he said having a sound mental approach is the most important attribute to have this week. Part of that is patience and with slow starts and large gaps in between bites, Browning's patience has been tested.

Still, he was able to expand on his area later in the day — a time when most of his bigger bates occurred — and land a four-plus pounder.

Browning is tapping into knowledge he gained during a third-place showing at the 2007 Elite event here. Add to that his Arkansas River pedigree and his shallow-water command and Browning should continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

But Iaconelli, who came from 18th place to move up to second, figured something out Friday. The 37-year-old 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion attributed much of his success to having an area all to himself — a rarity in Elite Series events.

The area — comprised of three key components: deep water nearby, spawning flats and current grass — yielded 20 keeper-sized bites to Iaconelli. Fishing typical Iaconelli style, fast and furious and covering a lot of water, the six-time BASS winner, with a two-day total of 39 pounds, 12 ounces, was brimming with confidence despite the sizable deficit he is facing.

"Each day, I have been learning more and more about the area I'm in," said Iaconelli, the 2006 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year. "That is a key to doing well in these high-level events.

"If I can just get near the leaders heading into the final day, I think I have a shot. I'm in an area where the 10- to 12- pounders live and all it takes is landing one of those and it's a whole new ballgame."

John Crews of Salem, Va., joined Iaconelli and Browning in the 20-plus pound club and moved up to third with 36-15. Crews could be plagued by his failure to fill out his limit on Thursday.

In fourth was California legend Gary Klein, who now resides in Weatherford, Texas, with 35-3. Local favorite Skeet Reese of Auburn, Calif., moved up to fifth with 33-14. Despite trailing Browning by more than 10 pounds, Reese, the 2009 Bassmaster Classic champion, poses a large threat to the leaders due to his California chops.

Notables who made the cut include four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Rick Clunn (16th); 2010 Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin VanDam (29th) and Mike McClelland (47th), who was the last angler to qualify for Saturday. The full standings can be found below.

Elite anglers are competing on the California Delta for a $100,000 first-place prize, points toward qualifying for the Bassmaster Elite Series postseason and 2011 Bassmaster Classic, and the title to the first of eight tournaments of the Elite Series' fifth regular season.

Stockton, the state's 13th largest city and seat of San Joaquin County, is situated on the San Joaquin Delta Waterway — also known as the California Delta because the area forms a triangle with the three points being Sacramento, Stockton and Pittsburg, Calif. The Delta encompasses 1,000 miles of navigable, fishable water in a labyrinth of sloughs, canals, channels and islands, one factor that makes tournament fishing there so tough — and so good.

In March 2007, a haul of 85 pounds, 12 ounces, was the total weight Aaron Martens of Leeds, Ala., brought to the scales to win when the Elite Series last stopped in Stockton. In April 1999, before Mark Tyler of Vian, Okla., became an Elite pro, he set a record that still stands today: the largest bass caught in a BASS competition, a 14-pound, 9-ounce Delta lunker.

The top 47 advance to Saturday's competition. Only the top 12 will still be in the game the final day, Sunday, for the $100,000 top prize.