EUFAULA, Ala. — Justin Barnes works as a lineman for Georgia Power, so he’s used to being in high-pressure situations.
But he was surprisingly calm following his electrifying start to the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Lake Eufaula on Thursday.
Barnes, 28, jumped to the Day 1 lead in the first Open of the season with a five-bass limit of 25 pounds, 6 ounces. It gave him more than a 2-pound cushion in the derby, which attracted 225 of the best anglers from around the U.S. and beyond.
It was an exciting start, for sure, but Barnes and the rest of the field will wait an extra day to see how the script wraps. Significant storms, including winds gusting higher than 40 mph, are expected Friday, which forced tournament officials to cancel the day’s competition.
The entire field will return to Lake Eufaula on Saturday in what is now only a two-day tournament.
Barnes said he’s not worried about losing his early momentum, though.
“I’ll be ready whenever we can get back out here,” he said.
And he has history on this 45,000-acre reservoir of the Chattahoochee River to back up his words. Eufaula is Barnes’ home water, with his hometown of Ellaville, Ga., only about an hour northeast of the lake. He said intimate knowledge of the fishery paid off Thursday, though not as much as some might suspect.
“The fish are so scattered right now, it’s really just a matter of finding them,” Barnes said. “And today, I think it was a current deal. For the first 2 1/2 hours of my day, they were pulling water on the lake, and it helped me a lot.”
Barnes’ biggest bass weighed 6-3 — a largemouth he caught within the first 30 minutes. He said he’ll keep his tactics close to the vest for now, though Barnes did say he’s trying a little bit of everything to boat the best bass.
“I’ve had to mix up the baits, fish brushpiles, fish hard spots, fish some grass,” he said. “I’m just running all over the place … The benefit of knowing this lake is that they tend to pull up on certain brushpiles when they’re getting ready to head to shore to spawn. It’s the same thing with secondary points. Knowing where those are helped me today.”
Shane Powell of Dothan, Ala., is in second place with a 23-2 limit. He said he’s exclusively fishing prespawn bass and a day of inclement weather may not hurt his bite at all.
“If it gets cool, I’m hoping it puts the stop sign on them going to the banks,” he said.
Brett Cannon of Willis, Texas, is an ounce behind, in third, with 23-1. He said he caught more than a dozen hybrid striped bass early on Thursday that got his heart pumping and his arms aching. A tweak to his approach finally brought the largemouth bites he needed, however.
“I noticed in practice that the bass were around these hybrids and I think they’re feeding on the same stuff,” Cannon said. “So, I actually started looking for them. I’m cranking in anywhere from 10 to 20 feet, but I have to look for them. The schools of all these fish are just moving around a lot. They’re staging.”
Jon Canada of Helena, Ala., is fourth with 22-12. He caught a 6-10 and a 5-9 — among the heaviest bass caught on Day 1.
“The day off will help me, I think,” he said. “I’m fishing all over the lake because everything is in transition. It’ll probably stay that way.”
Bassmaster Elite Series stalwart Brandon Lester of Fayetteville, Tenn., is fifth with a 21-9 limit. Though all his keepers were in the 4- to 5-pound range, he believes a 30-pound bag is possible.
“I’m confident of that,” he said. “Whether or not I have the time to find the right brushpile that’s holding those bass, I don’t know.”
Alex Heintze of Denham Springs, La., had the Phoenix Boats Big Bass on Day 1 with a 7-7 largemouth.
The winner here will earn a spot in the 2024 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota when it’s held in Tulsa, Okla., next March, provided they fish in the other two Division I Opens events this year. Those are scheduled for Alabama’s Wheeler Lake, May 18-20 and Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes, Oct. 12-14.
The winner also will collect a $52,500 prize, part of $333,000 total purse to be split among the Top 40 competitors in both the pro and co-angler divisions.
Bill Hutchison Jr. of Bessemer, Ala., leads the co-angler standings with three bass weighing 10-6. Mike Spears of Jasper, Ala., is in second place with 10-5, and Steven West of Mooreville, Miss., is third with 9-14. The top co-angler will win $13,147. West had the Phoenix Boats Big Bass among co-anglers with a 5-13.
New to this year’s Opens is the Elite Qualifiers division, with 175 participating anglers fishing all nine events hoping to grab one of nine berths in the prestigious Bassmaster Elite Series in 2024. Barnes and Powell are not participating in the EQ division.
With Day 2 of the tournament canceled, the entire field will fish again Saturday with a 6:30 a.m. CT takeoff from Lakepoint State Park and conclude back at the park with weigh-in starting at 2:30 p.m.