OKEECHOBEE, Fla. — Rebounding from a disappointing 2007 Bassmaster Elite Series campaign, Byron Velvick of Del Rio, Texas, took a commanding lead at the Bassmaster Elite Series WildCard on Florida's Lake Okeechobee with a limit of bass weighing 21 pounds, 5 ounces.
His closest competitor, Rich Ash of Pottstown, Pa., weighed in 16-2, putting him more than 5 pounds back. While Velvick and Ash, both of whom were Elite pros in 2007, are competing for the top spot, the field of 34 anglers is fighting for the final 10 qualifying berths in the 2008 Elite Series.
The WildCard tournament is a second-chance competition for 2007 Elite pros who didn't qualify via their performance on the top-level circuit as well as 2007 Bassmaster Open pros who put together solid seasons.
Live, streaming video footage of the daily weigh-ins and real-time leaderboard information can be viewed on ESPNOutdoors.com.
Velvick's banner day was achieved with two different worms and a Rat-L-Trap fished in 4 to 8 feet of water. The 43-year-old located two key areas in the three-day practice period and rotated between them throughout the day Thursday.
"The key to success is fishing really slowly," said Velvick, who owns a resort on fish factory Lake Amistad in Texas. "I feel like my areas still have more to yield and I'm crossing my fingers that I can put together two decent limits."
It was a unsatisfactory season for Velvick in the Elite Series as he finished in 107th out of 108 anglers in the season-long points chase, the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. But the WildCard tournament gives the winner a chance to qualify for fishing's most prestigious circuit.
"I feel good," Velvick said. "My practice period was very efficient. I covered a lot of water and feel I have a good handle on the lake."
While Ash trails Velvick by a significant margin, his day put him safely ahead of the cut for next year's Elite Series. The 56-year-old played it close to the vest on his choice of lure but said he targeted precise areas on Okeechobee with rocky bottoms, concentrating on 1 foot to 3 feet of depth.
Ash was optimistic about his chances in the season-ending WildCard event despite a disappointing Elite Series season.
"If you are an Elite angler and in this tournament, you obviously didn't have a great season," Ash said. "But to wrap up the season on a positive note would be a huge confidence booster."
Among the 34 pros fishing for Elite Series berths are Bobby Myers of Tulsa, Okla., in ninth with 11-15, and Terry Segraves of Kissimmee, Fla., who is 14th with 10-12.
In the co-angler division, Jimmy Dudley of White, Ga., leads the chase for a top prize of more than $4,000 with 13-5. Trailing White are Robbie Anderson of Crystal River, Fla., with 11-13, and Jeff Sullivan of Frostproof, Fla., with 10-11.