Anyone who doubts that deteriorating conditions seriously affected the field need only look at two numbers: Just three pros managed to catch a five-fish limit. And the angler currently fourth on the leader board only caught three.
In fact, Ben Matsubu managed to land in the leader board's number four spot with 10 pounds, 10 ounces. But, like many of the pros, he managed to see a silver lining in Thursday's thunderheads: the torrential downpour will raise water levels, bringing bass along with the swell.
"I need to get the fish in the boat," said Matsubu, who lives in Mineola, Texas. "I had six bites and only boated three. The rain will probably help my fish. As shallow as most of them were, it might bring some more of it up, so the water going up might help things. I think I made a mistake by not going back for some today.
"I'm going in a totally different area tomorrow. I'm going in an area I haven't been in tomorrow and hopefully I'll catch them."
In defiance of the miserable conditions, Louisiana's Greg Hackney managed to boat 16-1Thursday to lead the field. Hackney and second-place contender Lee Bailey, 14-2, boated two of just three limits that pros managed to haul to the weigh-in at Lewis Smith Lake Dam.
Hackney won more than just a nearly 2-pound lead Thursday. By bringing in the heaviest catch of the day, he also became the fifth BASS pro to qualify as a Busch Heavyweight. If his weight remains one of the top 10 heaviest daily catches through all six Tour and four Bassmaster Elite 50 events, Hackney will earn an invitation for the $160,000 Busch Shootout Tournament that will be held at a mystery lake on Sept. 18.
Going into Friday's round, after which the field will be cut to 12 anglers, Illinois' Chad Morganthaler is in third with 10-15, and Oklahoma's Edwin Evers, fifth with 10-8, rounded out the top five today. Evers was surprised that he was still in the top five, but knows he'll have to fish well tomorrow to stay in the running.
"I only had four today," Evers said. "Tomorrow I'll have to slow down and catch three or four fish. I caught all spots in less than 20 feet of water today."
In addition to the weather, anglers face a challenge from Smith's stringent slot limit, which only allows them to bring in fish under 13 inches or over 16. BASS rules allow for fish over 12 inches, and many anglers are bringing in bass that hover just between the 12- and 13-inch marks.
Robert Hamilton of Hattiesburg, Miss., earned Thursday's Purolator Big Bass award with a bass that tipped the scales at 5 pounds, 7 ounces. Hamilton will take home a $1,000 bonus and, if his bass remains the tournament's largest through Sunday's final weigh in, will take home another $1,000, courtesy of Purolator, which makes the official oil and air filters of BASS.
On the amateur side, only 27 anglers weighed in fish and just seven weighed in more than one. Alabama's Timothy Hatcher leads the field with 8-7, while fellow Alabamian Red Berry and Virginian Alex Sowell both had 6-10 sacks that will tie them for second. Tennessee's Dennis Arendt had 6 pounds to round out the top four.
Day 2 at the Smith Lake gets under way Friday with launch at 7 a.m. from Lewis Smith Lake Dam. Friday's weigh-in, beginning at 3:30 p.m. will also be at the Lewis Smith Lake Dam.
Fans can catch a telecast of the Smith Lake tournament on Saturday, Feb. 14 at 10:30 a.m. ET/9:30 a.m. CT on ESPN2.
The CITGO Bassmaster Tour events this season feature the highly interactive and family friendly BASS Sponsor Expo area. Sponsors present interactive exhibits and provide a fun family experience for all ages. The Expo will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m. on Sunday at the Old Walker County Airport.
The CastingKids program, presented by CITGO will be held in conjunction with the BASS Sponsor Expo Saturday, from 10:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Old Walker County Airport. Children between the ages of 7 and 14 can participate in the contest with the chance to earn a scholarship. The event and instruction to youngsters will be facilitated by the Alabama BASS Federation.
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Skeeter Boats, Mercury Marine, Yamaha Outboards, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.
Associate Sponsors include G3 Boats and Bryant Heating and Air Conditioning.
Local Sponsors include the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.