PADUCAH, Ky. – If Mike Auten can keep his grip on the lead through the final day of the CITGO Bassmaster Central Open presented by Busch Beer, he will win $50,000 and be a giant step closer to a return trip to bass fishing’s world championship.

Auten is competing in his home state, Kentucky, on the Tennessee, Ohio and Cumberland rivers, where he retained the lead after day two with a total weight of 20 pounds, 5 ounces. He battled for every fish on Friday and said the smallmouth that had been so generous early in the week are returning to their hard-fighting, wily form.

“The fish were there yesterday and weren’t there today,” Auten said. “This place is tough, but then again, yesterday I thought it was the best lake in the country.

“That’s just how it is with smallmouth. They’re there one day and the next day they’re gone. I knew yesterday not to save anything because I figured that they would be gone.

“I’m going to stick to the smallmouth pattern tomorrow. My spot went from 3 feet (deep) today to about 6 feet and after about 10 casts, I knew I was in trouble.”

Auten is fishing for both the win and the chance to go to the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship presented by Busch Beer. Twenty boaters from the boater and non-boater ranks in each of the four Open divisions will earn berths, and the top five boaters will emerge with spots in the CITGO Bassmaster Classic presented by Busch Beer.

For now, however, Auten is a mere 9 ounces ahead of Indiana’s Rodney Hardwick. Hardwick hauled in 10-8 on day two to bring his total weight up to 19-12.

“Yesterday they were coming deep at 10 to 12 (feet),” Hardwick said. “Today they came in at probably 8 to 10. There wasn’t any current at all.

“When I found this spot, it was full of smallies, and I thought that’s what I was on and I went there and it was full of largemouth. I’m strictly throwing a tube and that made all the difference today.

“I’ll live and die at that spot. I left it once and I shouldn’t have done that. I’ll die there; I’ll live and die there.”

Iowa’s Aaron Nelson rounded out the top three with 18-11.

Tennessee’s Keith Amerson also retained the lead Friday on the non-boater side. Amerson held the top spot with a two-day weight of 12-9

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Amerson said. “I’ve really got to go out and catch some fish tomorrow if I want to win this thing. My first two day’s partners have taken me to the same general area and I know what to do there. The guy that I drew for day three is fishing the same creek also, so I know I’m going to be doing the same thing tomorrow.”

Oklahoma’s Kirk Smith (10-10) and Illinois’s Darin Reed (8-15) rounded out the top three.

The Purolator Big Bass of the Day Award on the boater side went to Texas’ Jason Reyes. His 4-13 lunker earned him a $1,000 check from Purolator, but was not enough to take over Art Garza’s claim to the bonus $1,000 Purolator Big Bass of the Tournament with his day one fish that weighed 5-7.

Colorado’s Mike Stevens picked up the Purolator Big Bass Award on the non-boater side today. His 4-pound catch earned him $400 from Purolator.

Competition continues Saturday. Launch will be at 6 a.m. at the downtown Paducah Riverfront with indoor weigh-ins starting at 3 p.m. at JR’s Executive Inn.

The Casting Kids competition will also be held at JR’s Executive Inn Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m. Children between the ages of 7 and 14 can compete for the chance at a scholarship. Event instruction is provided by the Kentucky BASS Federation.

BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer, which includes the all-new Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.

Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Central Open presented by Busch Beer include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Toyota, Berkley, Abu Garcia, Lowrance Electronics, Flowmaster Exhaust Systems, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops, and BankOne.

Local Sponsors include JR’s Executive Inn.

For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit