OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (Jan. 8, 2004) – Chad Morgenthaler of Coulterville, Ill., caught five bass weighing 17 pounds, 3 ounces Thursday on Lake Okeechobee to boost his two-day total to 10 bass weighing 31 pounds, 6 ounces and lead the Pro Division into the semifinal round of the $256,825 EverStart Series Eastern Division season opener presented by Garmin. The top 20 pros advanced to the semifinal round where they will continue to compete for a first-place award worth as much as $61,900. The top 20 co-anglers also advanced to fish for a grand prize worth as much as $35,000.

Weather conditions were much better Thursday compared to opening day. After several weeks of very warm weather, a cold front passed through the region Wednesday dramatically dropping temperatures and bringing strong northerly winds. On Thursday, however, temperatures rebounded into the 70s and winds calmed. Despite the pleasant conditions, bass were slightly more stubborn and lock-jawed. Stained water and changing barometric pressure likely caused the drop in feeding activity, but as always, many anglers managed to find productive patterns and locations.

“I caught more fish and had more big bites today,” Morgenthaler said. “But a big kicker fish each day is what really helped me. I caught an 8 pounder yesterday and an 8 pounder today.

“I’m really only using two techniques. I’m dead-sticking a worm and flipping into heavy cover. I’ve got two good areas within a half mile of each other, but I really don’t know what to expect for tomorrow. The weather has caused the fish in my areas to bunch up, which is good. But I’ll just go fishing tomorrow and see what happens.”

Rounding out the top five pros are Patrick Hailstone of Cincinnati, Ohio (10 bass, 29 pounds, 10 ounces); Larry Inman of Greensboro, N.C. (10 bass, 29 pounds, 2 ounces); Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity, S.C. (10 bass, 29 pounds, 1 ounce); and Doug Vest of Okeechobee (10 bass, 27 pounds, 11 ounces).

Co-angler Gerald Smith of Louisville, Ky., once again caught a solid five-bass limit and jumped from second to first place with a two day total of 10 bass weighing 18 pounds, 11 ounces.

“I’ve had good partners each day,” Smith said. “I drew Tony Christian for today. We just casted plastics around open hydrilla. The bigger fish were up tight in the cover. I caught all my fish yesterday on a spinnerbait, but the fish wouldn’t touch it today. The weather is supposed to be the same tomorrow, so I imagine we’ll be doing a lot of flipping and pitching.”

Rounding out the top five co-anglers are Kenneth Owens of Wise, Va. (eight bass, 17 pounds, 14 ounces); Billy Cason of High Springs (10 bass, 17 pounds, 8 ounces); Asa Godsey of Clewiston (10 bass, 17 pounds, 5 ounces); and Walter E. Whitman Jr. of Greensboro, N.C. (nine bass, 17 pounds, 1 ounce).

John Bitter of Maitland won $750 Thursday as the Pro Division Snickers big-bass winner with an impressive 8-pound, 6-ounce largemouth. Robert Russell of Smyrna, Tenn., caught the day’s largest co-angler bass at 6 pounds, 12 ounces and earned $250.

Anglers caught 138 limits and weighed 1,199 bass totaling 2,113 pounds, 6 ounces. More than 99 percent of the bass were released.

Anglers take off each morning at 7 a.m. from Okee-Tantie Recreation Area in Okeechobee. Friday and Saturday’s weigh-ins will be held at the Wal-Mart store located at 2101 S. Parrott Ave. in Okeechobee beginning at 4 p.m. The community is encouraged to attend daily takeoffs and weigh-ins.

Weights are cleared for Friday’s competition, and the top 10 pros and 10 co-anglers advance to Saturday’s final round based on Friday’s total weight. Weights carry over for Saturday’s competition, and the winners are determined by the heaviest two-day weights.

The winning pro will take home a guaranteed cash award of $10,000 plus a new Ranger 519 VS equipped with Garmin electronics and EverStart batteries and powered by an Evinrude or Yamaha outboard. If the winner is the original owner of a Ranger boat, he will receive an additional $10,000 cash bonus from Ranger for a total of $61,900 in cash and prizes. Ranger will also award an additional $3,000 to the winner if he is a Ranger Cup participant, and Garmin will award $1,000 to the winner if his boat is equipped with only Garmin electronics and at least one unit is a qualifying unit.

The winning co-angler is guaranteed $5,000 cash. If the winning co-angler is a registered Ranger owner, he will also receive a new Ranger 519 VS for a total of $35,000 in cash and prizes.

Four divisions – Eastern, Central, Northern and Western – comprise the 2004 EverStart Series. Each division stages four regular-season tournaments leading up to the no-entry-fee $335,975 EverStart Series Championship presented by Energizer, which will be held on Lake Cumberland near Somerset, Ky., Nov. 3-6.

In EverStart Series competition, pros supply the boats, control boat movement and fish from the front of each boat against other pros. Co-anglers fish from the back of each boat and compete against other co-anglers.

Named after the legendary founder of Ranger Boats, Forrest L. Wood, FLW Outdoors is the world’s leading marketer of competitive fishing. FLW Outdoors-sanctioned tournament trails are the Wal-Mart FLW Tour, EverStart Series, Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League, Wal-Mart Texas Tournament Trail, Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour and Wal-Mart RCL Walleye League. EverStart Batteries, the best-selling batteries in the world, are marketed exclusively by Wal-Mart stores.

Wal-Mart and many of America’s most respected companies support FLW Outdoors and its six tournament trails. Wal-Mart has been the title sponsor of FLW Outdoors since 1997.