September 11, 2003 by Gary Mortenson
Kilby nets top stringer while some of tour's biggest names struggle mightily on James River
RICHMOND, Va. - As expected, today's weights confirmed what most people knew all along: The James River would prove to be a very tough fishery during the 2003 FLW Tour Championship. But what was not expected was the fact that some of the nation's top anglers would find themselves dangerously close to elimination after only the first day of competition. With household names like Kevin VanDam, Dan Morehead, Rick Clunn, Aaron Martens, Paul Elias and David Walker turning in performances ranging from subpar to dismal, it is already clear that surprises during this week's $1.5 million event will prove to be the rule and not the exception.
The first sign that the championship would deviate greatly from the script came when VanDam - arguably the best angler in the nation - appeared onstage with only 1 pound, 1 ounce, falling behind his head-to-head rival Terry Bolton of Paducah, Ky., by nearly 6 pounds with only one day left to make up the gap.
"It's tough out there and I really didn't adjust well," said VanDam, of Kalamazoo, Mich. "I had a terrible day out there today. But Terry is a great fisherman and like I said earlier, you're going to see a lot of surprises this week. Everybody who is in this championship has earned their way in."
The upsets didn't stop there. Morehead, the No. 1 seed and 2003 Land O'Lakes FLW Angler of the Year had an even rougher day - turning in a catch of 1 pound, 3 ounces and falling behind his bracket rival, 48th-seeded Alvin Shaw of State Road, N.C., by 7 pounds, 6 ounces.
"It's like I told Hank Parker earlier, I didn't have a good practice," said Morehead of Paducah, Ky. "I just didn't catch them today. I put all of my eggs in one basket and that was probably a mistake. I also stayed with my pattern too long. But it's not over yet."
So what happened? As usual, it depended on whom you asked.
"You have a full moon, a tropical system coming out of Florida and a hard northeast wind," said FLW Tour pro Clark Wendlandt, summing up today's extremely difficult fishing conditions which included strong tides, muddied water and fierce winds - conditions most anglers didn't have to face during the last week and a half of practice.
However, that wasn't the only perspective on what went wrong.
"When you don't get many bites, it's really hard to analyze the situation," said second-seeded David Dudley of Manteo, N.C. "But I'll tell you what, it's pretty obvious that all of the anglers who like to fish fast - VanDam, (Rick) Clunn and I'll put myself in that group - didn't really excel today. And when it gets like this, you really have to slow down, adjust and have patience. It takes a lot of discipline out there, and I didn't have a lot of it today."
Some anglers expressed almost absolute amazement on how different conditions had become in the last 24 hours.
"There's a ton of fish in my spot, but I just couldn't catch them today because the water was so high," said FLW Tour rookie Dave Lefebre of Erie, Pa. "It was crazy out there. The creek channel I was fishing became a lake. I'd never seen the water get that high before. Fish I was catching in about 3 feet of water were now in about 9 feet of water. Unfortunately, I didn't even bring a crankbait that ran that deep."
Kilby turns in top performance
In many respects, Rob Kilby of Hot Springs, Ark., was the exception to the rule in today's competition. Although the difficult conditions all but sank the chances of many top anglers, Kilby had no such problems, turning in a stellar catch of 11 pounds, 12 ounces while out-fishing the rest of the vaunted field.
And the secret to his success?
"I drew from past experience on the James River, and I think that really helped me out a lot today," said Kilby, who now leads his rival, fifth-seeded Tim Carroll of Owasso, Okla., by a hefty margin of 7 pounds, 4 ounces. "I've had six events here overall, three Bassmasters Classics and two top-10 finishes. I really like it here. After awhile, you kind of get an understanding on how this place works."
In fact, Kilby was so in tune with his environment that he even stumbled across an old friend.
"I found I log that I remember fishing back in 1988," he said. "I couldn't believe it was still there. And when you only have to make one cast to catch a fish on a spot you remember from a long time ago, it gives you some confidence."
But while Kilby turned in a remarkable performance, he said it definitely wasn't an easy day on the water.
"The wind here is as big of a problem as the muddy water and tides," said Kilby. "Right now there is a lot of water and the fish are spread out all over. But I think the key is throwing very high-profile baits. If your baits are too small, the fish aren't even going to see them in these types of conditions."
Kilby, who pitched a jig to land most of his larger fish, said that he has a carefully crafted game plan for tomorrow's event.
"I have a 7-pound lead, which is nice, but if I can go out there and catch another 5 to 6 pounds tomorrow, I think I'll use the rest of the day as practice," he said. "But what you can't do is go out there thinking that you have this thing wrapped up or else it could come back to haunt you."
And what about fishing for a first-place prize of $500,000?
"You can't even think about that right now," he said. "You really just have to keep going forward, doing what brought you success in the first place."
Bracket of Doom produces a few surprises
While there were many story lines coming into the FLW Championship, perhaps the biggest pre-tournament buzz surrounded the so-called Bracket of Doom - a four-man head-to-head battle that included VanDam, Wendlandt, Walker and Terry Bolton - billed as the toughest bracket in the championship. However, although Bolton was considered by some as the least likely of the four to emerge, the veteran from Paducah, Ky., had other ideas. In short, Bolton pulled out all of the stops, stunning many by outfishing VanDam - one of the heavy pre-tournament favorites - by a full 5 pounds, 12 ounces.
"I had an opportunity a couple of years ago to fish against Kevin, and I know that he sets the bar really high," Bolton said. "I'm learned over the years that you can't really make any mistakes against him. Today, I made a real long run and went for broke. I only wound up catching four fish, but it kind of worked out for me."
Wendlandt emerged as the early frontrunner on the other end of the Bracket of Doom - outfishing Walker by a full 6 pounds, 6 ounces.
"I have a pretty good lead now, and I might be able to go out there and get away with catching 3 or 4 pounds. But what if David comes back tomorrow with a 13-pound stringer?" said Wendlandt. "So, to be safe, I'm probably going to go out there and catch as many fish as I can."
However, that being said, Wendlandt says he likes his chances of moving on to the round of 24 after tomorrow's competition.
"I really like fishing this type of water," said Wendlandt. "I feel pretty confident right now. The only problem is that I'm sharing water with Randy Blaukat, and he's probably going to have the first crack at that spot tomorrow. I might have a tough day if I can't fish there. But overall, I feel pretty good about my chances."
Wendlandt said that he used a combination of crankbaits and Gambler Bacon Bits to land the majority of his catch.
Clunn, Dudley and Hibdon struggle, but remain in good shape
Although legendary angler Rick Clunn of Ava, Mo., turned in a mediocre performance during today's competition, he had the comfort of knowing that his head-to-head rival John Crews - the only Virginia native in the entire tournament - produced an equally unremarkable sack.
"The fish are going to have the final say in this," said Clunn, who produced a 2-pound, 4-ounce stringer in today's competition - 8 ounces less than Crews. "We both have a shot tomorrow, and that's the advantage of this type of format."
After acknowledging that he expected tomorrow's battle to be close, Crews was almost apologetic to the crowd concerning the duo's most recent showing.
"Maybe tomorrow will be a different day," he said. "Hopefully we'll have some more exciting weights for you guys."
Meanwhile, Dion Hibdon of Stover, Mo. - another pre-tournament favorite - found himself in a similar position as Clunn. Although he didn't fish very well, he was still very much alive heading into tomorrow's competition.
"I'm tickled to death to still be in this," said Hibdon, who turned in a 3-pound, 9-ounce stringer. "The brackets are finally being kind to me."
Hibdon, who finds himself trailing 2002 FLW Champion John Sappington of Wyandotte, Okla., by 10 ounces, said he wasn't about to start pointing fingers at the difficult fishing conditions as the reason behind his lack of success today.
"I'm not going to blame this on the tides because I watched them cycle all the way through, and I eventually had the tides I wanted," said Hibdon. "But it was a frustrating day. I think I'm just going to have to go out tomorrow and move around a lot more. I'm going to need to hustle."
Sappington, like many anglers, seemed perplexed by the conditions as well.
"Today was the highest the water has been, and I really didn't know what to do out there," he said. "It's frustrating."
However, Dudley - never at a loss for words - appeared unmoved by all the talk of the tough conditions despite his own struggles.
"Everybody is crying about the same thing, but we all have to deal with the same conditions," said Dudley, who outfished his opponent Jim Moynagh of Carver, Minn., by 2 pounds, 10 ounces, despite only landing a total catch of 4 pounds, 7 ounces. "Some of this is just luck. I had two bites and so did Jim. It just turned out that my bites were a little bit bigger."
Although Dudley was a heavy favorite coming into his first-round match, he said that he is not taking Moynagh lightly.
"Jim is a good fisherman and he likes to fish slowly, which is probably what you need to do," Dudley said. "It worked out for me today, but tomorrow the advantages could go in Jim's favor. I'm definitely going to have a good day tomorrow to advance."
Schenck lands biggest fish
(Photo by Jeff Schroeder)" BORDER="1" ALIGN="LEFT">Shad Schenck of Waynetown, Ind. - who had the second-heaviest stringer of the day after landing a catch of 11 pounds, 5 ounces - also claimed the day-one Snicker's Big Bass honors with a 4-pound, 11-ounce bass. Schenck won $1,000 for his efforts.
2003 FLW Championship action continues tomorrow morning, with takeoff scheduled to take place at 7 a.m. at the Osborne Boat Landing, located at 9680 Osborne Turn Pike in Richmond, Va.
Click here for a preview of day two.
Championship bracket update
Results of day-one pairings
Championship Bites: FLW James River, Day 1
Kitchens is cooking