August 11, 2004 by Jeff Schroeder
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - You would think that Luke Clausen could breathe a sigh of relief after catching the best limit - 14 pounds, 4 ounces - on opening day of the Wal-Mart FLW Tour Championship at Logan Martin Lake. Not so, because Clausen's opening-round competition in the brackets, Shad Schenck, caught the second-heaviest limit Wednesday - 13 pounds, 14 ounces - effectively turning Clausen's seemingly awesome day into just a 6-ounce lead.
It was like that all over the brackets on day one. Of the 24 head-to-head matchups in pro competition, 15 of them ended up within 3 pounds of each other after the first day's fishing. Eight of those matchups are locked up tight with competitors less than a pound apart in weight.
"It's a dogfight out there," said Kevin Vida of Clare, Mich., who caught a limit weighing 9 pounds, 10 ounces and sits just 8 ounces behind Ray Scheide of Russellville, Ark.
The main reason for the tight competition was the predominantly difficult bite Wednesday. Many anglers had trouble with changing weather, rising water and lost fish, which kept the weights low in a lot of brackets.
Still, that didn't prevent the development of some marquee matchups as the pros stare down the barrel of Thursday's competition.
Clausen vs. Schenck: heavyweight battle
No bracket even came close to the weights brought in by Clausen and Schenck. Combined, they caught more than 28 pounds of bass, which was about 8 pounds more than the next heaviest bracket. If either one of them had been competing against almost anyone else Wednesday, they would have taken a decisive lead in the opening round.
But the only number that matters is the 6 ounces separating them.
"I feel it's a little unfortunate for both of us. We both could have been fishing in the next round with the kind of weights we're catching," said Clausen, an FLW rookie from Spokane, Wash. "Obviously, the best-case scenario is to be paired with somebody who doesn't catch them so you can hold off a little bit tomorrow. We're both really going to have to beat up on our fish tomorrow, and that's going to make it tough for the third day."
Schenck, a pro from Waynetown, Ind., who made the championship finals last year, had a little different take on the big-weight showdown: "The positive thing is that I'm only 6 ounces behind. I'd rather be 6 ounces behind with 14 pounds in my sack than 6 ounces ahead with just 2 or 3 pounds. It makes it exciting for the fans, and that's what we're here for. Nobody's going to win this tournament by just slipping in with a few pounds of fish."
Both anglers accumulated their leading weights by being able to adjust best to shifting conditions Wednesday. The 48 tournament boats found cloudy skies, little wind and higher water levels - in some places, as much as 4 inches higher - when they took off this morning. Later, the sun came out, but many pros had to wait until afternoon for the good bass to bite.
"I only caught five good ones and a lot of little ones," said Clausen, who indicated that he went finesse-fishing in shallow water. "I thought there was going to be a lot more there, but I had to slow down a lot. I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it was today."
"That's the highest water I've seen in a week down here," Schenck said. "It took me about two hours to adjust. Each variable changes the fishing. When the water comes up, the fish are going to move."
More close competition
Besides Clausen-Schenck, seven more bracket matchups were within a pound of each other. The closest of the day belonged to Randy Blaukat of Lamar, Mo., and Anthony Gagliardi of Prosperity, S.C., who are separated by just 3 ounces.
"They weighed a lot more than I thought they would," said Blaukat, who led with a limit weighing 9 pounds, 13 ounces. "I didn't really find the flow today. I feel lucky to have caught what I did."
"I only caught seven or eight keepers," said Gagliardi, who caught his 9-pound, 10-ounce limit on an afternoon bite. "Hopefully, the sun will come out tomorrow."
Jimmy Millsaps of Canton, Ga., (5 pounds, 1 ounce) and Sean Hoernke of Magnolia, Texas, (4-12) caught much less weight, but ended up just 5 ounces apart. The same was true of Boca Raton, Florida's Mike Surman (4 pounds, 3 ounces) and Canton, Georgia's Mark Hardin (3-15).
"I left the door wide open for him today," Hoernke said. "What was strange was that we were fishing half the day within sight of each other."
Also joining the less-than-a-pound club are the matchups of Scheide (10 pounds, 2 ounces) vs. Vida (9-10); Todd Ary of Birmingham, Ala., (7-14) vs. Greg Hackney of Gonzales, La. (7-5); Dave Lefebre of Erie, Pa., (9-10) vs. Greg Pugh of Cullman, Ala. (8-15); and Lee Bailey Jr. of Amston, Conn., (7-12) vs. Alton Jones of Waco, Texas (6-13).
Ary, one of the local favorites, didn't take any comfort in his slight lead over Hackney, who was arguably the hottest angler on both pro tours in 2004. "If there's anybody who can bust a big sack on any given day, he can," Ary said of Hackney.
"I'm really kind of glad it didn't get out of hand," said Hackney, who was disappointed in his own performance Wednesday. "It's still kind of close. I like it that way."
Crews vs. Mann Jr.: another big sack
While spotted bass played a key role in filling out limits, John Crews of Jetersvile, Va., took one of the more decisive leads of the day over one the nation's most renowned spotted-bass anglers, Tom Mann Jr. of Buford, Ga. Crews caught the third-heaviest sack Wednesday: 12 pounds, 15 ounces.
"He had three good spot(ted bass) and two squeakers," Crews said of Mann. "Tomorrow, if he puts together five good spots, I'm going to need anywhere from 10 to 17 pounds."
"I'm a little behind, so I've definitely got to have a good day tomorrow," said Mann, who caught a limit weighing 8 pounds, 15 ounces. "I lost two big ones today. You're going to hear a lot of that. I've caught a lot of spotted bass over the years, but these Coosa River spotted bass are some of the meanest around."
Some possible upsets could be in the cards for tomorrow's cut round. Top-ranked pro Shinichi Fukae of Osaka, Japan, (8 pounds, 1 ounce) fell behind 48th-ranked Chad Grigsby of Colon, Mich., (10-4) by over 2 pounds.
"That's not very much of a cushion when you've got him against you," Grigsby said of Fukae.
2003 FLW Championship winner David Dudley of Manteo, N.C., fell even further back after catching just four keepers worth 3 pounds, 12 ounces. He trails FLW rookie Chris McCall of Jasper, Texas, (8-3) by over 4 1/2 pounds.
"I've been fishing professionally for nine years and this is the worst day I've ever had," said Dudley, who admitted losing a number of fish Wednesday. "I had enough weight on to be right up there, but I just didn't do it."
Other possible upsets brewing are in the brackets of 38th-ranked Mark Rose of Marion, Ark., (9 pounds, 11 ounces) vs. this year's Bassmaster Classic winner, 11th-ranked Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas, (7-1) and 45th-ranked Dennis Magoto of Waynesville, Ohio, (6-6) vs. fourth-ranked Clark Wendlandt of Cedar Park, Texas (5-3).
Some leaders emerging
Few deficits were larger than 4 1/2 pounds, but a couple pros did manage to put some distance between themselves and their competitors.
Andy Morgan of Dayton, Tenn., with 12 pounds even, stretched out more than an 8-pound lead over Ricky Shumpert of Lexington, S.C., who had 3-14.
"I've got an edge right now, but, hey, tomorrow's another day," said Morgan, who added that he didn't plan on easing up Thursday. "Not against Ricky."
The biggest lead is 9 pounds, held by Glenn Browne of Ocala, Fla., with 10 pounds, 6 ounces, over Koby Kreiger of Okeechobee, Fla., with 1-6.
"I played it a little cautious today," Kreiger said. "I was trying to go for 7 or 8 pounds, but it just didn't happen. I had one spot with good fish that I didn't go to today. I'm going to go there tomorrow."
First cut Thursday
The second half of the opening round in bracket competition begins Thursday as all 48 pros take off from Pell City Lakeside Park in Pell City, Ala., at 7 a.m. Central time. Following tomorrow's fishing, the field will be cut in half. The 24 pros who win their respective head-to-head matchups, based on two-day weight, will advance.