June 27, 2013 by David A. Brown
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - With the top end of the day-one standings tightly grouped, leading boater Chris Wilkinson is happy to hold a 1-pound, 14-ounce lead in the Wal-Mart BFL All-American on Nickajack Lake.
After the first round of competition, 12 ounces separates second place from sixth. Only a 3-pound gap separates second from tenth. In other words, this deal is wide open.
Wilkinson, who leads with 20-10, credits the time he spent on Nickajack recon for his productive start.
"I spent some time down here (in pre-practice) and I felt pretty good about what I found and I just stuck with my game plan," he said. "I consider myself a river rat and I like to flip shallow cover so that's what I did all day long. It's a mix of riprap and wood and most of the time my boat was in 10-15 feet of water."
Wilkinson said he started his day with topwater plugs - poppers and walking baits - and then switched to flipping plastics as the skies cleared and the sun came out. His day, he said, followed an orderly flow of hitting a list of spots he had identified in practice.
"It seems like I was getting them better on topwater in the morning and then I'd just go back over the same areas (with plastics)," Wilkinson said. "I just had a little milk run."
Wilkinson flipped Hawgback Lures tubes and a Bauer Custom Baits worm in a color made especially for this tournament. He withheld the specifics on this worm color, but said it's a green pumpkin base with a little something special thrown in.
As for the transition from topwater to plastics, Wilkinson said he let the fish tell him when it was time to make that move. "I pulled up on some structure and I flipped some plastic in there and caught one about 3 pounds and that kind of made up my mind and I stuck with it the rest of the day."
Even after he was deep into his flipping tactics, Wilkinson kept a couple of topwater plugs on his deck.
"The topwater bite seems to last longer here than where I'm from in Indiana," Wilkinson said. "It seems like they'll bite it all day long here. If you'll stick with it, they'll keep biting it.
Realistically, Wilkinson's topwater activity became more about targets of opportunity later in the day. Rather than a focused effort, he would just grab the surface bait when he came across a favorable scenario.
"If I came across something, I'd still throw (the topwater)," Wilkinson said. "There's a lot of stuff out further in the water and I'd bring a topwater across that."
Wilkinson holds a lead of 1-14 over his nearest competitor - second-place boater Shawn Gordon, of Russellville, Ark., who weighed 18-12 on day one.
Botha on point for third
Lionel Botha, of Okeechobee, Fla., said his day started with disappointing results, but making a key move turned things around in a big way. Once he zeroed in on a promising scenario, he quickly sacked up 18-4 and took third place.
"My first spot that I ran to, I fished there for about half an hour and didn't get any bites, but then I realized that it was because the sun didn't come out (until late morning)," he said. "I moved to another area that was slightly different to where I started off.
"My first spot was a ditch. I realized in practice that you can't catch them in the ditch when it's overcast. They just don't bite well. I had another spot that was a point that rose from 30 feet to about 12 on top. The fish were suspended off the side in about 14-15 feet.
Botha said he caught his fish by running Netbait swimbaits along the drop-off. He ended up catching all of his fish on one particular color.
"The bait would go all the way to the bottom and they were taking it on the way up," Botha said. "I could see them suspended on my graph."
Fourth-place Freeze goes shallow
Maurice Freeze, of Concord, N.C., said that after a slim practice, he wasn't sure what to expect during his All-American appearance. Nevertheless, day one came together well for him with a bag of 18-3 earning him fourth place.
Freeze didn't want to divulge too much about his tactics, but he did say he's flipping and fishing reaction style baits.
"The water was a lot lower today than it had been," he said. "I started out fishing really shallow and I had to move to a little deeper bank and I just kept moving. I fished rock and wood but if you had a combination of both, that was the best."
Freeze said that once the sun came out, he was able to make more targeted presentations.
"I was hoping for the sun and I got the sun," he said. "That puts them more where I can target them easily, rather than being spread out."
Bradley goes deep for fifth
Local boater Corey Bradley works in downtown Chattanooga within eyesight of the tournament waters. Today, he leveraged his local knowledge and fished deep offshore waters while others jockeyed for position on the bank. Fishing about 30 minutes downriver, Bradley caught his fish on swimbaits, jigs and spinnerbaits in about 18-25 feet of water.
"I caught my limit within the first 15 minutes on a jig and then I used the swimbait and a spinnerbait to cull up," he said.
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 pro leaders at the BFL All-American:
6th: Kerry Milner, of Bono, Ark., 18-0
7th: Michael Murphy, of Lexington, S.C., 17-6
8th: Daniel Langton, of Haubstadt, Ind., 16-5
9th: Gary Isgrigg, of Mt. Washington, Ky., 15-14
10th: Eric Poindexter, of Eufaula, Ok., 15-12
Shaky head puts Terrell atop co-angler field
Will Terrell, of Memphis, Tenn., finished day one atop the co-angler division but his lead is significantly less than that of his pro counterpart. Terrell caught a limit that weighed 13-15, but with Tim Cales, of Sandstone, W.V. bagging 13-9, the co-angler lead sits at just 6 ounces.
Terrell fished shallow and found that the day's early cloud cover helped his purpose.
"We were just around the right fish and I got the right bites today," he said. "I had four fish by 10:30 and I finally caught my fifth fish by 10:30."
Terrell caught all of his fish on a shaky head with a finesse worm. Green pumpkin was the productive color. He caught his fish around grass in 2-4 feet of water.
Ernest Stephens, of Orrum, N.C., took third place with 13-pound, 6-ounce. Notably, Stephens took this position with only 4 fish - 1 shy of a tournament limit. His catch, however, included a largemouth that went 6-8 and stands as the heaviest fish on day one.
Craig Hulsey, of Park Hills, Mo., took fourth with 13-4 and Jason Howland, of Albert Lea, Mn., was fifth with 12-11.
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 co-angler leaders at the BFL All-American:
6th: Nick Angiulo, of Hainesport, N.J., 11-13
7th: Daniel Buswell, of Newnan, Ga., 10-10
8th: William Scott, of Tahlequah, Ok., 10-9
8th: Jeff Williams, of Alexandria, Al., 10-9
10th: Ronald Smith, of Browns Mills, N.J., 10-4
Day two of BFL All-American on Nickajack Lake continues at Friday's takeoff, scheduled to take place at 7:00 a.m. (Eastern) at Ross's Landing located at 200 Riverfront Pkwy. in Chattanooga.
To read the BFL All-American day-two morning takeoff story, click here.