DECATUR, Ala. – You wouldn't know it from his weight, but National Guard pro Mark Rose actually had a tough time on day one of the Walmart FLW Tour Open on Wheeler Lake.
Hailing from West Memphis, Ark., Rose sacked up a limit catch of 21 pounds, 6 ounces. The only pro to break 20, Rose established a lead of 3-7, but as he noted, the day was no cake walk.
Entering the tournament, Rose and all of his fellow competitors knew a couple of factors would be working against them. First, voluminous shad schools roam the lake at practically all depths from the bank to the ledges, to the channel, so Wheeler bass lack not for food. Also, the fish are just about ready to make their fall move from deep to shallow, but any early transition is, at best, disjointed, so you kinda have to chase these fish all over the lake. Lastly, and perhaps most immediately impactful, a passing cold front draped northern Alabama with beautiful, sunny conditions – those bluebird skies that are great for tourism but pretty tough for fishing.
Rose said he overcame the tough conditions by remaining mobile and not locking himself into any one pattern. That was actually an easy decision, as no one bait or presentation style delivered any degree of consistency.
"I just mixed it up," he said. "I'm fishing a little shallow and deep. I caught one on a topwater bait, I caught a couple on a crankbait and a couple on worms. I'm not getting a whole lot of bites. I only caught like seven keepers today but everything really worked out for me today.
"Normally, I could tell you it was this bait, or this pattern, or because of this I did that, but today it was just a blessed day – it just happened today."
Rose said that he caught his fish throughout the day. Keeper bites came about one an hour, right until he had to wrap up and head back for the weigh-in.
Nick surprised by second-place weight
Pro Blake Nick was one of the first few pros to weigh in and his limit catch of 17-15 had a long run in the top spot before Rose arrived. Ultimately, Nick would place second, but even that was apleasant surprise for him.
"I knew the potential was there, but I did not expect to catch (nearly) 18 pounds today," the pro from Adger, Ala., said. "There's basically two places with really good populations of healthy fish (both of the dams) and I just made sure I stayed in one of those places.
"I caught (my weight) in like 10 minutes and I left. They were biting when I left but I didn't want to catch any more 2- or 3-pounders because that's crucial in this place. But I'm really stoked to catch that. To me, that's a really good start."
Nick was clearly guarding with his bait selection and stated only that he's fishing a mix of reaction baits and soft plastics. Wheeler, he said is in a really tough stage, as the fish move toward their fall transition, while maintaining much of their late summer attitude.
"If you find one little deal and you can make it work, you can do well in a tournament this tough," he said. "But I'm stoked and I'll go get back in those areas tomorrow and try to beat it out."
Diversity key for third-place Clausen
By the end of day one, Chevy pro Luke Clausen had a stack of rods on his deck and he gave each one a workout. The effort yielded a limit that weighed 15-15 and put the former Forrest Wood Cup champion from Spokane, Wash., in third place.
"Really, I didn't figure anything out," Clausen joked. "I figured out that not knowing anything is the biggest thing. I had probably 20 rods on my deck and I threw them all today and my trolling motor probably was never below 70 percent all day today.
"I would just pick up whatever looked good and just covered a lot of water. I had some areas where I thought I'd catch some, but they got dirtier and really didn't look right so I abandoned ship. I didn't have a keeper until about 8:30 so I just went fishing. I fished a lot of new stuff and got the right bites today."
Clausen said the gobs of regurgitated crayfish and shad that he removed from his livewells bespoke active feeding by the Wheeler bass. Clausen said this is a clear sign that some bass have started making their fall transition.
"Some of the fish are up shallow gorging," he said. "There's just not many of them up shallow yet."
Fourth-place Lane targets big baitfish
"They're not everywhere, but when you can find them, that's when you find those really good fish."
Lane found five good ones and took fourth place with 15-14 – just an ounce behind Clausen. Like most, he ended up catching fish shallow and deep.
"I got a couple of bites doing a couple of different things," Lane said. "I got a couple of nice ones by flipping a Big Bite Coontail around docks. I got on the ledges later in the day and found a couple of small schools that probably had seven or eight fish in them and I got them on a Spro Fat Papa 70 crankbait."
Lane said he knew he'd probably have to move around from shallow to deep today. "After the big rain we got the other night, I made myself forget about practice. Practice was pretty much a waste of time and I went out and practiced today."
Hackney follows food for fifth
In a classic intercept strategy, Louisiana pro Greg Hackney put himself where he knew the bass would be – right around bait schools. However, he ignored the scenes of obvious bass feeding. His strategy worked and a limit catch of 14-13 led him to fifth-place.
"I'm chasing fish that are chasing shad," Hackney said. "But when I see them breaking, I pretty much forget about them because they're so (focused) on the shad when they're doing that, I can't get them to bite. I'm actually catching them down under the shad when there's nothing going on and I'm not seeing any activity.
"I actually figured that out later on. I had already caught my limit, but I caught some of my better keepers this afternoon, after I figured that deal out."
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 pro leaders at the FLW Tour Open event on Wheeler Lake:
6th: Marty Stone, of Fayetteville, N.C., 14-4
7th: Chad Grigsby, of Maple Grove, Minn., 13-11
8th: Justin Lucas, of Guntersville, Ala., 13-10
8th: Scott Suggs, of Bryant, Ark., 13-10
10th: Art Ferguson III, of St. Clair Shores, Mich., 13-8
10th: Brett Hite, of Phoenix, Ariz., 13-8;
Clent Davis, of Montevallo, Ala. earned Big Bass honors for his 5-14.
Topwater bites give Martin co-angler lead
"It was really tough out there today – I only had five keeper bites," Martin said. "I probably caught about 10 fish, but only five would measure."
Martin caught his fish on a new Boing topwater bait, a Picasso Shad Walker and a chatterbait. His big fish ate the Boing and the Shad Walker produced another in the 4-pound range.
"We were fishing the bank and my boater was (apologizing for not leaving me much to fish)," Martin said. "But I said I'll catch what I can catch and I caught those two big ones pretty quickly. That was about 1 o'clock. I only had three fish around noon and I just started grinding because I needed two more bites. Luckily, I got the right two."
Jonathan Henry, of Grant, Ala., took second place with 12-5, while Ben Todd, of Pierson, Fla., placed third at 10-14. Fourth place went to Jim Krieder, of North Vernon, Ind., who weighed 8-9. George Yund, of Albany, N.Y., took fifth with 8-1.
Best of the rest
Rounding out the top-10 co-angler leaders at the FLW Tour Open event on Wheeler Lake:
6th: Mark Horton, of Nicholasville, Ky., 8-0
7th: Kenny Beale Jr., Blairs, Va., 7-10
7th: Patrick Bone, of Cleveland, Ga., 7-10
7th: Richard Peek, of Centre, Ala., 7-10
10th: Todd McBride, of Huntsville, Ala., 7-9
10th: Richard Rhodes, of Calvert City, Ky., 7-9
Day two of the FLW Tour Open event on Wheeler Lake continues at Friday’s takeoff, scheduled to take place at 6:30 a.m. (Central) at Ingalls Harbor located at 802 Wilson St. in Decatur.