OKEECHOBEE, Fla. Adverse weather ruined the plans of many of the 396 anglers in the $300,000 Florida CITGO Bassmaster Southern Open presented by Busch Beer on Thursday on Lake Okeechobee, but a pair of veteran pros found it just to their liking.
The aftermath of a cold front put resident largemouths in an inactive mode and building winds topping the 20-mph mark turned the massive lake into a mini-ocean. But Chad Brauer and David Walker took advantage of the conditions to collect 26-pound-plus five-bass limits. Five stringers topping the 20-pound mark were recorded.
Brauer, a 31-year-old past BASS winner from Missouri, holds the lead with 26 pounds, 14 ounces entering Friday's second round. Walker, a 38-year-old pro from Tennessee, is close behind with 26-1.
The weights dropped significantly from there with Maryland's J.T. Kenney in third with 22-10, followed by Chris Baumgardner of North Carolina (21-9) and Florida's Mark Shepard (20 pounds). All-time leading BASS career money winner Denny Brauer is sixth with 18-3.
The Brauers and Walker are fishing the same stretch of the 730-square-mile lake.
"It was just a tremendous day," Chad Brauer said. "I actually could have an even better day, but I couldn't turn a big fish that hit me first thing this morning.
"But remember, this is Florida. I could go back there tomorrow and not catch a fish."
All three pros scored by flipping thick hyacinths and hydrilla beds in shallow water (Walker used a Lake Fork Trophy Tackle Tube).
"It was just a great day," Walker added. "I made all of the right moves and everything worked out for me. I even culled a 4-pounder, which felt strange because it's something you never get to do.
"I caught a small limit early, and then went flipping and culled all of those fish. When you're in the right spot and they're biting, it makes it seem easy. I feel confident I'll get the bites tomorrow, but getting bites and putting them in the boat are two different things"
Kenney, who guides on the Big O in the winter, posted Thursday's largest bass with an 8-pound, 9-ounce largemouth. It was caught flipping heavy vegetation. "That was going to be just my starting area," he said. "I didn't know what was in there. I got a couple of good bites and decided I'd better stay there all day."
At stake is a $50,000 top prize and 20 spots in the inaugural CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship presented by Busch Beer in December.
In the amateur division, Florida's Nathan Bloom holds the early lead with 16-14. Jeff Campbell of Ohio is second with 13-1, followed by Alabama's Todd Sterling with 12-10.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. In 2004, BASS will introduce the all-new Bassmaster Elite 50 Series, a four-event, no-entry-fee circuit featuring a $1.6 million prize purse for the world's best anglers. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail presented by Busch Beer is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass-fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.