Three rivers a worthy foe for anglers
The best bass anglers in the world collectively met their match Friday.
The 47 pros fishing in Pittsburgh's version of the Bassmaster Classic combined to catch just 96 fish - 139 fewer than they were legally allowed - from the three rivers during the first day of the tournament.
Jimmy Mize of Ben Lomond, Ark., has the first-day lead with 6 pounds, 2 ounces of bass. He got that by weighing in a limit of five fish.
Mize was the first angler into Mellon Arena and joked that "the best way to lead a tournament is to weigh in first."
His lead stood up throughout the day, though, as anglers made their way to the stage, more without fish that with.
Just four anglers caught their limit of five bass, which had to be at least 12 inches long to be legal. Twice as many weighed in no fish.
There were few big fish to be found either. Michigan pro Kevin VanDam and Missouri pro Stacey King shared honors for the biggest fish of the day with bass weighing 2 pounds, 14 ounces.
None of that was necessarily unexpected. Most of the pros had found the going tough during pre-Classic practice periods, too. Several had predicted that Pittsburgh's Classic might break the record for the lowest winning weight in a Classic, which stands at 15 pounds, 5 ounces.
Still, catching so few fish when it counted was hard for some to swallow.
"That's the first time I ever blanked in a tournament," said Jay Yelas, the Tyler, Texas, angler who won the 2002 Classic. "I guess I was due."
"This place fishes probably tougher than any place I've ever fished," said Zell Rowland of Montogomery, Texas, who weighed in three bass.
"It's really one of the strangest fisheries I've ever fished in my whole life," said Rick Clunn, who got blanked one day after being named the greatest angler of all time. "I've never fished in a fishery where you can get 20 bites a day and get 20 more follows and still not put the right fish in the boat."
Even those anglers who caught fish found the going tough.
Skeet Reese, a California angler whose spiked blond hair matched his bright yellow shoes, weighed in a limit of five bass, but he didn't have a single lunker among them. He ended Friday in sixth place with just 4 pounds, 10 ounces of fish.
"This is officially the smallest five-bass limit I've ever weighed in in my life," Reese said.
VanDam, the Michigan pro who entered the Classic as one of the heavy favorites to win, was in fifth place with three fish weighing a combined 4 pounds, 11 ounces.
"I really had no idea what I might be able to catch," said VanDam, noting that the conditions on the river today were different from what he experienced in practice. "I had a really tough day today."
Pennsylvania's two representatives in the tournament, BASS rookie of the year Dave Wolak of Luzerne County and Ed Cowan of Pike County, did not fare especially well. Wolak caught two fish weighing 1 pound, 13 ounces, while Cowan checked in with one 13-ounce fish.
As for Mize, he spent just about three and a half hours fishing, having lost some other time to locking through on his way to the tournament's outer boundaries. He caught all of his fish within an hour, though, and feels pretty good about where he's sitting.
"I just wanted to be close. I didn't have to be leading. I just wanted to be in the top 10 so I could have a chance," Mize said.
That seems to be the attitude a number of competitors were taking heading into the second day of the tournament. The top 25 anglers, according to the weight of fish checked in, make the cut and get to fish the tournament's third and final day Sunday.
Anyone who can get to that point and is within the top 15 or so spots has a chance to win, said Mike Iaconelli, the New Jersey pro who weighed in four bass weighing just over four pounds. He enters today in seventh place.
"This is going to be a marathon tournament. The guy who can catch just enough to stay in it all week is going to have a chance," Iaconelli said.
"That's all I'm trying to do, is just trying not to fall out of it," said Alabama pro Gerald Swindle.
Marty Stone weighed in just one spotted bass, a 15-ouncer. He's confident that a good day today, though, might be enough to make the cut, especially if some of Friday's front runners experience the kind of problems that will bring them back to the pack.
"There's going to be a comeback story at this Classic," Stone said, "and you're looking at it."