DECATUR, Ala. — Though the pros didn't cheer when Tournament Director Trip Weldon cancelled the second day of the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel Friday due to high winds and hazardous boating conditions on Lake Wheeler, a collective "whew" from the anxious anglers was almost palpable. The Elite Series tournament headquartered in Decatur, Ala., is set to continue Saturday morning with a full field of 100 boats.
The only anglers who might have frowned at Weldon's announcement were those whose fishing waters are within short boat rides from the Ingalls Harbor launch site. To be sure, contestants such as Takahiro Omori, who is in second place with 17 pounds, 8 ounces, weren't grumbling when the decision was announced. Omori caught his limit near Wheeler Dam, which would have meant a run of about 25 miles down the tempest-tossed impoundment.
"No choice, that's where all my fish are," said Omori, who was bundled in several layers of clothing in anticipation of the long, wet ride. He'll shuck a few layers Saturday, because the forecast promises a kinder, gentler lake.
It will be a different lake, too, as compared to Thursday when the tournament began. In the opening round, the approaching storm front triggered a bass feeding frenzy and all but three contestants brought limit stringers to the weigh-in. The difference for some was that among the fish they caught were kickers that boosted them higher in the standings. Take away the 7-pound largemouth that Alton Jones caught, and he would be in a three-way tie for 58th place, rather than topping the standings with 17 pounds, 12 ounces.
As he waited for Weldon's decision Friday, Jones mused about his prospects, and seemed satisfied with how the event was proceeding for him.
"Everything will be different now; everything that we had going in practice is changed. There are going to be fish in places where there weren't any before, and fish are going to be gone from where some of the guys caught them on Thursday.
"The thing that excites me is that none of us got to practice for the conditions that we'll have to deal with now. This is a real test, a thinking man's game," said the 2008 Bassmaster Classic champion.
Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals has some hole cards to play in that game. Horton knows Lake Wheeler, and where the bass are apt to be, given certain conditions. Friday, Horton was more concerned by navigational hazards posed by the wind and the likely floating logs dislodged by the raging storm than with fishing prospects. In the typical fashion of an Elite Series pro, his assessment was nuanced.
"Fish definitely are going to relocate," observed Horton, as precise as a fortune cookie prediction. "The smallmouth guys in the main lake will still be able to have some decent catches, but the fishermen going after bigger largemouths are going to have to try something different after all this weather. It's going to take some adjustments."
Though it hasn't been decided by Weldon and his crew how or even when the championship round will play out, Jones and Horton are likely to be among the finalists. Others on the cusp, such as Florida pro Bernie Schultz, who's tied for 50th place now with 11 pounds, 6 ounces, no doubt hope that if bass do reposition, it will mean that bigger fish will move to their fishing areas.
"I bet I caught 50 bass in one spot Thursday," noted Schultz. "It was crazy. I was using a shallow-running crankbait and got a fish on every cast. But I had to go through 20 fish to get a 2-pounder. It isn't justice to catch 50 fish and have only 11 ½ pounds. The bad thing was, I watched a local guy catch a 5-pounder near my spot in practice. I know there are bigger fish around. I just need a good kicker fish to go with the 2-pounders."
Mike Iaconneli and Randy Howell are counting on that, too. Each has admitted that he's junk-fishing, and using a full repertoire of springtime lures and presentations. So far, so good; Iaconelli is in third place with 17-1 and Howell is in sixth place with 16-6. "I've been using about 15 outfits with 15 different baits, but I think I'm going to cut back to about 12," Iaconelli said with a straight face Thursday evening.
Howell was bemoaning the northwest wind ("the worse wind on Wheeler") Friday morning before it became a moot point.
"I'm wondering if what I did on Thursday will work again for me in the same places," said the Alabama pro. "I'm going to assume it will until I find out differently. All I've got is junk-fishing, but I might have to change where I'm fishing from the creeks and coves to the main lake. We'll see."
Though there's an ebb and flow to most tournaments as favorites rise and fall, or upstarts surprise everyone with their 11th hour heroics, so far the Dixie Duel is progressing more in fits and starts. Rather than the building tension and suspense that usually accompanies such gatherings where the world's best fishermen match talents, this event is proceeding in a series of a weather-induced hiccups.
There still are promises of a great tournament to come, however, and of important issues to be decided in the next couple of days. Tommy Biffle, currently in sixth place with 16-2, didn't go to his preferred practice-round hotspot on Thursday for fear of being caught far from the landing by the storm. Will those bass still be there for him?
Will Omori's next long boat ride pay off? Will Jones be able to win the mental game that a seemingly ever-changing Lake Wheeler poses? And will the middle-of-the-pack guys such as Schultz find those pre-spawn kicker bass that they need to give them a realistic shot at the $100,000 top prize?
The answers will start coming in Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m., when the second-round weigh-in at Ingalls Harbor begins.