Doesn’t it just figure that after the coldest day in the history of the Bassmaster Classic, four anglers from warm, sunny climates are sitting atop the standings?
Arizona angler Dean Rojas wowed the crowd at Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, S.C., with five Lake Hartwell bass that weighed 21 pounds, 2 ounces despite frigid temperatures that were in the neighborhood of 10 degrees just before takeoff at Green Pond Landing in Anderson.
Rojas also overcame a 28-minute penalty that he was forced to spend in the tournament “penalty box” as punishment for being late for check-in to Wednesday’s practice period.
He leads California angler Skeet Reese (20-2), Texas pro Keith Combs (18-8) and fellow Arizona angler Brett Hite (15-7).
Sportsman TV host and reigning Angler of the Year Greg Hackney, from Gonzales, is in 8th place (14-15), while Pierre Part native Cliff Crochet struggled and caught only one fish, good for 49th place (2-12). ULM's Brett Preueutt also turned in one fish, good for 47th place (3-0).
“This is our biggest stage that we perform on, and to be able to catch a big bag like that on the first day is amazing,” Rojas said. “How could you script it any better than that? Obviously, I’d rather finish it that way. But hey, I’ll take it.”
Though Rojas hasn’t won a Classic in 12 previous appearances – and hasn’t finished first in an event since the 2011 Elite Series event on Toledo Bend Reservoir – he said he’ll be more excited than nervous to lead the field into Saturday’s second round.
He’s taking his Day 1 success in stride, much like he did the 28-minute penalty he endured Friday morning. He said the infraction was due to a Lowrance unit on his boat that he kept promising himself he would switch from Central Time to South Carolina’s Eastern Time, but never did.
“It was my fault,” Rojas said. “I worked really hard all year, and I wasn’t going to let that ruin the whole event for me.
“I know if things are going to happen, they’re going to happen. I was very relaxed this morning. I wasn’t thinking about all the fish that were biting without me being there. I was just waiting until it was my time.”
Rojas wouldn’t say much about how he was fishing.
“I was just using two or three baits,” he said. “Fishing shallow and deep – a little of both.”
Reese also tamed the cold for his bag of 20-2, and was equally secretive about his techniques. He allowed a B.A.S.S. media boat close enough to photograph him fishing docks at one point during the day, but asked that they not photograph the lure he was using.
“There’s definitely one good pattern I’m running, but it only produced three fish,” Reese said. “The fish were stubborn today. A lot of the schools of fish I located in practice pulled out or went deeper or did something. They just hid from me today, but I got some good ones anyway.”
The conditions for Saturday are expected to improve slightly with a high of 48 degrees in the forecast. But it’s not something Reese is expecting to really help the fishing.
“If you want to call that an improvement,” Reese said, laughing. “It’s still freezing cold outside right now, and it’s not going to get any warmer overnight.
“Maybe we won’t have to wash ice out of our guides until no later than 11 o’clock tomorrow. But I don't know that anyone will be able to go out and duplicate a 20-pound catch day after day.”
Friday’s take-off was delayed until 8:30 a.m. due to concerns over ice on the new concrete ramp at Green Pond and then even later when anglers had trouble launching. The fiberglass boats were actually frozen to the trailers, and it took a little extra effort from the boat drivers to get them into the water.
Once anglers ventured onto the lake, many experienced trouble throughout the day with ice forming in the spools of their reels and in the guides of their rods. Some rubbed Vaseline on their guides to help with icing, while others dipped their rods in the lake frequently or even used saliva to prevent ice from forming.
The tournament is scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. Saturday, barring further weather delays.
Competitors like Combs, who are only expecting five to seven bites a day for the remainder of the event, said the extra two hours could make a huge difference.
“It was one of those days where I would catch one and feel really good about it, and then it would be two hours before I would catch another one,” said Combs, who was well pleased with his catch of 18-8. “So during that two hours, you’re starting to ask yourself if you’re ever going to get another bite.”
Combs said the day was no different than any of his practice days – and while it leaves him little margin for error, if he stays on the quality of fish he caught Friday, he’ll be in contention.
“I said before the tournament I thought it would take 52 pounds to win it,” Combs said. “I still think that.”
Reigning Classic champion Randy Howell is in fifth with 15-5, and South Carolina pro and local fan favorite Casey Ashley is sixth with 15-3, just ahead of Texas pro Takahiro Omori with 15-0.
The tournament will continue at 7 a.m. Saturday at Green Pond Landing.
Saturday’s weigh-in is scheduled for 4 p.m. at Bon Secours Wellness Arena.