Wet, gusty conditions across Lake Erie didn't prevent anglers from brandishing hefty smallmouth on the first day of the Bassmaster Elite Series Empire Chase.
Considering Thursday's unpredictable surroundings just off the NFTA Boat Harbor, many anglers wondered how good the bites will be if the weather cooperates. If the conditions improve, some are predicting 25-pound sacks before the four-day event is over.
Paul Hirosky, from Guys Mills, Pa., came through with a 21-pound, 11-ounce bag to take the first-day lead. Hirosky was followed by Matt Reed (21-6), Kevin Langill (21-5), Greg Hackney (21-2) and Kevin Wirth (21-0).
The Bassmaster Tour is a professional bass fishing circuit that started in 1968 and has grown significantly in the last few years. Today, there are 108 fishermen on the circuit. This is the first Elite Series event held in Western New York with plans to return next summer.
"I've been doing this for 14 years in this country and I've fished in other countries as well, and the fishing here rates with the best of any of them," said Davy Hite of Ninety Six, S.C, who is in 87th place after coming in with a 12-pound bag. "The one thing you have here is Mother Nature to contend with. It's been great in practice here and it's been really calm the last couple of days but for some reason Mother Nature really slammed us in the face on the first day."
Nine anglers finished with bags of at least 20 pounds, and 55 came through with bags of at least 15 pounds. The total first-day haul was 1,566 pounds, 12 ounces.
"This is awesome," said Aaron Martens, from Leeds, Ala., who is in ninth place at 21-1. "The conditions are awful and all these big bags are still coming in. You can't fish effectively at all and we're still bringing in big bags."
But Kevin VanDam, whose $2.1 million in career Bass prize money makes him the Tiger Woods of the sport, had trouble navigating the waters of Lake Erie.
"It was a rough son of a gun," said VanDam, in 26th place with 17-8. "I've been out a lot of times in a lot worse but it's just not a lot of fun when it's like that. It's such a great fishery but when the wind blows there's nowhere to get out of it and there's nothing that you can do."
While only light showers are expected today, winds could top out at 30 mph. Langill, for one, didn't mind the high winds.
"They didn't bite that well during practice, so I think it made the bite better," he said. "There were a couple times where I had to duck my head down from the rain and hide. I had to stick my head between my legs and hope that it would quit."
Still, the lake is loaded with fish spread across a large area and the anglers said the key is to keep moving.
"I probably hit 20 different spots," Langill said. "I would hit a spot and fish for about an hour and not catch a fish, then go to the next spot and make one drop and catch them. It was one of those kinds of deals, you had to keep moving around until you found one."
The field will be trimmed to 50 after today and to 12 after Saturday. The purse for the Empire Chase is $670,000 with a top prize of $100,000. Takeoff for today's second round is scheduled for 5:30 a.m.