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Joe Thomas, 28, of Cincinnati, is leading the Operation Bass/Red man All-American with a five-fish limit of 17 pounds, two ounces.

But he'll have to score almost as well today to stay ahead of the 41-man field to win the $100,000 first prize: Four other anglers are within striking distance, and another four aren't that far off the pace.

One of the few professional tournament fishermen in this event, Thomas said he's worried about what will happen if he cannot get onto the lake today.

"My Plan B is not nearly as good as Plan A," he said, when asked what he would do if strong winds force him to fish behind Buffalo's breakwaters.

Second in the standings, with a five-fish limit weighing 15 pounds, 11 ounces, is James Parker, 52, of Fayetteville, Ark., who parlayed a "secret" fishing hole into the contender's slot.

"I went pretty far down the lake today," he said "and didn't have anyone else fishing near me, really.

"I found the kind of bottom I liked with my depth finder and just stayed on that spot" catching bass after bass, he said.

"If the wind doesn't blow, I'll go back there Saturday. I've never fished for smallmouths before. Let me tell you they really work on you -- they sure make your heart flutter."

Thomas, Ted Mobley (third, 14 pounds, eight ounces) Ray Harris (fourth, with 13 pounds, three ounces) and Teddy Wynn (fifth, with 13 pounds) all fished near each other west of Sturgeon Point.

"At one time, I placed up a marker buoy and Ray yelled over to tell me that was his," Thomas said.

The contestants had glass-smooth seas, bright sun and near perfect fishing weather Friday.

In all, 24 five-fish limits were weighed in, only three anglers came in with no fish and a few, including Lance Perticone, of Dexter, the only New Yorker in this event, came in with a single fish. He was late in returning, however, and lost credit for his fish's weight.

"The fishing here has been excellent," said Operation Bass spokesman Brian Sayner. "Everything we've heard about the fishing off Buffalo has been true." He added that 98 percent of the fish weighed survived to be returned to the lake.

The leaders, however, were reluctant to talk about their tactics, lures or fishing methods.

"Tomorrow," said Thomas, "after the winner is announced, we'll tell you what we used, and how we used it.

Watching them on the water, however, observers could see an intensity and concentration that the weekend fisherman never shows.

Braced against their casting stools, the competitors made cast after cast, "fishing out" each toss as if they were going to hook the biggest fish of the tourney on each try.

They had the consistency of tennis pros, lobbing shot after shot to a student's backhand.

Whether they used baitcasting tackle, the "standard" in most bass fishing, or, like Harris, switched off to spinning tackle, they used light lines.

"I had 6-pound test on my spinning gear, 12-pound on the casting reels," Harris said, "and I seemed to catch about as many fish on either type."

Parker, "used to throwing rope, back home," said "this 6-pound test is like sewing thread." But he caught his fish on that lighter line.

"I'm kind of glad Joe is in the lead," Parker said, adding that after 20 years of tournament fishing he's learned "if you are going to win it you will win it.

"You just have to go out and fish the fish," Parker said. "You have to beat the fish, first."

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