No local fisherman has ever won a Bass Anglers Sportsman Society tournament on Barnett Reservoir, but it could happen this week even though an Arkansas pro took a big lead in Thursday’s opening round of the B.A.S.S. Central Open.
“It is starting to feel like home waters,” said Mike McClelland, whose five-fish limit of 23 pounds, 5 ounces gave him a 15-ounce leader over fellow Arkansan Kevin Short.
And the local crowd cheered McClelland's announced weight, just like he was one of their own.
McClelland’s history on Barnett reads like that of a homeboy. He has fished two of the 10 previous B.A.S.S. events on the lake: He won in 1996 and was second in 1998.
“We go to places where you have confidence, and this is one of the places where I just feel good about fishing,” said McClelland, an Bassmaster Elite Series angler who has seven career B.A.S.S. victories to his credit and over $1.5 million in career winnings. “It’s a lot like the waters I grew up fishing — you know, shallow and muddy. Now the lakes I grew up on were deep and clear, but I never fished those; I always went way up in the river where I could fish the banks and backwaters.
“That’s the similarity here. This like is shallow and is usually muddy. I like that, and I feel comfortable in that situation.”
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McClelland’s surprise sack had a lot of fishermen feeling uncomfortable. Even he was shocked.
“Did I think a 20-pound bag was possible here, yes I did, but I didn’t think I could catch it and certainly not 23 (pounds),” he said. “To be honest when I was in line, I thought I might have 20. I’m surprised.”
The heavy sacks — three over 20, and 12 over the 15-pound average most people thought it would take to win the three-day event — were a pleasant surprise. During a rainy, windy and muddy week of practice, nobody was catching anything.
“That all started to change Wednesday,” said Short, who probably covered more water than any other angler Thursday. “My first day and a half of practice, I didn’t get but a bite or two. Then yesterday afternoon, I started getting bites. I was fishing without hooks of course, but they felt like good bites.
“Then today, they broke loose. I was surprised both by the number of bites I got and quality of bites I got. I fished a lot of different water. I fished the main lake and I probably ran 30 miles up the river, where there is a lot of current and dirty water. Everywhere I fished, I caught fish. Every hour I fished, I caught fish.”
Short had the day’s biggest bass, a fat 8-pounder.
“Couldn’t believe it,” he said. “She slammed it.”
The key to the increased and more aggressive bites was a steadily rising surface temperature, all fishermen agreed.
“They want to be shallow; it’s that time, and they are moving in,” McClelland said. “I think the key for me is that I believe there are more fish out there wanting to move up. There’s going to be more moving up — at least I hope so — over the next couple of days.”
“There’s no doubt that when the water temperatures reached 54, 56 and even 58 degrees, depending on what part of the lake you were in — and I even found 55 degrees up the river — it triggered (the bite)," he said. "They are moving up, and they are hungry.”
The other big bag belonged to Oklahoma's Jay Brainard, a rookie fishing his first B.A.S.S. Open event. His five-fish limit weighed 22.1, and he’s confident he can repeat it.
“I found this little cove about two months ago on a website, and I knew that if I could find it and get in there, it would have fish,” Brainard said. “When I came last week to practice, I went in there and I got five bites real quick, and I got out of there immediately. I knew if it didn’t change, I’d be OK.
“I went in there first thing this morning, and I started getting bites but they were missing it. They were short-striking the bait, so I made a little bit of an adjustment, a subtle change, in what I was doing and then started killing it, almost jerking the rod out of my hand. Heck, one of them actually did yank it out.”
Brainard said he stayed on the fish, catching over 20 and culling to his big sack, because he feels the area will hold up and it appears it could be one fishable part of the lake that isn’t crowded.
“There’s a couple of other boats in and out of there, but they didn’t do much, and it doesn’t appear that they were doing what I was doing,” he said. “Plus, I’m not fishing against them. I’m fishing against the fish.”
It’s not like anyone is going to argue with Brainard’s strategy, even if he is just starting his pro fishing career. His previous occupation: free-style bull fighter.
“I wasn’t a bull rider; no, I was a bull fighter,” he said, quickly correcting a curious writer. “With my hands. I was the first guy to do a back flip over a Mexican bull. Look it up.”
Another rookie, Brad Preuett of Colfax, La., is fourth with 18 pounds, 6 ounces. He’s hoping to make fishing his first and only career and is off to a fast start. He fished the recent Bassmaster Classic after advancing through the B.A.S.S. College Series, representing the University of Louisiana-Monroe. He was extremely surprised at his day on Barnett.
“I had a pathetic practice all week, but late Wednesday I got four bites and that’s all I had to build on, so I went there first and it was on,” Preuett said. “I got these five by 10 a.m. and I got out of there because there are a lot of other boats in that area. Plus, I had to other places very similar to that one that I thought I could keep catching them.
“The only thing that worries me is that I didn’t get a fish on either of those other two places. That concerns me.”
Rounding out the top five was Jason Christie of Oklahoma, an Elite Series angler with 17-8.
In sixth is Keith Shelton, the top local angler with 17-6. Shelton lives on the banks of the reservoir.
If McClelland can go start to finish and win, Shelton might just get a new neighbor.
“Yeah, I’d probably have to consider it,” McClelland said, laughing.
In the co-angler division, Texans dominated with Gary Sullivan leading with a three-fish limit of 13 pounds, 5 ounces. He also had lunker with a 7-pound, 3-ounce bass. Billy Smith Jr. is nearly 2 pounds back at 11-7, and Californian Christopher Dingo is third with 11-5.
Friday’s weigh-in will begin with the first flight at 3 p.m. at the Madison Landing at Barnett Reservoir. The last flight must arrive by 5 p.m. After the second round, only the top 12 pros and co-anglers will advance to Saturday’s final round. The final weigh-in will be held at the Bass Pro Shops in Pearl.