Blaylock grabs Day 1 lead

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Seigo Saito

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Stetson Blaylock loves a tough tournament, and pushing through Thursday’s tough conditions delivered a 15-pound, 9-ounce limit that leads Day 1 of the Cherokee Casino Tahlequah Bassmaster Elite at Lake Tenkiller.

Daytime highs reached into the 90s, while a declining lake level, which has lost about a foot and a half since practice, left fish displaced and finicky. Fishing the mid- to lower lake, Blaylock caught a mixed bag of largemouth, spotted bass and smallmouth bass. His catch, which included a 4-pound smallmouth, was a welcome performance, considering his expectations.

“Everybody said practice was bad, but I literally caught six keepers the entire practice,” the Benton, Ark., angler said. “I just like this style of lake. When they pulled that water down, it didn’t help the bite, but I was able to slow down and not think about whether I need to flip bushes because I knew the water was falling out of there. So, I just went out with no care and threw.

“I knew if I just caught a bass, that I would be in (the Bassmaster Classic) easy. My very first cast, I caught a 12-inch spotted bass and I was like ‘Well, my day’s made.’ So I just slowed down.”

Blaylock demonstrated his toughness earlier this season with a hard-fought win at the Winyah Bay Bassmaster Elite Series event in April. Acknowledging the similarities, he notes two major differences: First, he stayed in a much smaller area on the South Carolina tidal fishery; moreover, his 2020 Classic berth was far from secure at Winyah.

“Coming into this tournament, I knew I was in sixth, so I feel like that freed me up a lot,” he said.

Blaylock used a mix of reaction and slow baits. Noting that he’s fishing a little deeper than most around him, Blaylock said that keeping an open mind served him well.

“Bites are tough right now, so you want to capitalize on every one of them,” he said. “I’m not afraid to do things that I did not catch bass on in practice. Every bass I caught today came on baits I did not throw in practice.”

Tomorrow’s forecast calls for clouds, more wind, cooler temperatures and the likelihood of showers. Blaylock said he’ll probably need to change his game plan for Day 2, but believes he’s positioned himself well for whatever unfolds.

“I don’t think what I did today will work tomorrow because we’ve had sun and high heat for the past several days,” he said. “I think they’ll bite a little bit better, so it feels really good to have a 1-pound cushion.”

Louisiana pro Caleb Sumrall delivered some late-day heroics to land in second place with a catch of 14-9. With four keepers in his livewell 15 minutes before he had to leave for check-in, Sumrall made a key decision to leave the shallow pattern he’d been running and fish offshore. The payoff was a 5-7 largemouth that completed his limit and now leads the race for Phoenix Boats Big Bass of the week.

“That kind of fish is a day-maker,” Sumrall said. “Everything I had going wasn’t working out, so I just took off from the ramp and fished what looked good. I fished from the top of the river to the dam.

“I had 12 rods on my deck and five where my marshal would have been sitting. It was junk fishing 101. I caught my five fish on four different baits. That’s what’s scary about a lake like this. But with the changing conditions, you have to keep an open mind to everything.”

In third place, Kyle Monti committed to what he feels is an overlooked habitat feature that produced a limit of 14-4. The Florida pro was lean on details, but said he was pleased to discover that the spot he’d found in practice was even more productive than he had initially thought.

He caught a couple of bass on a topwater bait and then slowed down to pick apart the spot with dragging presentations.

“I feel like I found something that’s pretty special,” Monti said. “Today, I pulled in and they came up schooling, and that made me slow down and stay in the area. I think there’s enough there where I can catch another 10 to 12 pounds for sure.”

The tournament will resume Friday with takeoff at 7 a.m. CT from Chicken Creek Ramp in Cookson, Okla. Weigh-in on Day 2 will be held at the launch site a 3 p.m. Weigh-ins on Days 3 and 4 will move to the Cherokee Casino Tahlequah in Tahlequah, Okla., at 4 p.m.