PARIS, Tenn. — Excuse Grayson Morris and Tucker Smith if they had a case of déjà vu on Thursday at the Mossy Oak Bassmaster High School National Championship presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors.
After all, they’ve led this tournament before.
Morris and Smith, the defending high school national champions, caught a five-bass limit Thursday that weighed 19 pounds, 11 ounces. That gave the duo from Briarwood Christian School in Birmingham, Ala., nearly a 2-pound lead in the tournament being held this week on Kentucky Lake.
A whopping 300 teams from 243 different high schools are competing in the three-day championship. They represent 40 different states and one Canadian province.
None of the teams were as impressive as Morris and Smith on Thursday. But still, the leaders said they struggled to pinpoint bass on Kentucky Lake. They weren’t alone, as 97 of the 300 teams didn’t catch a weighable fish.
“We only had six bites today, but I guess they were the right ones,” Morris said. “We got our sixth bite at 1 o’clock, and we had to weigh-in at 2.”
Morris and Smith buzzed shorelines all day, hoping to spark the bass into action. It was a frantic pace, they said, but it paid off at the scales. The biggest bass in their bag weighed 5-12, and the other four fish averaged more than 3 pounds apiece.
“We were fishing shallow,” said Smith, who caught the 5-12 kicker. “I saw it from about 10 feet away ... I thought it might be a carp, but if it was a bass, I knew it was a big one.”
The 19-11 total was heavier than any bag Morris and Smith caught on their way to last year’s title. Their best bag in the 2018 tournament weighed 18-9, and they totaled 50-2 over three days to earn the win.
“This takes a lot of pressure off,” Smith said of taking an early lead. “We caught 16-10 last year on Day 1 and were in fifth place.”
Morris and Smith said they’ll stick to their game plan Friday. It’s worked for two consecutive years, so why not?
“That’s all we can do, is just go fishing,’ Morris said. “And we’ll keep doing what we do best. It’s gotten us the right bites so far.”
Daelyn Whaley and Lilly Smith of Abbeville (S.C.) High School are in second place with five bass weighing 17-15. The girls thought their bag weighed less, so they were pleasantly surprised by their Day 1 total.
Whaley caught a 5-9 bass that anchored the Abbeville catch.
“I skipped up under a hanging limb,” Whaley said. “I saw him swim out and when I set the hook, I saw his big head. I said, ‘Get the net!’ and it swam right into it.”
Whaley’s first cousin, Carter McNeil of Bethel University, teamed with Cole Floyd to win the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship presented by Bass Pro Shops last week on Lake Chickamauga, also in Tennessee.
Rounding out the Top 5 teams on Thursday were Lake Norsworthy and William Burt of the Brandon Bulldog Bass Club (Miss.), third, 15-4; Tyler Finley and Hunter Jones, Mount Pleasant (Tenn.), fourth, 15-2; Alex Curington and Bre Arnold, Good Hope Fishing Team (Ala.), fifth, 14-4.
Each of the 300 teams competing in the championship qualified via four different Bassmaster High School Series events this year or their respective state team trails.
A total of $22,000 in scholarship awards will be split among the Top 12 teams in the championship. The winning duo will earn a $4,500 gift that will help fund each angler’s college education.
Taj White and Ethan Ryan of the Arizona High School B.A.S.S. Nation only weighed one bass Thursday, but it was the heaviest of the day. Their 6-14 largemouth puts them in 62nd place overall.
Friday’s competition will begin with a 6 a.m. CT takeoff from Paris Landing State Park. Weigh-in will begin at 2 p.m., also from the state park. The field will be trimmed to the Top 12 teams after Friday’s weigh-in is complete.
The Carroll County (Tenn.) Tourism Authority, Henry County (Tenn.) and Bethel University are hosting the event.