CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Lake Norman is approximately 34 miles long and Blake Smith saw the whole length on his way to catching a 15-pound, 7-ounce limit that leads Day 1 of the Basspro.com Bassmaster Southern Open.
Hailing from Lakeland, Fla., Smith leads Cody Hoyle of Rutherfordton, N.C., by 14 ounces.
“The key is to stay moving,” Smith said. “I have over 65 spots on this lake that range from 6 inches out to 35 feet. I hit 14 of them and caught fish throughout that depth range.”
Entering the tournament third in Southern Opens points, Smith is eyeing a 2022 Bassmaster Elite Series qualification. The Top 3 in each Opens division and the Top 3 in the overall Opens standings qualify for the Elites.
While he started the day with a conservative game plan, the action unfolded at a pleasantly surprising pace that yielded an all-largemouth bag.
“Once I hit the point around 11 (a.m.) when I knew I couldn’t upsize, I tried to help my co-angler catch a few fish,” Smith said. “I had my limit by 10 (a.m.), and I threw back a couple of 11-pound bags of spots.
“It started stressing me out that I was catching fish that might help me tomorrow and Saturday if I get there. So, I had to stop fishing.”
Smith caught most of his fish on an unnamed topwater lure. While he opted to keep the details to himself, Smith said he needed a certain scenario for his topwater bite to ignite.
“My original game plan was to get a limit of spotted bass and then try to upgrade because there’s a lot on the line here,” Smith said. “Being third in points, I wanted to make sure I had some consistency and not just swing for the fence.
“But the Lord blessed me this morning with a few good bites and it keyed my mind in to something. Once I figured it out, when I found (the scenario), it was another fish and another fish. I saw another 5-pounder and a bunch of (3-pounders) just swimming around.”
When Smith’s topwater bite died around 10 a.m., he went shallow and switched to a Yamamoto Senko. Smith employed a specific presentation strategy that he believed made a significant difference, based on current conditions. Essentially, Wednesday’s rain increased turbidity and the fish’s response to lower visibility required an adjustment.
“There’s a hundred times more consistency deep, but a very specific shallow scenario produced my weight,” Smith said. “There was a little bit of mud in my shallow areas and I think that changed what they were in there to eat. The fish that I’m going after are eating a very specific type of (forage).
“Tomorrow’s a new day and the conditions aren’t going to change a whole lot, so we shouldn’t see anything change. I’m excited to get back out there.”
Hoyle, who sits in second place with 14-9, said his game plan centered on running lots of docks. While he found fish roaming under the dimmer light of cloudy skies during practice, Thursday’s bright sun parked a lot of bass in the shady confines.
“I hit about 150 docks with depths of 10 to 20 feet,” Hoyle said. “About 15 feet was the most productive and the bigger the dock the better.
“The first place I went, I got a 3 1/2 and I had my limit by 9 a.m. I caught a 3-10 on my way in, about 15 minutes from (the Blythe Landing weigh-in site).”
Hoyle focused his efforts on the Mountain Creek area because he knew the local waterfront homeowners commonly plant brush around their docks. The additional habitat increases the big-fish appeal. He caught all of his bass on two finesse rigs — one for the bottom, one for suspended fish.
Charlie Hartley of Grove City, Ohio — a two-time qualifier for the Bassmaster Classic and winner of a Bassmaster Open in 2016 — is in third place with 13-8. He got to work early and had his weight by about 9 a.m. Hartley targeted a specific rock structure about the size of his boat and caught his fish on what he termed an old-school power-fishing technique.
“I had three largemouth and two spots in my bag,” Hartley said. “I caught them all pretty early in 18 to 20 feet. I just made a good decision on my first spot. I had a decent practice and I had trouble deciding where to start. I’m glad I started where I did; it went down really quick.”
Daisuke Aoki of Japan is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors with a 5-4.
Scott Beattie of Sherrills Ford, N.C., leads the co-angler division with 7-4. With several years of local knowledge, Beattie said he focused on hitting key spots his pro overlooked.
“I got a (3-plus-pounder) and then a 2 1/2 right off the bat,” Beattie said. “They were up shallow in 1 1/2 to 2 feet and I caught them all on a Queen Tackle jig with a Zoom Twin Tail.
“I live here and there’s still a lot of the fish on the main body chasing bait, but a lot of the bigger fish feeding on bream are up shallow.”
Jimmy Hayes of Fayetteville, N.C., holds the Phoenix Boats Big Bass lead among co-anglers with a 3-8.
Smith leads the Southern Open standings with 569 points. David Williams of Newton, N.C., is second with 560, followed by Josh Douglas of Isle, Minn., with 547, John Hunter Jr. of Shelbyville, Ky., with 533 and Sam George of Athens, Ala., with 527.
Jacob Powroznik of North Prince George, Va., leads the overall Falcon Rods Bassmaster Opens Angler of the Year standings with 1,153 points.
Friday’s takeoff is scheduled for 7 a.m. ET at Blythe Landing Park. Friday’s weigh-in will be back at the park at 3 p.m. Coverage of the event will be available at Bassmaster.com.
Visit Lake Norman is hosting the event.