By Todd Ceisner
Justin Atkins joked Thursday that he’d purchased a bunch of PowerBall tickets recently, only to come up empty in his pursuit of the massive jackpot.
His quest to win the Forrest Wood Cup is off to a much better start in comparison.
The 27-year-old Tour rookie from Florence, Ala., dialed in Lake Murray on Friday to the tune of 21-05 and stole the first-day thunder from local favorite and 2014 Cup winner Anthony Gagliardi, who also cracked the 21-pound mark on a remarkable opening day that saw schooling fish dominate the top end of the leaderboard.
“I’m a little numb right now and a little hungry,” Atkins quipped in the media room after coming off stage. “I knew they were catching them. If you’re catching them, somebody else is always catching them. I figured that out real quick this year. I’d rather be where I’m at than 5 pounds back.”
In the previous two Cups contested at Murray (both 4-day events), there were 10 bags that weighed 15 pounds or more. There were 10 such stringers today alone as those targeting surface feeders capitalized on the prolonged overcast conditions in the morning.
Brandon Cobb, another South Carolina native who has top-10 finishes in his first two Cup appearances, logged 19-12, but would’ve had 20-04 if not for two dead fish.
Reigning Angler of the Year Bryan Thrift, who has not finished lower than 7th in the previous five Cups, is back in a familiar spot after catching 19-04, which has him in 4th.
Travis Fox, a 10-year Tour pro who’s making his Cup debut, rounded out the top 5 with 18-03.
The weights, when compared with practice feedback from many of the competitors, are staggering. Many presumed something in the 18- to 19-pound range would be leading. Nobody expected the top-end weights to be as strong as they are.
“It’s stupid,” Thrift said with a laugh. “I’m still not sure I believe it. I knew there would be a couple good bags over 15, but I never expected what we have going on at the moment. This lake is not this good.”
“I never dreamed there’d be these types of weights,” added Larry Nixon, who has 17-13 in 6th place.
Here's a look at the top 10 after the first day of competition, with deficit margin from Atkins indicated by red numbers in parentheses:
1. Justin Atkins: 21-05
2. Anthony Gagliardi: 21-01 (0-04)
3. Brandon Cobb: 19-12 (1-09)
4. Bryan Thrift: 19-04 (2-01)
5. Travis Fox: 18-03 (3-02)
6. Larry Nixon: 17-13 (3-08)
7. Michael Neal: 16-00 (5-05)
8. Scott Martin: 15-14 (5-07)
9. Aaron Britt: 15-09 (5-12)
10. Shane Lehew: 15-07 (5-14)
Last year’s Cup winner John Cox caught a limit today for 10-09, one of 30 limits recorded in the 53-man field.
What started as a hazy, overcast Friday morphed into a sunny early afternoon before showers moved across the upper parts of the lake. When the second round of clouds arrived, it seemed to trigger another feeding frenzy, which buoyed those who struggled during the earlier portion of the day.
Saturday’s forecast has improved since earlier in the week. It’s expected to be partly cloudy with a slight chance of thunderstorms. Winds will be light and variable, much like Friday, and that has many of the leaders enthused.
Eight of the top 11 today had at least one dead fish (there were 16 total today) and those lost ounces could easily swing the outcome once Sunday afternoon rolls around.
Pair of 5s Carried Atkins
> Day 1: 5, 21-05
Atkins spent the better part of the morning with one rod in his hand and it paid off with the day-1 lead in his first Forrest Wood Cup, a position he didn’t expect to be in. A pair of 5-pounders certainly helped.
“I didn’t think I’d catch over 20,” he said. “I thought I’d catch 17 and figured that would be a good goal weight. When I caught the first 5-pounder that put me at almost 18. When I caught the second one it put me up to 21. I knew then it was pretty solid.”
He had a limit by 7:45 this morning and then started rolling through spots he’d found before the lake went off-limits. He then caught a 5-pounder off a spot he’d saved because he felt like it could hold big ones.
“I left there and went to another place I felt like nobody would’ve found,” he said. “It was a little off the wall and obviously nobody else did because I caught one almost 6 there on my first cast.”
Once he figured he was over the 20-pound mark, he shifted his focus to Saturday, when he’ll try to fend off Gagliardi and others.
“After that, I ran back through places and places I felt were mediocre – places I felt like I might get lucky and catch a giant off of,” he said. “I didn’t want to burn through a bunch of 3-pounders trying to catch one that will help just a little bit. I did a lot of graphing this afternoon getting ready for tomorrow.”
Anthony Gagliardi had good reason to be pumped up Friday.
2nd: Gagliardi Exceeded Expectations
> Day 1: 5, 21-01
Gagliardi far exceeded his expectation for today and in turn may have ratcheted up the pressure he’ll feel as the tournament moves forward.
“I thought I maybe had a shot at catching 16 or 17 pounds, but I didn’t think I’d catch a big bag like that,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be as relaxed tomorrow. Knowing that I’m a little bit closer to winning there will probably be a little bit more sense of urgency.”
He fished roughly 25 spots between Dreher Island and the dam, but wasn’t all that concerned about the timing of when he stopped at certain areas.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” he said. “I didn’t know where I was going to start until I was running down the lake. I don’t fish places here by time. I just do a milk run and hop from one spot to the next and work my way either down or back. If you start trying to get into a timing thing you’ll be back and forth all over the place. I’d rather make better use of my time and fish my way down.”
He caught his two best fish off the same spot today and lost another potential quality fish – he says he’ll probably time his arrival there tomorrow to sync up with today.
“It was a spot where they weren’t breaking in practice, but I did catch a 4 there,” he said. “It’s a big-fish spot and I pulled in there and fished down through it and was almost ready to leave. Then one came up just out of reach, so I fished down to him and made another pass and caught those big ones.”
3rd: Morning Flurry Carried Cobb
> Day 1: 5, 19-12
In the media room, Cobb was bemoaning the fact that his two dead fish today kept him from cracking the 20-pound mark for the first time in an FLW event. If conditions are right Saturday, he thinks he’ll have another shot at it.
“If we get the same conditions, I’ll probably do the same thing,” he said. “The conditions today weren’t exactly ideal in my mind. I don’t really care if it’s sunny or cloudy, but I don’t like it to be sunny and cloudy. I’d rather it get bright in the morning and stay that way or stay hazy and cloudy and rain all day. I think these herring fish like that better than when it’s on and off.”
He rode the schooling bite most of the morning before checking a few bank-related areas in the afternoon.
“It started real slow,” he said. “I didn’t really lose any so it went well. Fishing the way I am, you usually catch about 50 percent of what bites. I never lost one today and I feel like I could’ve had a little more weight.”
He felt like there were better fish on the spots he was fishing, but couldn’t get them to commit.
“I caught too many fish,” he added. “I knew there were big ones on the places I was fishing and once I had what I had, I was catching too many 2 1/2s when I knew there were 4s there. I could’ve definitely culled my 2 1/2, but it wasn’t worth gaining a half-pound today and burning 20 fish for tomorrow.”
Brandon Cobb had a dynamite morning and is in contention for another top-10 finish at the Cup.
He and Atkins are fishing the same way in a lot of places, but Cobb isn’t worried about the cumulative impact they might have on those areas.
“We’re running a lot of the same places,” he said. “I’m not concerned as long as you’re not right behind each other or someone sits too long and messes them up. We should be alright.”
4th: Thrift Mixed Topwater and Deep
> Day 1: 5, 19-04
Thrift didn’t devote his entire day to fish relating to bait, even though two of the fish he weighed were caught on top.
“I fished a good bit of the herring stuff,” he said. “The others were deep fish.”
He said he stopped at about 20 spots today and hit a few of the offshore places multiple times in hopes to coax some better quality fish to the surface. His stringer included three fish in the 4 1/2-pound range, two of which came off the same spot. It’s something he’s not sure he can duplicate Saturday.
“I have about 2 percent confidence I can do that again,” he said. “I thought 12 1/2 would’ve been a good day today.”
5th: Fox Maximized What He Had
> Day 1: 5, 18-03
Fox figured there’d be a few bags in the 15-pound range and higher, but not 10 of them. He’s happy to have one of them, though.
“I’m not surprised by the weights, but I am surprised at two over 20,” he said. “I figured a lot of people were going to catch 15 to 16 just because of the quality of fish here. I didn’t have a single big one – they were all nice ones.
“I thought I’d be in contention to be leading with what I had, but I’m happy with it.”
His plan was to hit one or both of the spots he felt could produce a limit, but he wound up burning through both of them and ultimately caught his weight off different places from where he practiced.
“I got a first-hand lesson on blueback herring today,” he said. “They’re here today and gone tomorrow. They might be back on certain spots tomorrow. I don’t know.”
He totaled six keeper bites and “ground it out,” he added. He, too, was among the topwater brigade and says it’s an unnerving way to fish, especially in a big-money event.
“It is because you don’t know when or where they’re coming up,” he said. “A couple of my fish today, I just happened to have my bait reeled in and was ready to throw at them and a couple others I was able to throw to them. I’m not going to stand and wait for them. I got lucky on a couple of them because either I was just at the end of my cast and was ready to make another.”
6th: Nixon Thrilled
> Day 1: 5, 17-13
Nixon far exceeded his expectations today after a tough practice that him wondering whether he could contend if it turned into a run-and-gun event. So far, it hasn’t gone that way and he’d prefer it stay that way.
“I knew the fish were there, but I didn’t know if they’d fire right where you can catch a perfect stringer,” he said. “We got the perfect weather with the clouds and barely a breeze.”
He had five good ones by 9 a.m. and needed just two spots to amass his weight. He caught one on a Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Pro Senko and the rest were topwater fish chasing bait to the surface.
“When you’re dealing with schooling bass, you’re scared because they might not do it tomorrow,” he said. “They’re going to do it somewhere as long as we don’t have crazy weather and it gets windy.
“I’m not educated enough on these types of lakes so if they don’t break I have a problem because I can’t figure out how to catch them. It’s like I know the problem, but can’t cure it because I don’t have a jillion spots.”
He still thinks it’s possible to match his production today and possibly add to it. But he’s also aware he could go backwards.
“If I can just get three good ones, I can go catch two more,” he said. “I have another pattern that I never went to today, but they’re not going to weigh what these fish weighed.”
Bryan Thrift was stunned by the weights turned in on day 1.
7th: Neal Battled Through Penalties
> Day 1: 5, 16-00
Michael Neal, the runner-up at last year’s Cup, lost 2 1/4 pounds today due to penalties – a 2-pound deduction for making a cast with six fish in his livewell and another quarter pound for having a dead fish in his creel.
It was a frustrating sequence for the Tennessee pro, who’d be in 5th without the penalties.
“I’m around better fish than I expected to be,” he said. “I think 15 (per) day is doable, but I didn’t think I could catch 18.”
He said his sixth fish was a 5-pounder and he didn’t want to put a culling tag on it. In the process of putting the big one in the livewell, he forgot to throw back his smallest fish and he continued to fish with six fish in his livewell. He then caught a seventh fish and then realized his previous mistake. Had he put the seventh fish in the livewell, it would’ve been considered in his possession and he would’ve been hit with a four-pound penalty.
Like in practice, he felt the cloud cover today helped the offshore bite.
“Everybody says it’s better, but it’s tougher for me when it’s sunny,” he said.
He ran through 50 spots today from Dreher Island State Park down toward the dam and ran through some of them twice. He’s planning to make the same rotation again Saturday.
“Some I caught fish off twice and some didn’t work and some I went to later,” he added. “The only downfall is if I’m in a bad rotation and get behind somebody.”
8th: Martin Miffed at Himself
> Day 1: 5, 15-14
Scott Martin’s bid to win a second Cup title will hinge on whether he can improve his hook-up ratio. It wasn’t what he needed it to be today, especially later in the day.
“Everybody is missing fish on this deal, but if I can step up my execution game, there’s potential there,” he said. “In the last 3 1/2 hours today, I went 0-for-6. It was a weird deal. One time, I took my hand off the reel to say something to my camera guy. Another time they schooled all the way to my trolling motor.”
He said he moved around plenty, but knows the quality of fish is not the same at every stop. The fish he weighed in were caught on top and just below the surface.
“You have to let places rest and rotate around and what you don’t know is who else if fishing there, too,” he said. “There is an unlimited supply of these spots. I fished the whole lake except for the river.”
He said precision is going to be critical to his success moving forward in this tournament.
“They’re super hard to catch so I have to be exact with every aspect of it,” he said.
9th: Britt Stayed Offshore
> Day 1: 5, 15-09
Aaron Britt was almost sidelined by a splitting headache this morning that was brought on by a raucous celebration after catching his biggest fish of the day.
“I started screaming so loud that my head started hurting so bad and about three hours later, I called (tournament director) Bill (Taylor) and asked him if someone could bring me some aspirin,” Britt said. “Come to find out I had some in my boat the whole time.”
He initially planned to just fish for schooling fish in the morning and then move on to other things, but he wound up sticking with it all day.
“I kept catching them and at one point, I figured the best way to catch a big one was to sit and wait for a big one to come up,” he said. “That’s scary.”
But it was made less intimidating by already having a limit at that point.
“It’s the most gratifying feeling to have a limit early because it makes those decisions easier,” he added. “I went back to one area four times. If you’re there when they come up it’s over so I tried to be there when it happens.”
Unlike others who seemed to prefer the clouds, Britt found the sunny stretch to be more productive today. He’s leaning toward following the same program tomorrow.
“I’m uncertain, but optimistic,” he said. “We’ll see around 10 a.m. when I don’t have a fish.”
10th: Lehew Was Out of Sync
> Day 1: 5, 15-07
Shane Lehew left the dock as boat number 2 this morning and it wound up being a bit of a curse.
“Things were real slow and I kind of messed up my rotation a little,” he said. “I got ahead of myself. I ran up the river and to the dam and back up the river. I must’ve stopped at 60 to 70 places. I ‘d make three or four casts and leave.”
Execution also wasn’t his strong suit. Out of the 20 bites he said he had, he landed just eight. He also had two dead fish, which cost him 8 ounces.
“I had a bunch not get it and lost two good ones off the same area,” he added.
He spent the majority of his day offshore, but did weigh in one fish caught near the bank.
“I figured that (herring) deal would be done,” he said,” but now it seems to be wide open.”
> Day 1 stats – 53 anglers, 30 limits, 6 fours, 2 threes, 12 twos, 3 ones.
> Mark Rose, who won the first two events this season, incurred a two-pound penalty after checking in two minutes late. Rose said he mistakenly went to the blast-off area instead of the loading ramp and by the time he realized his error, he arrived at the official check-in point two minutes past the prescribed time. He was credited with two fish for 1-08 and is in 53rd.
“I was standing in the marshal drop-off line thinking I was where I was supposed to be,” Rose said. “It didn’t matter, though. I didn’t have a good day. I was having a good time talking to my buddies. It was just a bad day. I was so excited about one cranking hole I had up the river. I never caught a fish there and I went to it four times. I had the confidence I could make the cut doing something I love. I was not sure about the herring deal because this lake is so conditional. I think they were there. I just couldn’t get them to bite.”
> Sat., Aug. 12 – Partly Cloudy – 88°/72°
- Wind: Light/variable
> Sun., Aug. 13 – Mix of Clouds and Sun – 87°/72°
- Wind: Light/variable
Day 1 Standings
1. Justin Atkins -- Florence, Al -- 21-5 (5)
2. Anthony Gagliardi -- Prosperity, SC -- 21-1 (5)
3. Brandon Cobb -- Greenwood, SC -- 19-12 (5)
4. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 19-4 (5)
5. Travis Fox -- Rogers, Ar -- 18-3 (5)
6. Larry Nixon -- Bee Branch, Ar -- 17-13 (5)
7. Michael Neal -- Dayton, Tn -- 16-0 (5)
8. Scott Martin -- Clewiston, Fl -- 15-14 (5)
9. Aaron Britt -- Yuba City, Ca -- 15-9 (5)
10. Shane Lehew -- Catawba, NC -- 15-7 (5)
11. Scott Suggs -- Alexander, Ar -- 14-13 (5)
12. Allen Boyd -- Salem, In -- 14-6 (5)
13. Wesley Strader -- Spring City, Tn -- 14-6 (5)
14. Darrel Robertson -- Jay, Ok -- 13-5 (5)
15. Jeff Sprague -- Point, Tx -- 12-13 (5)
16. Matt Arey -- Shelby, NC -- 12-3 (5)
17. Cody Bird -- Granbury, Tx -- 11-4 (5)
18. Joel Richardson -- Kernersville, NC -- 10-15 (5)
19. Austin Felix -- Eden Prairie, Mn -- 10-14 (5)
20. John Cox -- Debary, Fl -- 10-9 (5)
21. Scott Canterbury -- Odenville, Al -- 10-9 (5)
22. Brandon Mcmillan -- Clewiston, Fl -- 10-6 (5)
23. Jeremy Lawyer -- Sarcoxie, Mo -- 10-5 (5)
24. Clark Wendlandt -- Leander, Tx -- 10-2 (5)
25. Christopher Jones -- Bokoshe, Ok -- 10-1 (5)
26. Jason Reyes -- Huffman, Tx -- 9-14 (5)
27. Terry Bolton -- Paducah, Ky -- 9-13 (4)
28. Andrew Upshaw -- Tulsa, Ok -- 9-12 (5)
29. Shinichi Fukae -- Palestine, Tx -- 9-10 (5)
30. Bradford Beavers -- Ridgeville, SC -- 9-7 (4)
31. Matthew Stefan -- Junction City, Wi -- 9-7 (4)
32. Andy Morgan -- Dayton, Tn -- 9-2 (5)
33. Kyle Alsop -- Overland Park, Ks -- 8-10 (4)
34. Cody Meyer -- Auburn, Ca -- 8-1 (5)
35. Bryan Schmitt -- Deale, Md -- 7-10 (2)
36. James Watson -- Lampe, Mo -- 7-8 (4)
37. Chris Mccall -- Palmer, Tx -- 7-5 (4)
38. Michael Wooley -- Collierville, Tn -- 7-2 (2)
39. Joseph Webster -- Fulton, Ms -- 6-5 (3)
40. David Dudley -- Lynchburg, Va -- 5-13 (2)
41. Greg Bohannan -- Bentonville, Ar -- 5-13 (3)
42. Jt Kenney -- Palm Bay, Fl -- 5-12 (2)
43. Zack Birge -- Blanchard, Ok -- 5-5 (2)
44. Clark Reehm -- Huntington, Tx -- 4-14 (2)
45. Bradley Dortch -- Atmore, Al -- 4-12 (2)
46. Joey Cifuentes -- Clinton, Ar -- 4-4 (2)
47. Roy Hawk -- Lake Havasu City, Az -- 4-1 (2)
48. Casey Scanlon -- Lake Ozark, Mo -- 3-13 (1)
49. Pat Fisher -- Colbert, Ga -- 3-4 (2)
50. Hyo Chul Kim -- Benton, Ky -- 3-2 (1)
51. Marshall Deakins -- Dunlap, Tn -- 3-0 (1)
52. Jamie Horton -- Centerville, Al -- 2-14 (2)
53. Mark Rose -- West Memphis, Ar -- 1-8 (2)