By Todd Ceisner
Last year at this time, Alex Davis was at home in Alabama taking out clients on fishing trips at Lake Guntersville and Smith Lake. He wanted to be at Lake Murray for the Forrest Wood Cup, but missed qualifying for the event by the smallest of margins. It was a gut-wrenching scenario involving lost tie-breakers and a one-point deficit that kept him on the sidelines.
Today, Davis finds himself atop the Cup leaderboard after day 1 at Lake Ouachita. The Alabama angler, fishing in his first Cup, topped the 56-man field with 13-10, the smallest total to lead after day 1 in the four Cups held at Ouachita.
“It’s pretty unreal,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what to say.”
Davis overcame a slow morning and several missed bites on a topwater to string together a limit before catching his biggest fish of the day on his last cast in a pocket not far from the blast-off this afternoon.
“It was a such a hodgepodge,” he added. “There’s not one thing going that if I say ‘I’ll put this in my hand and know I’m going to catch ‘em.’”
Nick LeBrun, another Cup newbie and the reigning BFL All-American champion, started his day with a 4-pounder and rode that to a 13-05 limit that has him in 2nd. Zack Birge was the only other competitor to crack the 13-pound mark as his 13-01 bag put him in 3rd. If not for one dead fish for LeBrun and two for Birge, the pair would be tied for 2nd with 13-09.
Canadian Cory Johnston, who finished 50th (dead last) in his only other Cup appearance (2015), is off to a much stronger start this time around with 12-08 that has him in 4th. James Niggemeyer’s 12-02 was good enough for 5th.
There were just nine stringers of 10 pounds or more caught today, a paltry total compared to the number of 10-pound stringers caught on day 1 of previous Cups at Ouachita (2015 – 20; 2011 – 33; 2007 – 19) and a testament to just how difficult it is to ride anything consistently right now.
Here's a look at the Top 10 following day 1 of competition, with deficit margin from Davis indicated by red numbers in parentheses:
1. Alex Davis: 13-10
2. Nick LeBrun: 13-05 (0-05)
3. Zack Birge: 13-01 (0-09)
4. Cory Johnston: 12-08 (1-02)
5. James Niggemeyer: 12-02 (1-08)
6. Wes Logan: 11-09 (2-01)
7. Bradford Beavers: 11-06 (2-04)
8. John Cox: 11-03 (2-07)
9. Jason Lambert: 10-00 (3-10)
10. Justin Atkins: 9-14 (3-12)
Bradford Beavers, last year’s FLW Series Championship winner, logged just three fish, but one was a 7-05 behemoth that weighed more than the totals for 27 other competitors. Beavers is 7th with 11-06. Reigning Cup champ Justin Atkins snuck into the top 10 with a 9-14 limit as the rest of the field will be gunning for his spot tomorrow as only the top 10 after day 2 advance to Sunday.
Some notable names struggled to start the tournament, including reigning Angler of the Year Mark Rose, who’s 32nd with 7-02. Andy Morgan, a three-time AOY fishing his fourth Cup at Ouachita, caught two for 3-13 and sits in 44th.
Ouachita was its typical difficult self from start to finish today. A thick layer of haze and fog covered some of the lake this morning and didn’t dissipate until after 10 a.m. There were flurries of bites in various parts of the lake early on and other stretches where competitors had seen signs of life Wednesday only to get skunked today. While some of the leaders seem committed to certain style of fishing (shallow, topwater or deep), it’s stil likely a variable approach will be required to close the deal come Sunday. The word “pattern” isn’t being uttered very much as competitors seem to be favoring areas or sections of the lake that harbor more fish.
The forecast for Saturday calls for intervals of clouds and sun in the morning with more clouds moving in during the afternoon. Winds will be out of the southwest at 5 to 10 mph.
Davis ‘Winged’ It
> Day 1: 5, 13-10
Davis arrived outside the Bank of the Ozarks Arena convinced he had roughly 11 pounds in his bag. He’d salvaged a decent day after a slow start. For the most part, he was pretty happy. When reality set in that his limit weighed a good bit more, his happiness turned to disbelief.
“This was a wing-it day,” he said. “Where I thought I’d catch them, I caught one 14-incher. My main game plan produced one bite.”
By 11:30 a.m., he had one fish. He caught his second keeper – a 3 1/2-pounder – around noon, then he went another two hours without a bite.
“I was running everywhere, then I caught two out of one pocket so I had four,” he said.
He then recalled his dad, Jeff, imploring him to not come in with anything short of a limit on day 1. He made a move to a brush pile and finished his limit there. He moved back to an area where he’d started the day and caught a 3-pounder that allowed him to cull.
“I fished until 4:20 and then started running back because I didn’t want to be late,” said Davis, who had “4:45” scrawled on the back of his left hand as a reminder of his check-in time. “I got back a little early so I pulled into the first pocket I saw and caught my biggest fish of the day on my last cast.”
The last upgrade was a topwater fish, but he also caught them down to 20 feet.
As far as what he learned for tomorrow, “I learned one place today that if that would ever just work, it could be really good,” he said. “I also learned what not to do. I fished some areas three times because I’d had bites there in practice. I learned to not do that.”
Nick LeBrun said he laid off his best spot this afternoon, but plans to hit it hard all today tomorrow.
2nd: LeBrun Fishing with Confidence
> Day 1: 5, 13-05
All LeBrun (pronounced La-broon) was hoping to catch at his first stop today was one fish — a bonus fish, as he called it. He wound up with three keepers, including a tone-setting 4-pounder.
“It was just a blessed day,” he said. “That spot set the momentum for the day. Momentum is the biggest thing here because when you’re fishing for five fish with seven bites a day, having three early let me relax and fish slower out deeper and not get in a hurry. I could just hunt instead of fish.”
For much of the day, he was the unofficial leader, but he doesn’t feel as though he’s doing anything different technique-wise from the rest of the field.
“It’s just old-school worm fishing,” he said. “I’m just grinding and keeping my bait wet.”
He admits he laid off what was his best spot this afternoon, but plans to put the heat on it tomorrow.
“I went into chill mode this afternoon,” he said. “Not that I was on dead water. I just wasn’t on the juice. Tomorrow, I’m going to make a charge at it.”
Unlike others in the field, LeBrun came into today with a fair bit of confidence based on his practice.
“I felt confident in a humble way because this week in practice, I figured out two programs that if I got bites they’d be going in the box,” he said. “If I could get 5 to 7 bites a day that would be a blessing. I had seven today with a 4-pounder. That boosted me up. I had a goal of 12 pounds and I exceeded that.”
3rd: Birge Staying Shallow
> Day 1: 5, 13-01
Birge came into today aiming for 10 pounds. He far exceeded that and was enthused by a bunch of fish he saw today that he hopes will commit to biting tomorrow (or Sunday).
“It went better than expected,” he said. “I had an area that I didn’t know what it could produce. I also saw some good ones today and if I can get them to bite in the next day or two, it could be good.”
He started on a schooling bite, but it faded pretty quickly. He worked along some stretches of bank waiting for the fog to lift before moving to an area that held some better fish. They wouldn’t commit to his bait, however, prompting him to go elsewhere. Later on, he returned and swapped baits and provoked a few bites.
He said he’s committed to fishing shallow the rest of the way.
“I don’t have enough patience to sit out there,” he said.
Zack Birge works along a rocky shoreline with a topwater bait Friday morning.
4th: Johnston Shooting for 10 More
> Day 1: 5, 12-08
Johnston didn’t see the value in spending time chasing the schooling fish offshore. They tend to run small this week so he opted to focus today on shallow water (less than 10 feet) in hopes of coaxing some better quality fish to bite.
“We’re getting paid whether you finish last or wherever,” he said. “I had schoolers, but to catch five 1-pounders won’t get me anywhere so I figured why not go where the big fish live and catch five. That’s the issue, though. I could get one bite tomorrow.”
His strategy worked, for the most part, and now the trick becomes whether he can do it two days in a row.
“It was really tough,” he said. “I started shallow and stayed shallow all day. I caught seven keepers all day. It was a grind, but I kind of figured out what the fish are doing so we’ll see tomorrow. I’m going to run new water. When I’m running down the lake and I see something that looks good usually if you pull in there you can get a bite.”
He wasn’t surprised by how tough the fishing was again today, but he’s hoping to crack double digits again, which should keep him in the mix to make the top 10-cut.
“It sucked just as bad as I thought it was going to, but it’s one of those places where you can catch 18 and the next day get two bites,” he said. “I’m going to roll with it and see what happens tomorrow. I’m hoping to weigh 10 (pounds) tomorrow. I just want to be in the hunt on day 3.”
5th: Late-Day Surge for Niggemeyer
> Day 1: 5, 12-02
Like Davis, Niggemeyer had a sluggish morning with just one fish to show after five-plus hours of fishing.
“The cliché is that’s it’s a grind,” he said. “A factory worker grinds, but it was truly about working hard for every bite. And then when you think you might have something figured out, one pops up outside the target area and you start thinking, ‘What was that fish doing?’”
So far, Ouachita has not been real forthcoming with answers to those questions. In any event, Niggemeyer put together a late-day surge that has him in the top 5 after day 1 of his first Cup.
“I couldn’t figure out if it was location or if it was just getting later,” he said. “Maybe a little of both.”
He tallied just six bites all day and didn’t lose any. His best fish was over 4 pounds, he said, and all of his bites came out of the shallows.
“I feel like my opportunity to beat guys like Rose offshore isn’t good and I knew it’d be tough coming in, so if I’m going to fish and stay confident, that’s how I can do it,” he said.
6th: Logan Rebounded From Slow Start
> Day 1: 5, 11-09
Wes Logan was without a bite, let alone a fish at 1 p.m. today. Rather than continue to fish for small keepers, he make a wholesale change and cobbled together 11 1/2 pounds.
“I scrapped everything and fished how I wanted to,” he said. “Within 30 minutes, I caught a 4 and then put my head down and went with that style for the rest of the day.”
He declined to reveal what change he made, only that “It’s obvious, but there’s something to it. I’m covering a lot of water,” he said.
Going that far into the first day of his first Cup without a bite didn’t rattle him, he said. Knowing he was getting a $10,000 check regardless of where he finished this weekend actually helped him make the switch that keyed his turnaround.
“I tried to get a limit early and that didn’t work out, so I wasted four hours trying to catch 5 pounds,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, it’s the Cup. Let’s go catch some.”
Bradford Beavers loads his 7-05 kicker into his weigh-in bag on Friday.
7th: Beavers Thrilled, Bummed At Same Time
> Day 1: 3, 11-06
Beavers says it’s a shame there’s no big bass bonus at the Cup because he’s pretty sure the competition would be effectively over after he weighed in a 7-05 brute today.
He caught the fish right around 11 o'clock off a spot where he’d marked fish and caught a couple during practice, but nothing bigger than 1 1/2 pounds.
He said it bit his dropshot in 20 feet of water and he thought it was a catfish initially.
“Thirty seconds later, my line came up and I was thinking, ‘Get the net,’” he said. “It looked like an Okeechobee bass when it came up. It was so dark.”
Still, as much of a thrill as it was to land such a big fish, he ended the day disappointed that he couldn’t finish his limit.
“I look at it as I left two out there,” he said. “I had the fourth one hooked, but it got off.”
He said today was largely an extension of practice and he’ll treat Saturday the same way.
“My practice was so bad that I went out today to try to figure things out,” he said. “I’m still in the hunt and I still have a day to figure it out.”
8th: Cox Had Weight Early
> Day 1: 5, 11-03
In John Cox’s estimation, the fish bit as good as they had all week in the time just before the thunderstorm hit Wednesday. That’s why he was hoping the clouds that hung over the lake Friday morning would stick around.
“When the sun came out, it got brutal,” he said. “My brain was just fried.”
Which prompted him to suggest a format change for the Cup.
“It might be better to fish the morning and then let us come in and go to Subway, then go back out for the afternoon,” he said.
By the time the sun burned through, he’d done the brunt of his damage with all of his fish coming out of shallow water, all on topwater.
“I couldn’t get them to eat worms,” he said. “I like how everything is fishing, but you just don’t know here.”
9th: Quick Limit for Lambert
> Day 1: 5, 10-00
Jason Lambert figured 10 pounds a day would be enough to make the top-10 cut. He’s halfway there, but it was no cakewalk.
“It was real hard,” he said. “I caught a lot of fish, but the size is real hard to come by.”
He had a limit by 9:15 a.m. and had all of his weigh fish by 3 p.m.
“I’ve got two deep spots with 20 (feet) being the deepest,” he said.
He caught a key upgrade around 3 on a topwater and that has him thinking he should spend more time around the bank tomorrow.
“I’m going to do the same exact thing, but probably spend more time shallow,” he said. “It just depends on how the day goes.”
10th: Atkins Bided His Time
> Day 1: 5, 9-14
Atkins got beat to the spot he wanted to start on up the lake this morning, so he opted for plan B, which was a similar area, just with fewer fish on it.
“I drove over it and it had like five on it so I started there,” he said.
He lost one, caught a big one and added a topwater fish there and sat on it until 10 a.m. By then, the small school had busted up and other spots in the area had already been claimed. He ran down the lake, hoping to capitalize on a pattern he’d identified in practice.
“It seemed like gravel banks with a steep bank and a shelf at 3 feet were ones where I could get bites,” he said. “I ran those banks for three hours and didn’t catch anything. I went back to the river and caught one. By then, everybody left and I moved to a community school where Rose and Scott (Martin) had started. I was able to finish my limit.”
On Saturday, he may work in reverse in hopes to get a small limit and then target the schools in the river.
“Rotation is a big factor here this week,” he said.
> Day 1 stats – 56 anglers, 33 limits, 1 four, 9 threes, 1 two, 7 ones, 3 zeroes.
> Larry Stoafer, who qualified for the Cup via his finish at last year’s FLW Series Championship, did not compete today after undergoing emergency surgery Thursday night to remove his gall bladder. He expects to be discharged from a local hospital on Saturday and it’s unknown whether he’ll be able to attend the weigh-in.
> Randy Haynes also bageled today. “Just trying to find a needle in a haystack and just could not find anything different,” he said. “That’s the only way I feel like I could win is to do that.”
> Sat., Aug. 11 – Partly Sunny - 92°/72°
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sun., Aug. 12 – Overcast - 89°/72°
- Wind: Light and variable
Day 1 Standings
1. Alex Davis -- Albertville, Al -- 13-10 (5)
2. Nick Lebrun -- Bossier City, La -- 13-5 (5)
3. Zack Birge -- Blanchard, Ok -- 13-1 (5)
4. Cory Johnston -- Cavan, Ont -- 12-8 (5)
5. James Niggemeyer -- Van, Tx -- 12-2 (5)
6. Wes Logan -- Springville, Al -- 11-9 (5)
7. Bradford Beavers -- Summerville, SC -- 11-6 (3)
8. John Cox -- Debary, Fl -- 11-3 (5)
9. Jason Lambert -- Michie, Tn -- 10-0 (5)
10. Justin Atkins -- Florence, Al -- 9-14 (5)
11. Sheldon Collings -- Grove, Ok -- 9-10 (5)
12. Austin Wilson -- Citrus Heights, Ca -- 9-8 (5)
12. Clent Davis -- Montevallo, Al -- 9-8 (5)
14. David Dudley -- Lynchburg, Va -- 9-3 (5)
15. Bryan Thrift -- Shelby, NC -- 9-0 (5)
16. Scott Martin -- Clewiston, Fl -- 8-12 (5)
17. Matt Becker -- Finleyville, Pa -- 8-7 (5)
17. Brandon Cobb -- Greenwood, SC -- 8-7 (5)
19. Cody Hahner -- Wausau, Wi -- 8-4 (2)
20. Chad Foster -- Pequot Lakes, Mn -- 8-2 (5)
21. Shane Lehew -- Catawba, NC -- 8-1 (5)
21. Jared Mcmillan -- Belle Glade, Fl -- 8-1 (5)
21. Tim Fox -- Meridian, Ms -- 8-1 (5)
24. Bill Chapman -- Salt Rock, Wv -- 8-0 (5)
24. David Williams -- Maiden, NC -- 8-0 (5)
26. Jeff Gustafson -- Keewatin, Ont -- 7-13 (5)
27. Jordan Osborne -- Longview, Tx -- 7-10 (5)
28. Todd Castledine -- Nacogdoches, Tx -- 7-9 (5)
28. Cody Meyer -- Auburn, Ca -- 7-9 (5)
30. Matthew Stefan -- Junction City, Wi -- 7-4 (5)
30. Joseph Webster -- Winfield, Al -- 7-4 (5)
32. Mark Rose -- Wynne, Ar -- 7-2 (5)
32. Tyler Stewart -- West Monroe, La -- 7-2 (5)
34. Austin Felix -- Eden Prairie, Mn -- 7-1 (5)
35. Matt Arey -- Shelby, NC -- 7-0 (5)
36. Scott Dobson -- Clarkston, Mi -- 6-15 (4)
37. Chad Grigsby -- Maple Grove, Mn -- 6-0 (3)
38. Hunter Freeman -- Monroe, La -- 5-2 (3)
39. Andrew Upshaw -- Tulsa, Ok -- 4-11 (3)
40. Jeff Sprague -- Point, Tx -- 4-4 (3)
41. Scott Canterbury -- Odenville, Al -- 4-2 (3)
42. John Soukup -- Agra, Ok -- 4-0 (3)
43. Michael Neal -- Dayton, Tn -- 3-15 (3)
44. Andy Morgan -- Dayton, Tn -- 3-13 (2)
45. Jason Abram -- Piney Flats, Tn -- 3-12 (3)
46. Braxton Setzer -- Montgomery, Al -- 3-8 (3)
47. Chris Johnston -- Peterborough, Ont -- 2-2 (1)
48. Brandon Mcmillan -- Clewiston, Fl -- 1-15 (1)
49. Jt Kenney -- Palm Bay, Fl -- 1-8 (1)
50. Johnny Mccombs -- Morris, Al -- 1-6 (1)
51. Greg Bohannan -- Bentonville, Ar -- 1-4 (1)
52. Todd Hollowell -- Fishers, In -- 1-3 (1)
52. Michael Matthee -- Centurion, Gp -- 1-3 (1)
54. Randy Haynes -- Ripley, Ms -- 0-0 (0)
54. Larry Stoafer -- Leavenworth, Ks -- 0-0 (0)
54. Clark Wendlandt -- Leander, Tx -- 0-0 (0)