VanDam on top amidst a strange day in the Bluegrass Brawl

By Steve Wright

GILBERTSVILLE, Ky. — It’s no surprise when Kevin VanDam takes the lead in a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament. But, otherwise, Thursday was marked by some highly unusual happenings on Kentucky Lake in the Bluegrass Brawl presented by Diehard Platinum Marine Batteries.

VanDam, who finished second by only 8 ounces Sunday at Alabama’s Lake Wheeler, proved just how competitive he is by catching a five-bass limit weighing 24 pounds, 13 ounces. His bag also included the Purolator Big Bass of the day, which weighed 6-7.

“I’m still not happy about it,” the three-time Bassmaster Angler of the Year said about his second-place finish last week.

And apparently he intends to do something about it. VanDam entered this tournament only 18 points behind Todd Faircloth in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race. This week marks the eighth tournament of the 11-event Elite Series.

“Kentucky Lake is probably the best structure fishing lake in the country,” VanDam said. “It’s on fire. It’s better than I’ve ever seen it.”

Mike McClelland , who has led the AOY race at times this season and is currently in fourth place, is second to VanDam with 23-6.

“I’m not going to say I put pressure on myself here this week,” McClelland said, “but I definitely came here to work as hard as I could.

“I feel pretty good about the opportunities I have.”

Two Elite Series pros aren’t feeling so good. One of them is Paul Elias , even though he’s in sixth place with 20-4. The 57-year-old former Bassmaster Classic champion brought six bass to the scales Thursday. Not only did Elias have one fish over the limit in his livewell, he sacked them up and brought them backstage before the error was caught.

“I’m still trying to figure out how I did that,” Elias said. “I probably caught 50 or 60 fish today. In all the chaos, I guess I just put six fish in the livewell.”

The penalty for doing so probably cost Elias the Day One lead and certainly kept him out of second place. BASS rules state that when you bring in six fish, you lose the biggest bass in your bag, which was, in this case, a 6-pound, 1-ounce smallmouth.

There’s an additional one-pound penalty for doing so. Elias also suffered a 4-ounce penalty for having a dead fish. With a fish weighing approximately 3 pounds being the smallest bass in his legal five-bass limit, Elias lost at least 4 pounds, 5 ounces in penalties Thursday.

“I know I culled every time,” Elias said. “I guess I must have miscounted from the start.

“I just hope it doesn’t cost me winning this thing because I’m on the fish to win it.”

Elias, who set the all-time BASS four-day tournament record of 132 pounds, 8 ounces at Texas’ Falcon Lake earlier this year, is known as a deep crankbait specialist. He said he found a place in the middle of Kentucky Lake that he had never fished until this week.

“It’s got smallmouth and largemouth on it, and the smallmouth are bigger than the largemouth,” Elias said.

But at least Elias is still in contention. Oklahoma veteran Tommy Biffle took himself out of it Thursday by getting a ticket for fishing in Tennessee without a fishing license from that state. The tournament waters of Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley for the Bluegrass Brawl extend into Tennessee.

“I didn’t think I was over the (state) line,” Biffle said. “The sign is up in the woods, and you could hardly see it.”

Biffle said he hadn’t seen it until the Tennessee wildlife officer pointed it out to him. Biffle estimated he’d already put about an 18-pound limit in the boat when the officer approached him early Thursday morning.

“I’d just caught about a 4-pounder when he pulled up there,” Biffle said. “I told him I had the (telephone) number in my pocket to call and get license. He said I could do that after he wrote me the ticket.”

Biffle said the fine was about $200, including court costs. More important, it automatically caused him to be disqualified for the day, according to BASS rules.

“I’m in a bad hole,” Biffle said, “and there’s no way of getting out of it.”

Three other anglers, besides VanDam, McClelland and Elias put themselves in contention with 20-pound-plus bags Thursday. Byron Velvick is third with 21-15, followed by Timmy Horton with 21-1 and Bradley Hallman with 20-12.

Angler after angler raved about the bass fishing on Kentucky Lake. But VanDam has said repeatedly how much he enjoys fishing these Tennessee Valley Authority lakes, like Wheeler and Kentucky, and no one wants to be chasing him.

How good was VanDam’s day? He was at the weigh-in scales an hour before he was required to check-in.

“I didn’t want to skin-up any of my other spots,” VanDam said.

The daily 9 a.m. ET launches and 6 p.m. ET weigh-ins are being held at Kentucky Dam Marina. The 107-pro angler field will be cut to the top 50 after Friday’s weigh-in.