WADDINGTON, N.Y. — After one round of the Huk Bassmaster Elite at St. Lawrence presented by Go RVing, a familiar storyline has emerged.
Kevin VanDam, the Michigan superstar who already holds two B.A.S.S. victories on the St. Lawrence River, caught five bass Thursday that weighed 24 pounds, 5 ounces to take the lead in his latest chance at a big win on the fishery that splits upstate New York and Canada.
"Back when we used to have a lot of tournaments up here, I always fished the lake (Ontario)," said VanDam, who won two events on the St. Lawrence in 1995 and 1999. "I never really fished the river back then. So, every time I come here I learn a little bit more about it."
Lake Ontario is off limits this year as it has been for the last two Elite Series trips to the St. Lawrence River.
VanDam said it was hard to gauge his chances of winning the $100,000 first-place prize after just one day because the fishing is so sporadic. He doesn't know how his pattern will play out over a four-day event.
"There's not huge numbers of fish," he said. "It's not like I'm working through hundreds of fish to get the ones I'm bringing to the scales. You pull up into a spot and you might catch one or two, but that's it.
"You certainly can't script it to know that you're going to catch the kind of size I was able to catch today."
The river is at its highest level in a century, but the conditions certainly didn't seem to hurt the fishing. The Top 83 competitors in the 109-angler field caught at least 15 pounds of bass, and it took 20-1 to make the Top 20.
"The one thing the high water has done is changed the current," VanDam said. "There used to be places where I would fish closer to the bank and the current would just be ripping. But now with the water higher, it seems slower in some of those places.
"With all of this water, it just seems like it's fast in some places and slower in others — it definitely has changed."
VanDam's catch was only slightly better than that of Virginia angler Bill Lowen, who placed second with 23-6.
Lowen — a noted shallow-water angler — brought all smallmouth to the scales Thursday, including two 5-pounders.
"I actually thought I had two 6-pounders, but they were just real long with no bellies," said Lowen, who has 17 Top 10 finishes with B.A.S.S., but no wins. "In the area I was fishing, I think they were feeding on perch, crawfish and all kinds of little minnows."
Third place was occupied by Seth Feider — a noted smallmouth specialist, whose fortunes took a big upward swing when the Elite Series schedule moved north last year.
"I didn't execute that well today," said Feider, who caught 22-11. "I could have done a little better, maybe another pound or so. But I've definitely got a lot of spots going.
"I was pretty much done by 10 a.m. today, so I went looking — and because of that, I found another really good spot around 2 o'clock."
With the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year race headed down its final stretch, the names at the top of the list shifted Thursday. South Carolina angler Casey Ashley caught 21-14 — good for sixth place in the tournament — and overtook Tennessee pro Ott DeFoe as the AOY leader.
VanDam moved into second in the AOY standings, with Jason Christie, Edwin Evers, Jacob Wheeler and DeFoe following close behind.
VanDam also moved into the early lead for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass Award of the week with a bass that weighed 6-1.
The tournament will resume Friday, with a 6:15 a.m. ET take off from Whittaker Park. The weigh-in will be held back at the park at 3:15 p.m.
At the end of Friday's second round, the 109-angler field will be trimmed to the Top 51. After Saturday's semifinal, only the Top 12 will advance to Championship Sunday.
The event is hosted by the Village of Waddington.