Consistency eluded John Cox, but the Debary, Fla., pro picked his way to a five-bass limit of 26 pounds, 11 ounces that leads the first round of the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Lake Chickamauga.
Like many of his competitors, Cox lamented a distinct lack of current — pretty much the spark that ignites a late-spring bite on the Tennessee River. Knowing that the day’s sweltering heat and mostly slow water would have the fish in a lethargic mood, Cox figured that mobility was his best weapon.
“I started up shallow and I could instantly tell nothing good was happening. There wasn’t any movement, and it was really still,” he said. “That’s when I started going out (into deeper water) and bouncing around. It was slack out there, too, but then I caught a big one and I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ But then I fished for another hour and got nothing.”
Cox worked his way into other areas and tried different depths, catching heavy bass on back-to-back casts in a shallow spot and two more solid keepers, one after the other, in a place he had not tried in practice.
Describing his day as “an exercise in randomness,” Cox said he simply focused on persevering in hopes of running into an active fish.
Cox said he avoided the traditional offshore ledge patterns for which Chickamauga is famous, as he’s never felt comfortable with that style of fishing. He ended up catching his fish over river flats and sandbars in 7 to 12 feet. He caught his fish on a mix of crankbaits, swimbaits and a jig.
Known mostly for his shallow-water prowess, Cox joked that fishing off the bank felt odd.
“It was weird for me — I couldn’t touch the bottom where I was fishing today,” he said.
Buddy Gross of Chickamauga, Ga., is in second place with 23-8. He got off to a quick start numerically, but the quality was another story.
“It took all day to get my weight,” Gross said. “I had a small limit of 11 or 12 pounds shortly after I first started and then just culled up slowly throughout the day. I think the afternoon bite is better. I have a later check-in tomorrow, so I think it’s going to be good for me.
“I grew up fishing here, and it’s taken a lot of my ‘juice’ to get what I had today. I have about as much left as I fished today, but it’s not easy. The ledges are getting hammered. We’ve had so many tournaments that the pressure has the fish pushed off.”
Gross said he caught his bass in 10 to 15 feet with deeper water close by. Most of his bites were on reaction baits, but the tough conditions required him to catch a couple of his heavier bass on a dropshot with a Zoom Z-Too in the morning dawn color.
Stephen Mui of Bartlett, Ill., is in third place with 21-6. Making his day was an 8-pound, 6-ounce Chickamauga largemouth that he caught as a result of a momentary decision he made while moving to another fishing area.
“I was running down the lake, doing about 60, and I decided to pull up on this spot where I had caught a 14-incher in practice,” Mui said. “I know from past experience that ledge fishing can really turn on midday on deep spots like this. I stopped to fish, and on my third cast, that big fish hit.”
Mui started shallow with a topwater lure and then moved to ledges, where he caught most of his fish on crankbaits. His big bass bit a shaky head with a Missile Baits Tomahawk worm.
Mui’s kicker is in the lead for Phoenix Boats Big Bass honors.
Charles Fochtman of Moneta, Va., leads the co-angler division with 14-15. He found success when his pro partner was finally able to access a small grassline in a shallow pocket.
“We had a late start, so the first grassbed we fished had five other boats already on it and was kind of worn out by the time we got there,” Fochtman said. “We had another little spot about 500 yards down, so we waited until everybody left, and then we went there and caught all our fish.”
Fochtman’s weapon was a 3/8-ounce ChatterBait paired with a 3.8 Keitech swimbait. Bringing his bait across a small hole in the middle of the grassbed was the key to getting bites.
John Goul of Philadelphia, Miss., holds the Phoenix Boats Big Bass lead among co-anglers with a 9-7.
Friday’s takeoff is scheduled for 6:15 a.m. CT at Dayton Boat Dock. The weigh-in will be held at the dock at 2:15 p.m.
The event is hosted by Fish Dayton.