Gustafson 8th, Cory Johnston 38th & Chris Johnston 57th
This time last month, Buddy Gross was struggling to walk after suffering a freak ankle injury while horseback riding.
His right ankle is still grotesquely swollen, but it didn’t slow him down on the water Thursday as he caught five bass that weighed 21 pounds, 13 ounces to take the opening-round lead in the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Lake Champlain.
“I made some good calls today,” said Gross, who weighed in four largemouth and one smallmouth. “I hit some stuff that I’d hit before and managed to catch a few.
“I had two smallmouth in my bag for the biggest part of my day, but I stopped on one more spot on the way in and caught another 4-pound largemouth to cull one of those fish.”
With three days left before the tournament is done, Gross didn’t go into specifics about where and how he was catching either species. But he did say he only hit about three of the 30 places he found to fish for largemouth during practice.
He had all but one of the bass he weighed in by noon.
“I’ve got a bunch of stuff left to fish, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be good,” said Gross, who picked up his first career Elite Series victory last year on Alabama’s Lake Eufaula. “They weren’t there like I expected them to be for most of practice, but they seem to be showing up now.
“If I can make it to Saturday when the sun is supposed to come out, I think it could be really good.”
As for the injured right ankle that dogged him during a 52nd-place finish at last month’s Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk on Lake Ray Roberts, Gross said it is just a matter of being careful.
“If I hit it just wrong in the boat, it still sends a sharp pain,” he said. “It’s still swollen really badly. I know I need to see a specialist, but right now I just want to fish.”
Unlike Gross who focused mainly on largemouth, Schmitt targeted smallmouth most of the day. But he switched occasionally to largemouth when he was near the right type of habitat, and it was a decision that paid big dividends.
“I sampled a bunch of stuff I thought I could get a bite on early,” Schmitt said. “Some of it worked, some didn’t. Then about 11 o’clock, I ran some new stuff and caught a couple of big smallmouth and a couple of big largemouth.
“I probably caught 20 or so fish, but a lot of small ones.”
Schmitt said he fished roughly half the areas he identified as good possibilities in practice. Then with a good limit already in his livewell, he spent about an hour idling and looking for new water before weigh-in.
While he admitted 4-pound-plus largemouth are hard to come by on Champlain, he said the talk that 4-plus smallmouth are hard to find is false.
“I caught three of them today, and I don’t even know what I’m doing,” Schmitt said. “There’s a lot more big smallmouth in here than largemouth.”
Pierson, the 2018 B.A.S.S. Nation Championship winner, weighed in all largemouth, but that wasn’t necessarily his plan. He spent his day targeting smallmouth and then switching tactics when he saw something he said looked “largemouthy.”
“I’m pretty much throwing four baits,” Pierson said. “I’m throwing a Senko, a drop shot, a River2Sea S-Waver and a River2Sea Rover. It was just a matter of bouncing around through smallmouth stuff and moving shallow when things looked right for largemouth.
“Everything just went exactly right. It was a special day.”
Nine anglers caught more than 20 pounds of bass Thursday, and Minnesota pro Seth Feider barely missed that benchmark, finishing in 10th place with 19-11.
That total was more than enough to help Feider maintain his lead in the Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. The Minnesota pro, who was visibly nervous for the first 30 minutes on Bassmaster LIVE, has 693 points, while Oklahoma pro Jason Christie (627) and South Carolina pro Patrick Walters (622) trail distantly behind him.
“I feel a lot better now than I did this morning,” Feider said. “I scrapped my plan to fish for smallmouth right away. I gave it maybe an hour and just wasn’t feeling it.”
That’s when he switched to flipping for largemouth.
“When I decided to go flip milfoil, I caught one the first five minutes,” he said. “It wasn’t a big one, about 3 1/2 pounds. But at that point, I knew I was gonna do it the rest of the day and that made me feel a lot better.”
Oklahoma pro Dale Hightower took in the lead in the race for Phoenix Boats Big Bass with a 5-15.
Competition will resume Friday with takeoff scheduled for 7 a.m. ET from Plattsburgh City Marina. Weigh-in will be held back at the marina at 3 p.m.
After Friday’s round, only the Top 45 pros will advance to Saturday’s semifinal round.
Live coverage for each day of the event can be streamed on Bassmaster.com and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will also broadcast live with the tournament leaders beginning at 8 a.m. ET on Saturday and Sunday.