Friday, March 15, 2024

2024 Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Powered by OPTIMA Lithium on Lay Lake Day 1: Michael Neal Scores With Spots!

Michael Neal leads the way after the first day with 21 bass weighing 52 pounds, 9 ounces. Photo by Garrick Dixon. 

Mitchell Forde

BASS PRO TOUR Press Release

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In the days leading up to Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Powered by OPTIMA Lithium, no one seemed to know what to expect from Lay Lake. While it’s normal for competitors to keep coy prior to lines in, the air of mystery felt real this time – Kevin VanDam even reported that he took to the water on Day 1 with 43 rods rigged and ready.

Through one day, at least, the answer has been lots of bass, particularly offshore on the main lake. The 50-angler field accounted for 362 total scorable bass, with 20 pros topping the 20-pound mark. And even though air temperatures climbed into the 80s Thursday and water hit the 60s, spotted bass chasing bait in the main channel on the lower end of the reservoir produced much of that weight, with more than half of the Top 10, including leader Michael Neal, roaming the same stretch.

Neal stacked 21 scorable bass weighing 52 pounds, 9 ounces on SCORETRACKER®, giving him a lead of 8-3 over Dalton Head. The 21-year-old University of Montevallo angler put his local knowledge to good use, creating plenty of distance between himself and the cut line and even climbing to the top of the standings at one point. Anthony Gagliardi, who fished within sight of Neal for much of the day, sits in third with 38-13, just 13 ounces clear of Coosa River local Dustin Connell.

Complete results can be found here.

While many of the top performers Thursday employed similar approaches, that could change as the weather, water clarity and current all remain in flux. Connell even went so far as to predict that using forward-facing sonar to target suspended fish will not win. And with weights set to zero twice before a champion is crowned, the event is still wide open. Continue to follow the action live on MLFNOW! from 7:20 a.m. to 4 p.m. CT each day.

For about the first six hours of competition, Neal never cranked up his Mercury. He spent that entire time milling around an area on the main lake, spinning rod in hand, scanning for spotted bass.

It didn’t take long to see why he started in that area, which he found the final day of practice, and spent so much time hunkered there. During a 30-minute flurry that started around 8 a.m., he boated seven scorable bass that weighed a combined 17-10, vaulting to the top of SCORETRACKER® in the process. 

Neal described his approach as typical late winter/early spring spotted bass fishing: find the baitfish, find the bass.

“They focus their whole life around bait besides when they go to spawn, and that’s what I’ve been doing is just focusing on bait,” he explained. “It doesn’t really matter how deep it is or where it’s really located; just the more bait the better.”

Yesteryear’s conventional wisdom would have suggested that, with the water temperature in the 60s, it was time to beat the bank. And while we did see a few anglers sight-fishing for spawning bass Thursday, Neal believes the healthy population of Alabama bass in Lay Lake spawn later than their largemouth counterparts, especially given the amount of current that’s been rolling through the reservoir recently.

“I went to the bank and tried to make them be on the bank, kind of like everybody else did, and just didn’t get any bites,” Neal said. “And the ones I did were just real little. It’s just a matter of listening to what the fish have got to say and not worrying a whole lot about what the weather’s telling you. You’ve just got to fish where they are and let them tell you what they’re doing. 

“I think these spots will be spawning way after the largemouth here. I think they wait on like no current and things like that to spawn on the river, and they just haven’t had those options yet.”

While Neal said he could have put more weight on SCORETRACKER® – he went into practice mode with about 90 minutes left in Period 3, once he hit the 50-pound mark – he doesn’t think he can ride his starting spot to a championship. For one thing, he’s concerned about the number of other anglers in the area. Neal plans to use the second day of qualifying to try to find a less-popular school.

“I’ve got some other places I can go run, and I’ve pretty much got a full day tomorrow to go try and find some other stuff, too,” he said. “Just gotta be smart with how I play the day tomorrow to try and find some fresh stuff.”

There’s also a weather change in the forecast, with thunderstorms expected Friday. While Neal doesn’t think that will have too great an impact on the fish he’s targeting – of all the bass in the reservoir, they should be the most stable – he said there’s a chance it stirs up the pollen that has collected in the water. Pollen has proved to be the enemy of ‘Scopers, clouding their screens and making it difficult to identify fish.

“It wasn’t bad – like, I didn’t really notice it to start,” Neal said of the pollen Thursday. “But as the day went on, it got worse and worse. But we’re supposed to have like an inch of rain tomorrow, so it’s going to change. Whether it makes it better or worse with the pollen, I don’t know, but it’ll be one or the other.”

While he hopes to find new fish Friday, Neal doesn’t plan to veer too drastically from his game plan. He’s fully committed to targeting spotted bass on the lower end of Lay Lake.

“I’m going to do some shallow stuff, but I’m not going largemouth fishing at all,” he said. “I’m going to go in some pockets and fish some places where I feel like spots would spawn and stuff, but I’m going to go to the same area of the lake and kind of put all my eggs in one basket and hope for the best.”

Head not shrinking from REDCREST spotlight

The first ever Abu Garcia College Fishing angler to compete at REDCREST, Head admitted he experienced some nerves Thursday morning. Running to his first three spots and finding established touring pros sitting on each of them didn’t help. 

But the Moody, Alabama, native, who grew up fishing Lay Lake, leaned on his well-earned Coosa River expertise to put a few fish in the boat and calm himself down. He did so by finding a school of spotted bass on a spot he didn’t even check during the three-day practice period. 

“I got up to a place that I didn’t check in practice and caught probably 30 off of it, but I had a couple keepers off of it,” Head said. “So that kind of eased the nerves, just knowing like, okay, I’m catching some fish.” 

Around 10:30 a.m., Head settled into a groove. Over the next 90 minutes or so, he caught 11 bass for 30-2, briefly taking the lead from Neal in the process.  

And yet, while his day looks great on paper, Head believes he should have had an even bigger total. 

“The thing is, I lost so many fish, I don’t even feel super confident,” he said. “I felt like I just fished so not clean today, and it kills me, because I could be sitting way better than I am right now.” 

Head will have a chance to correct those mistakes Friday. Assuming he can catch a few more fish early, he’ll also get a rare opportunity to practice during an event. Competing in an every-fish-counts event for the first time, the 21-year-old said he’ll have to remind himself not to catch too many fish Friday, but he’s excited for the chance to observe how the bass react to the change in weather. Typically, he said, a spring storm is “usually when this lake fires.” 

“The main thing I want to do is just see what the fish do,” he said. “I just want to see how they treat this weather. And I think I just need to keep telling myself, I don’t have to smash ‘em. I don’t need to just destroy ‘em tomorrow. I just need to get a general look at things and see what the fish are doing, so if I do make it to the Knockout Round, I can use that to my advantage while other people are maybe guessing.” 

However long he can stay on the water and in contention, Head will have plenty of support. An entourage of Montevallo teammates and other fishing buddies followed him around the lake Thursday, cheering each catch. That contingent should only grow in size come the weekend. 

“It was awesome to me,” Head said. “That’s all you can ever ask for is something like that, to get supported by people like that doing something you love.”

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