HOUSTON — Five-foot waves at mid-lake and 20-plus mph south winds with higher gusts greeted the 52 Bassmaster Classic anglers fishing Lake Conroe just north of Houston on Friday’s first day of competition.
Pierre Part’s Cliff Crochet, fishing his fourth Classic, said the back-battering, kidney-crushing winds and waves were tough to deal with but not tough enough to prevent him from catching a five-fish, 21-pound, 8-ounce stringer that has him sitting in third place just behind Brent Ehrler’s 23-3 and first-time Classic qualifier Bradley Roy’s 22-1.
Ehrler had the day’s big bass as well at 9-12. Only half the field managed to weigh in a five-fish limit.
Crochet joined a chorus of weary and wobbly anglers who are looking forward to Saturday’s forecast of morning rain but much lighter west winds.
“I think the wind hurt me today, if it lays down it can help,” Crochet said, adding that the wind likely hampered the field and kept stringer weights lower than predicted. “I don’t think it can get much worse than it did today, and I survived. I’m sure it killed some other people’s fishing. It looked like Lake Pontchartrain rough. It was ‘break stuff’ rough.”
Fellow Louisiana anglers, Gonzales’ Ryan Lavigne and Greg Hackney were looking forward to a change in forecast for Saturday as well and Hackney was looking for a change in luck after losing what he described as “two big fish” at the boat. Both weighed in limits Friday, with Lavigne’s 16-10 earning him 17th place and Hackney not too far behind in 26th place with 13-6. The top 25 anglers after Saturday qualify to fish the final day Sunday.
Lavigne earned a Classic spot, his first, as the top non-boater in last November’s B.A.S.S. Nation Championship, also on Lake Conroe. But, he says the lake he’s found in practice and on Day 1 of Classic competition isn’t like the one he fished five months ago.
“The water temperatures last November were in the 80s, and the fish were acting differently then,” he said, adding that there are 10-pound fish to be found on Conroe despite nobody finding them Friday. “Some of the areas I wanted to fish today I couldn’t really get to because they were so exposed to the south wind, but I was able to find other places. I feel like I’ve practiced every inch of this place.”
Hackney, competing in his 14th Classic, said he was happy to get his boat and himself back to the landing in one piece Friday and can make some adjustments on Day 2 to ensure he gets to fish Sunday.
“I had to idle under the bridge in the middle of the lake and the waves were so bad I thought I might rip the bow of my boat off on the bottom of the bridge,” Hackney said. “The wind confined me to certain parts of the lake. If it lays down, it will help everybody.”
Crochet was the fifth angler to weigh in at Minute Maid Park and gave the crowd, including roughly 30 of his friends and family who use his Classic appearances as an excuse to take a vacation, something to cheer about after the previous four anglers failed to crack the 10-pound mark. More than half the field had weighed in before Crochet was knocked from first place by Ehrler.
“Being in the lead and being in third place both have their ups,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind being a pound back or even two or three and coming back, kind of clutch.”
He compared Lake Conroe to Baton Rouge area oxbow False River because of the numerous docks, seawalls and bulkheads that line the southern end of the lake. That’s not where Crochet focused his efforts, though, instead seeking out areas that were a little wilder and woody looking, he said, as a beaming smile crossed his face.
“A lot of bulkheads, a lot of docks a lot of boat ramps but that’s just two-thirds of the lake,” he said. “The rest ... is natural. It’s about being comfortable with what you’re fishing. I’m sure there are some guys catching them on the bulkheads and wharfs and there’s probably some finesse fishing going on, but that's not me. Not in the Classic. You’ve got guaranteed money on one side, but you’ve got almost legendary status on the other side.”
Crochet has proven to be a master soft plastic and jig fisherman, but he was evasive about what baits he chose Friday.
“I feel good about what I’m doing right now, but I know a change is coming sometime in the next two days because of weather or whatever,” he said. “If I can pick up on what that change is, it’ll be a good weekend.”