Cliff Crochet is a noted shallow-water specialist who loves to fish green vegetation during warm, springlike conditions.
He found the exact opposite of that during Thursday’s opening round of the Bassmaster Elite at Cherokee Lake, but the Louisiana angler who goes by the nickname “Cajun Baby” put on quite a show anyway.
With early-morning temperatures in the low 20s and a peppering of snow blowing sideways across the lake at takeoff, Crochet took the lead with five bass that weighed 19 pounds, 7 ounces. Elite Series rookie Jesse Wiggins of Cullman, Ala., weighed in 19-1 and trails the leader by only 6 ounces.
“I caught them all on a frog,” Crochet joked, referencing his favorite technique to use when the weather is much warmer.
Then he backtracked without revealing much information.
“No, I didn’t get them on a frog,” he said, laughing. “My deal today was pretty traditional for this time of year.
“My plan was to try to catch largemouth — and if I happened to catch a smallmouth, that was okay. I caught some smallmouth in practice, but I had all largemouth today.”
With three days remaining in the tournament, Crochet was well aware of the changes that are supposed to be coming in the weather. The cold front seems to be over, and temperatures are expected to rise the next three days with rain in the forecast for Saturday and Sunday.
Crochet, who started last year’s Elite Series season opener on the St. Johns River with a big first-day catch before fading, said he believes his pattern is one that will hold up. But he has to avoid the issues that hurt him in the same situation last year.
“I was just being hardheaded last year,” Crochet said. “I didn’t change when I knew I needed to change. But I’ve learned a lot since then.”
Crochet said many of his lessons were learned late last season when he salvaged a berth in the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods by winning the final Central Open of the year on the Atchafalaya Basin in October.
“The big thing I learned from winning that tournament was that you can’t force it,” Crochet said. “You can’t force things to happen the way you want them to. I’ve learned to do it more slow and steady. You can run down and catch one fish and then run somewhere else to get another one.
“You have to let things happen the way they’re happening.”
A win in his last tournament and claiming the opening-round lead in the first tournament of the 2017 season makes Crochet one of the hottest anglers on the professional circuit. But it’s hard to argue he’s any hotter than the second-place angler, Wiggins.
The Alabama pro claimed his first career B.A.S.S. victory in 2016 on Smith Lake and then won for the second time in the first Southern Open of 2017 last month on Florida’s Harris Chain of Lakes. He’s the only angler in the tournament who has qualified for both the 2017 and 2018 Classics, and he believes one great spot could lead him to his biggest accomplishment yet.
“I idled around for three or four days during practice and never caught much of anything,” Wiggins said. “Then about 1 o’clock Wednesday (the final day of practice), I idled over one spot that had them. That’s where I caught them today.”
Wiggins said he only fished the spot Thursday until he knew he had a big limit. Then he spent much of the rest of the day guarding it.
He said he was fishing vertically over his main spot in about 20 to 30 feet of water.
“It was just a good morning,” said Wiggins, who weighed in four smallmouth and one largemouth. “I was blessed with a good spot early, and that big largemouth (which weighed 4-9) was just a bonus. It was mixed right in with the smallmouth.”
Wiggins said he would start out on his magic spot Friday if no one beats him to it.
“I probably didn’t fish that spot more than an hour,” he said. “I’m hoping there are still some left on it. There were still some on it when I left it today.”
Minnesota angler Seth Feider was third with 18-10, followed by Missouri pro Brian Snowden with 18-1 and New York rookie Jamie Hartman with 17-10. Jacob Wheeler — an Indiana newcomer to the Elite Series who is not considered a rookie because of his career earnings on other trails — also has 17-10.
The tournament will resume at 7:15 a.m. ET Friday with takeoff from Cherokee Lake Dam and TVA Boat Ramp. The weigh-in will be held back at the ramp at 3:30 p.m. The field will be trimmed to the Top 51 anglers after Friday’s round.
Mark Daniels Jr. of Tuskegee, Ala., is in the lead for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass with a 5-0 bass.
Takeoff will remain at Cherokee Lake Dam and TVA Boat Ramp for the final two days, but the weigh-ins will be moved to the Knoxville Convention Center at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The event is hosted by the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County and Visit Knoxville.