PITTSBURGH -- The professional bass-fishing world turned its attention to Pittsburgh and its Three Rivers on Friday as Arkansas angler Jimmy Mize scratched out a five-bass limit weighing 6 pounds, 2 ounces to take the lead in the first round of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic.
Mize was among the fortunate few among the top professional bass anglers in the world to eke out a limit on the stingy Ohio River system during Friday's first round. And he did it with relative ease.
"I got a 14-incher before we went through the lock this morning," he said. "I had my limit in a little over an hour. It was a pretty good day and they bit pretty good for me."
Long popular with Youngstown-area anglers, the Ohio River and its upstream tributaries -- the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers -- is the host venue for what is shaping up as one of the most challenging and competitive Classics ever.
After the scales in Mellon Arena dried late Friday afternoon, Mize was trailed by 1 pound, 1 ounce by Aaron Martens of Alabama and Stacey King of Missouri. Fourth place was held by Preston Clark of Florida with a five-bass limit weighing 4-14, while Kevin VanDam of Michigan was fifth with three bass at 4-11. King and VanDam tied for big bass honors Friday. Both had smallmouths weighing 2-14.
One of the pre-Classic favorites, Michael Iaconelli of New Jersey, sat in seventh with four bass at 4-07, while Larry Nixon of Arkansas, who won the 1983 Classic on the Ohio River near Cincinnati, was in 27th place with 1-07. Four-time Classic champ Rick Clunn was one of 10 anglers to come in without a fish Friday.
Pound for pound
Despite his lead, Mize recognizes the fishing will continue to be tough. "Somebody could catch up in a hurry if he gets the right bites," he said.
VanDam, one of the hottest anglers on the pro bass tour, said he had no idea what the Three Rivers would produce for him Friday. "I was fortunate to get a quality bite," he said in reference to the big bass he brought to the scales along with two other keepers.
Of the 96 bass the Classic anglers brought to the scales, smallmouth bass dominated. Because of his experience with northern smallies, VanDam remains a favorite to overhaul the leader and claim his second Classic title.
"I'm confident in my lures," he said. "This river fits my style; you have to fish fast, but slow. There's not one spot where I'll catch a lot of fish. You just pull up and catch one. My arm's tired from yanking my trolling motor up and down all day."
Martens, the 2005 BASS Angler of the Year, echoed VanDam's comments about the Pittsburgh rivers.
"I ran to a lot of spots, bouncing around," he said. "It was getting crowded out there. But you have to keep moving because any spot any time can produce a keeper. You just pull up and hope a fish is feeding there."
Race to the finish
The 47 contenders return to the water this morning for the second round. After today's fishing, the field will be trimmed to the top 25, who will compete Sunday for the Classic championship.
Pre-Classic practice periods provided the anglers with a hint of the challenging conditions they would see this weekend. Youngstown-area bass anglers predicted a tight race for this year's Classic championship based on fishing results on the Ohio River this summer.
Mark Franko of Cortland won the Mohawk Valley Bass Club event two weeks ago with three bass weighing 4.1 pounds, while Greg Hromiko of Columbiana took first-place honors in the Ohio Valley event that same day with three bass weighing 2.98 pounds. John White of Youngstown won the third event with a single 13-inch smallmouth bass.
The 2005 Classic is the closest to Youngstown the world championship event has been held. The tournament typically is held in large cities in the South, such as Charlotte, N.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and New Orleans.
At stake is a $750,000 purse, including $200,000 and world champion status for the winner. He also earns a tremendous opportunity to parlay the victory into a decade of financial security thanks to the promotional and sponsorship benefits that typically accompany a Classic win.
Today's and Sunday's weigh-ins will again be staged inside Mellon Arena in downtown Pittsburgh. Fans also can attend a free outdoor sports show at the David Lawrence Convention Center several blocks from Mellon Arena. The weigh-ins will begin around 4 p.m. both days, following live performances from a number of entertainers.
ESPN and ESPN2 have scheduled 12 hours of Classic coverage, including live coverage of the weigh-ins and taped footage of angling action on the Three Rivers.