Greg Hackney relied on consistency to claim the top spot on the leader board after two days of competition at the Bass Pro Shops PAA Tournament Series presented by Carrot Stix on Alabama’s Neely Henry Lake.
With back-to-back limits weighing 13.55 pounds on Thursday and 13.76 pounds on Friday to boost his total weight to 27.31 pounds, the Louisiana pro will enter the final day of competition on Saturday clinging to a .35 pound lead over Mississippi’s Paul Elias and Texas’ Keith Caka, who both finished Friday with a total weight of 26.96.
The tournament is by no means a three horse race, as the top 10 anglers are separated by just 3.11 pounds, and Gary Howington, who was the last angler inside the top 15 cut, sits just 4.20 pounds out of the lead.
Day one leader, Kenny Pannell, slipped on Friday, but remained in the hunt after bringing in a limit weighing 12.09 pounds to finish the day in fourth place.
On Saturday, the 15 remaining competitors will be vying for the Neely Henry title and a 2012 Nitro Z8, equipped with a Mercury 225 OptiMax engine with a total retail value of over $40,000. The champion will also receive $1,250 in cash.
Hackney said that the majority of his weight on Friday came from stretches that he didn’t even fish on Thursday. “It was one of those deals where I really didn’t know when I was going to get my next bite,” he explained. “I’m mixing it up between two different patterns throughout the day and running a lot of new water.”
One of his patterns consists of targeting largemouth in ultra-shallow water. “Some of them are up there so shallow that you can see their backs sticking out of the water,” said Hackney. His other pattern involves targeting spotted bass that are chasing migrating schools of shad along the river channel.
Culling through around 15 keepers on Friday, Hackney said that he has whittled his bait selection down to two moving baits and a flipping bait. “My practice put me in the general areas where I’ve caught my fish, but I have yet to catch them the same way that I caught them during practice,” he admitted. “I’ve had to make some slight adjustments. I thought that spotted bass would be a dominant species for me. I had three spotted bass today, but I only had one spotted bass yesterday.”
Hackney said that he’s on track when it comes to fish management. “I’m making the right moves and things are going my way. After practice, I thought that if I could bring in consecutive limits of 13, 14, and 15 pounds, I’d have a shot at this thing. I’ve been right on target for the first two days, so we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
With a limit weighing 13.43 pounds on Friday, Paul Elias matched Keith Caka’s total weight of 26.96, but moved in to second place after winning the tiebreaker, which was the number of live bass brought to the scales.
Elias has shown remarkable consistency over the first two days of competition, weighing 13.53 pounds on Thursday’s opening round. “I should have had a big sack of fish today,” admitted Elias. “I probably could have has around three more pounds, but I let them get off somehow.”
Elias’ success this week has been dependent on the amount of current flowing through Neely Henry. “If the current would start flowing a little bit sooner in the day, things could get interesting,” said Elias. He noticed the current picking up at around 1:20 on Friday afternoon, and he culled four times in the final hour of the day. “Nobody else has fished this spot,” he explained. “That’s surprising to me, because it really sticks out like a sore thumb. I haven’t even seen any locals fishing the area.
“If I fish flawlessly tomorrow, I’ll have a chance to win this tournament just as long as the current flow stays normal.” concluded Elias. “Hackney is a tough man to run down, so I’ll just get out there and grind.”
Like Elias, Keith Caka’s weigh on Friday came from one primary stretch on Neely Henry Lake. The Texas pro backed up a solid 14.30 pound effort on Thursday with another 12.66 limit, and said that he caught bass from start to finish.
“It was unbelievable,” said Caka. “I’m fishing the main river channel and the fish just keep reloading. I fished one little area all day long that was about the size of a football field, and I had it all to myself. It looks like such a community hole that I thought there would be other anglers around, but nobody else fished it.”
Weighing-in five largemouth on Friday, Caka only boated one small spotted bass the entire day. “I thought for sure that I’d be catching a lot of spotted bass, but I’m not going to complain,” he said with a smile. While Elias is dependent on current, Caka said that current has nothing to do with his bite. “I’m fishing so far down the lake that the current isn’t even reaching my area before I have to leave. If there was some current, I think that I could absolutely wreck them.”
With a solid finish this week on Neely Henry and a 6th place finish in the season opener this past May on Old Hickory Lake, Caka has put himself in position to make a run at the Angler Of the Year title when the PAA Tournament Series makes the final stop of the season on the Arkansas River in Oklahoma this September.
Big bass honors on Friday went to Alabama’s Steve Kennedy, who crossed the stage with a 5.61 pound largemouth. Boating only two keepers on the day, Kennedy, who won the PAA Tournament Series event on Neely Henry in 2011, finished the tournament in 34th place with a total weight of 18.52 pounds.
“I figured out that the fish were feeding on really big shad, so they wanted a really big bait,” said Kennedy. “I ended up catching the fish on a ¾ ounce buzzbait.” Kennedy earned $300 for big bass of the day, and is also in the lead for the Humminbird/Minn Kota Big Bass of the tournament which includes a Humminbird 898c si sonar unit valued at $1,500.
On the co-angler side, Tennessee’s Tony Eckler pulled off an impressive feat, winning back-to-back co-angler titles in the first two PAA Tournament Series events of the season. In early May, Eckler won the co-angler title on Old Hickory Lake, and he again topped the field this week on Neely Henry Lake with a total weight of 14.10 pounds.
“The PAA tournament at Old Hickory Lake was the first time that I’d ever fished a tournament as a co-angler,” said Eckler. “It’s a pretty cool deal that I’ve been able to win two in a row.” With the win, Eckler earned $3,150 and also received a Carrot Stix rod and a US REEL SuperCaster 1000.
On Saturday, the remaining 15 anglers will launch at Coosa Landing in Gadsden, Alabama at 5:30 a.m. CT. Saturday’s weigh-in will be held in Leeds, Alabama at Bass Pro Shops beginning at 4:30 p.m. CT.
Image courtesy of Chris Dutton