When the last bass hit the scales on the first day of competition at the Bass Pro Shops PAA Tournament Series presented by Carrot Stix on Neely Henry Lake, Springville, Alabama’s Kenny Pannell was at the top of the leader board with a five fish limit weighing 14.61 pounds.
Pannell, who is competing in his first PAA Tournament Series event, relied on his deep history on the Coosa River fishery to best the field on Thursday. Over the past decade, he has recorded six top 10 finishes on Neely Henry Lake in FLW Bass Fishing League (BFL) competition.
“I only live about 20 miles from the lake,” explained Pannell. “I really wanted to fish when the PAA came here last year, but I just didn’t have the money. I’ve been looking forward to competing this time around, and I spent quite a bit of time practicing.”
Pannell said that he started the day upriver, targeting laydowns and bream beds that he found during practice. “I caught two or three solid keepers at my first stop, and then I just started picking fish off isolated cover.”
He made his last cast around 11:30, but it wasn’t by choice. “My motor broke down,” he lamented. Fortunately for Pannell, he was able to transfer his catch to a fellow competitor’s boat and hitch a ride back to weigh-in.
“With the exception of breaking down today, I’m tickled to death,” said Pannell. “I’m just fishing for five each day. It’s a ‘one here and one there’ type of deal. I pretty much knew where each fish was, and I got on a little bit of a pattern as the morning progressed.”
The majority of the leaders had mixed bags that contained both spotted bass and largemouth. Pannell was no exception, weighing-in four spotted bass and one largemouth. “There are several other boats fishing up there, but I really think that there are enough fish to last me two more days,” he concluded.
Sitting just .16 pounds behind Pannell in second place is fellow Alabama pro, Jason McCullars, who brought a limit weighing 14.45 pounds to the scales. Like Pannell, McCullars is also getting his first taste of PAA Tournament Series competition on a body of water that he is very familiar with.
While Pannell amassed his weight throughout the morning, McCullars, who lives 25 minutes from Neely Henry Lake in Odenville, Alabama, did the bulk of his damage in the span of an hour.
“I was very fortunate today,” he said. “I pulled up on the right spot at the right time and got the key bites. The rest of the day was slow. It was just a timing deal where I was fishing a flat and the wind was blowing the shad across it. The bass were sitting on the edge of the flat and coming up and blasting the baitfish.”
Although he caught several spotted bass, McCullars five best fish were all largemouth on Thursday. “I could look at my graph and see the bass streaking off of the bottom and eating the shad,” he explained. “If the sun stays out like it did today, I think that I can catch them again. The hotter it gets, the better it is for me.”
Pannell and McCullars will enter Friday on Neely Henry closely pursued by Elite Series veteran, Mike McClelland, who weighed-in a 14.42 pound limit to finish the day in third place.
“It was a little stressful this morning because the fish just didn’t bite,” explained McClelland. On his third stop of the morning, he finally connected with some solid keepers. “The key this week has been identifying that the fish are keying on really big shad,” explained the Arkansas pro. “There are a lot of little shad flicking on the surface, but you really have to hunt to find the bigger ones.”
Throughout the day, McClelland said that he covered as much water as possible. “It’s not like the fish are on a specific spot. I’m fishing the edge of the river channel and trying to find as many laydowns and stumps to throw at as I can.”
Entering Friday in a virtual tie with two local anglers who both have history on Neely Henry Lake, McClelland said that there’s an interesting dynamic that is beginning to develop. “I think the fact that this is a three day tournament is going to really have an effect on those guys,” said McClelland, referring to Pannell and McCullars. “I’m sure that they’re both great fishermen and have a lot more opportunities to run around and fish specific places. I think that my advantage may come in the fact that I know how to manage a three day tournament as opposed to just a single day tournament.”
While McClelland has his sights set on the two anglers ahead of him in the standings, a number of talented anglers are poised to make a charge. 12 competitors will enter Friday within two pounds of the lead.
One of those anglers is Texas’ Justin Rackley, who finished the day in 12th place with a 12.78 pound limit that was anchored by a 5.38 pound largemouth – the biggest bass of the day.
“During practice, all my bigger bites came flipping, so that’s what I decided to do today,” said Rackley. “I was flipping a Lake Fork Tackle Flipper in shallow grass, and the big one bit at around 1:30 in the afternoon.”
A disheartened Steve Kennedy, who entered the tournament as the defending Neely Henry Lake champion, finished the day in 24th place with a limit weighing 11.32 after discovering a sixth bass in his livewell while bagging his catch.
As a result, Kennedy was required to release his biggest fish – a five-and-a-half pound largemouth that would have pushed his total weight to over 15 pounds.
“It was a mistake that cost me over four pounds,” said Kennedy. “I have no idea when I lost count of how many fish I had in the livewell. “This is the first time that I’ve ever brought in too many fish. I have an engineering degree and I’m a numbers guy. That’s why this really hurts,” he concluded.
In all, 47 out of 58 pros brought a limit to the scales.
On the co-angler side, Undre Montgomery led the way with a three fish limit weighing 8.91 pounds. “We pulled up to the first spot and I caught one that weighed about two-and-a-half pounds on my fifth or sixth cast,” said Montgomery. “The rest of the day, it was classic junk fishing. I think that I caught six or seven keepers during the day,” he concluded.
Image courtesy of the Professional Anglers Association