Two former Bassmaster Classic qualifiers are neck-and-neck in the race for the Cabela’s B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Southern Divisional title at Lake Okeechobee.

George Crain, 2011 Bassmaster Classic qualifier, took the lead today with a five-fish limit weighing 24 pounds, 13 ounces and nudged past 2009 Classic qualifier Waine Pittman, who finished the day with five bass weighing 24-8.

“I think the fish are scattered,” said Crain, who is targeting postspawn bass in the shallows. The Alabama angler from the Shoal Creek Bass Chasers is competing in his third divisional.

During practice, Crain avoided setting the hook on any bites and took his chances that the fish were going to be bigger than 12 inches. They were a lot bigger today. “Thank goodness a few of them had some shoulders,” he said. “I may have five that go 7 or 8 pounds tomorrow, though.”

The 59-year-old retired fireman and part-time construction worker caught keepers throughout the day but never culled any fish. He also lost one that would have increased his lead. “I had one that I couldn’t turn around,” he said.

Two patterns are working for Crain, who notes he is getting a chance to fish his strength. Crain has experience fishing on Okeechobee in some major tournaments, including a Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open.

A strong wind gusting up to 24 miles per hour hampered some of the contestants, except Crain and Pittman.

Pittman, 43, caught all of his fish on a jig and said he believes he can catch fish the same way the next two days. He is flipping and punching vegetation he found in practice. “There are more fish moving to it,” said Pittman, a six-time divisional contestant and member of the West Georgia Bass Hunters. The electrical engineer has also fished Okeechobee before in a Bass Club World Championship divisional.

Crain and Pittman are attempting to finish as the top anglers on the Alabama and Georgia teams respectively, which would earn them berths in the Cabela’s B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Championship (FNC). Other state leaders bidding for FNC berths include Colby Cotterill of Florida; Eddie Cox, South Carolina; Mark Pierce, Tennessee; Chris Kerfoot, Kentucky; and Brent Boyette, North Carolina.

Alabama leads the team competition with 146 pounds, 9 ounces with Georgia in the runner-up spot (137-14).

The Southern Divisional contestants will take off at 7 a.m. tomorrow at Roland Martin’s Marina for the second day of competition.

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