Kemp takes opening-round lead at Bassmaster Open on Buggs Island Reservoir

Powell Kemp said the best thing he did this week was take a big eraser to his practice findings and fish what was in front of him. Doing so rewarded the local pro with a five-bass limit of 19 pounds, 8 ounces that leads Day 1 of the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Buggs Island.

With recent rains raising the lake’s water level and a cold front bringing big winds and a sharp temperature drop, anglers largely found unsettled bass and a Roanoke River reservoir whipped into a navigational nightmare. Nevertheless, the pro from Scotland Neck, N.C., said his historical insight served him well.

“When I practiced late Friday and all day Saturday, the lake was at 301 (a foot above normal pool) and I said ‘This isn’t going to be right.’ I actually fished a tournament on Lake Gaston Sunday,” Kemp said. “I didn’t even practice because the lake came up a foot, and I said ‘It’s going to change every day.’

“I knew what I did Friday and Saturday was junk. Any bites I had those days — just throw it out.”

As Kemp notes, knowing what to do during the dramatic change in conditions gave him a significant advantage over anglers trying to figure out the lake’s evolving complexion.

“The lake did exactly what it needed for a local to have an advantage because I’ve seen so much over 20 years of fishing here,” he said. “It was just run here, run there.

“A lot of guys had three days of practice in their minds, but I’ve seen it so much I knew you can’t do what you were doing.”

Kemp, who holds a 3-pound margin over Tennessee pro Brad Knight, said the 15- to 20-mph winds certainly limited his mobility. But while he wasn’t able to run as much water as he’d planned, the curtailment likely aided his cause.

“As rough as it was today, I had to bear down on one area,” Kemp said. “I couldn’t run and gun like I’m used to, but maybe that worked to my advantage.”

Kemp said he caught his bass by throwing a spinnerbait and flipping bushes.

“I was just fishing and keeping them honest because they move so much on this lake,” he said. “Some of them moved farther back than they were in practice. It was really random today. There were some on the points, some on the sides (of creeks) and some in the backs.

“There was no rhyme or reason. It was just a blessing; one of those days you dream about. The Lord blessed me.”

Knowing he’d have to grind through a lean day, Kemp said he was delighted to jumpstart his morning with a 5-13, which leads the Phoenix Boats Big Bass standings.

“The lake is fishing really tough and she was the first bite I got this morning,” Kemp said. “That really settled me down.”

Kemp said he started his day by looking for a shad spawn but to no avail. During his search, he saw a smaller fish swirl and miss his bait. Assuming it was the male from a spawning pair, he targeted the point of attack and connected with a big female.

“I threw to the gum tree just to the right and she came out and ate it,” he said. “Overall, it was still a bite every hour to an hour and a half. It wasn’t (on fire) like the lake should be doing.

“I just think the lake is in a transition, the shad aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. I think what bass are left (up shallow) are spawning.”

Kemp’s day ended with another stroke of good fortune. With a bass of about 2 1/4 pounds in his bag and 2 1/2 hours left to fish, he started to make a move but had trouble getting his boat on plane.

Pulling into a creek with calm water, Kemp jumped on plane but he could tell something was not right with his engine. With a good run between his position and the check-in point, he decided to return early to make sure he made it.

“I came back to the creek (where the check-in site was located) and while I was just fishing around, I caught one about 3 1/4 to cull out my 2 1/4,” he recalled. “It was really slow to get bit and the lake was fishing tough, but it was an amazing day. Everything went perfectly.”

Knight, a former Forrest Wood Cup winner who hails from Lancing, Tenn., is in second place with 16-8. Coming off a South Texas turkey hunt, he got minimal practice time and, same as Powell, Knight believes that worked to his benefit.

“I rode around on Tuesday and I knew the lake had come up and it was going to be flooded bushes. That fits my strengths — I like to fish shallow,” Knight said. “From there, it was just a matter of adapting to the conditions.”

Knight said he started with about 12 baits on his deck, but whittled that selection down to about half. His top producers were a swim jig, a bladed jig, a spinnerbait and flipping rigs.

“A lot of people call it junk fishing, but to me, it’s reading the bank; knowing when to pick up one bait or another,” Knight said. “I have a lot of experience fishing this way (on the Tennessee River) when things are changing. It was just taking that experience and applying it here.”

Jacob Thompkins of Myrtle Beach, S.C., is third with 16-6. Flipping bushes with a Strike King Rage Bug and throwing a spinnerbait produced his bites.

“I came here a month and a half ago for pre-practice and I caught a 4-pounder while (Garmin) LiveScoping them on some stumps just off the bank,” Thompkins said. “I caught my biggest one today doing that.

“I watched him eat the spinnerbait on LiveScope and barely got him in the boat before the hook popped out. So, I got lucky on that one.”

Alex Watts of Salem, Va., leads the co-angler division with 10-13. Anchoring his bag with a 4-7, Watts holds a 10-ounce lead over David Deciucis of Chester, Va.

Watts caught his big bass on a wacky rig. Later in the day, when he fished more windward areas, a spinnerbait worked best.

Larry Kempler of Bluemont, Va., and George Myers of Franklinton, N.C., are tied for the Phoenix Boats Big Bass lead among co-anglers, each with a 5-2.

Thursday’s takeoff is scheduled for 6:30 a.m. ET from Occoneechee State Park. The weigh-in will be held at the park at 2:30 p.m.

The St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Buggs Island Reservoir is being hosted by Mecklenburg County, Va., Tourism.