NEW ORLEANS - Mark Menendez not only is a lucky dog, but also fishes with one.
On his fifth cast of the morning, Menendez got his first bite and landed a 6-pound, 2-ounce bass, sending him on his way to an opening-day lead in the Bassmaster Classic.
The catch brought a wag of approval from Barkley the Wonder Dog, a Labrador retriever rescued from an animal shelter who rides shotgun with Menendez.
Although the fish stopped biting just before noon, the Kentucky angler had a sack of fish weighing 16 pounds, 10 ounces.
"A couple of big breaks and I think I can take this home to Kentucky," Menendez said of the championship. "I would cherish it, and Barkley could have all the dog bones he wanted."
The three-time Classic qualifier expressed surprise at the total weight and that he did so well in conditions he called "my nemesis."
"The water was on the rise, and I've never done well on an incoming tide," he said.
Menendez cast a Yum Mega-tube to points where fish in transit were taking cover. Most of his bites came along a 300-yard stretch of shoreline.
In second place was Michael Iaconelli, who said lessons learned fishing on the upper Chesapeake Bay as an amateur helped him catch 15 pounds, 6 ounces.
Iaconelli, a New Jersey angler, calls the upper Chesapeake "my stomping grounds." He said he reached an unfamiliar cove of water yesterday and immediately felt at home.
"A lot of it reminded me of the upper Chesapeake, like Middle River and Sassafras River, with the effects of salt water and current and the type of vegetation," he said.
"All of my early experiences with tidal fishing and marshes, it was the same. It really helped me dial in."
Texan Gary Klein, in his 21st Classic, was in third place with 13 pounds, 15 ounces.
Sixty-one anglers are competing in the 33rd annual event in the Mississippi Delta for a first prize of $200,000. After today's session, the field will be cut to 25.
Defending Classic champion Jay Yelas, who led wire-to-wire last year on Alabama's Lay Lake, is finding the fishing a little tougher. He was tied for sixth place, with a total of 10 pounds, 2 ounces.
"I had a decent day. I kept myself in the hunt," he said. "They say you can't win the Classic on the first day, you can only lose it. A lot of guys lost it today."
Three anglers did not catch a fish, including Ishama Monroe, who was knocked from the action when his boat struck a submerged object in the Gulf of Mexico.
"It was just one of those days," said Monroe, the first black professional angler to qualify for the Classic. "I had a 250-mile round trip. Every time you make long runs like that and take a gamble, you're going to hit something. ... It's the voodoo curse."
Another victim of gremlins was Roland Martin, who is trying to win his first Classic on his 25th try.
Martin, a winner of almost every other major competition on the professional circuit, had to put in for emergency repairs after he bent the shaft on his trolling motor.
"I didn't put it up in the right position. It was my fault. I just didn't store it right," he said.
Nevertheless, he stood in 12th place with a total of 10 pounds, 2 ounces.
Maryland native Curt Lytle, who lives in Suffolk, Va., finished in 18th place with a total of 8 pounds, 6 ounces.