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Randy Howell, the 2014 Bassmaster Classic winner, often says that professional bass fishing is a humbling sport.

He ate a piece of that bitter pie last week at the Bassmaster Elite Series season opener in Georgia on Lake Seminole, where he finished close to the bottom of the field. But this week, after a hop to Florida for the next event, Howell “The Champ” shined through.

With 27 pounds, 3 ounces, Howell led the field Thursday in the first of four days of Elite competition on the St. Johns River. He was 3 pounds, 2 ounces ahead of Davy Hite and Marty Robinson, who tied for second place with 24-1.

Fourth place was marked at 22-6 by Andy Montgomery of Blacksburg, S.C., following up in style on his Top 12 finish in Georgia. Fifth place at the St. Johns event was taken with the 22-1 bag brought in by Takahiro Omori of Emory, Texas — another Top 12 finisher on Seminole.

The Elite pros are competing on the St. Johns for a first-place prize of $100,000 and an instant entry into the 2015 Bassmaster Classic.

Howell credited his 27-3 to good decision making while sight fishing on Lake George, one of the river system’s most prolific and well-known bedding areas for largemouth bass.

“Late in the day in Florida, they always move up, and I’m usually the guy who leaves at the wrong time. And somebody catches them after I leave. Today I made the decision to stay,” said Howell, who is from Springville, Ala.

“At Seminole, I was boat 100, and I let that affect me mentally,” he said. “I gave up on all my sight fishing spots I’d practiced on because so many boats were there and went out looking for offshore fish and didn’t find them.

“That helped me this week. I know I still have to do the right stuff to put fish on the scale, still try to win. It made me be smarter, not take a lot of risks,” Howell said.

A 7-15 was Howell’s largest bass; a 2 1/2-pounder was his smallest of the day. He said he had tried to trade in the smallest so he could meet or exceed his final-day, take-me-to-the-trophy bag at the Classic of 29-2, his personal best.

Like Howell, Robinson was catching spawning bass on Lake George, but he didn’t start out that way.

“I tried to ‘go fishing’ this morning,” said the Lyman, S.C., pro, meaning he wasn’t targeting bass on beds. “I thought maybe I could catch a limit. It didn’t work out with the slick-water conditions this morning, so I went sight fishing.”

Hite also found success sight fishing on Lake George. The 1999 Classic champ and two-time Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year from Ninety Six, S.C., Hite got the day’s largest bass from the lake. It was a 10-2, setting the bar for the Carhartt Big Bass Award of the event.

Hite first threw a floating worm to the 10-2, and it hit, but he wasn’t able to connect. Another cast with a creature bait did the trick.

It was the magic kicker that all the Elite pros are trying to land to offset some of the smaller male largemouth they’re hooking into in spawning areas.

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