Working several canals for bedding bass, Golden linked together 20 pounds, 7 ounces Thursday for a 10-ounce lead over Browning and Wirth, who tied for second place with 19-13.
Golden is the only North Carolina angler in the top 50 of the event going into the second day of competition.
Sharing fourth place at 17-9 were Florida's Terry Scroggins and Kevin VanDam, the Michigan pro fresh off his fourth Bassmaster Classic victory.
Complete day 1 standings can be viewed at Bassmaster.com.
"I was looking at them today, mainly," said Golden, an Elite pro since 2008. "I had some I scoped out during practice and I went back to them today, and some were still there and some weren't. That's kind of how it goes with sight-fishing. That's how I got them all."
He plans to return Friday to the same area.
"You got to go with what brought you here," he said. "I'll start with that first and see what happens. I've got some stretches I can throw on, but I am going to start out tomorrow to see if I can look at them again."
He said he'll go back after an 8-pounder he was unsuccessful in hooking Thursday under windy conditions. That lunker would be a twin to the big bass he hauled to the scales, an 8-15. It fell for a green-pumpkin Senko, he said, rigged weightless with a round-bend Gamakatsu hook, the same rig that took three other fish.
Wirth, of Crestwood, Ky., who won an Elite event in 2008, said he made an adjustment away from sight-fishing that resulted in six bites for six good fish.
"They came a long way apart. Tomorrow I'll just have to keep my nose to the grindstone and keep fishing," he said.
Browning, also not sight-fishing, said he slowed down Thursday.
"I'm taking a flipping stick and doing what you're supposed to do in Florida, throwing a worm and slowing down," he said. "It worked out real well for me today."
He said he concentrated on one lake on the opening day and would return to the same location to try again.
"You catch almost 20 pounds, you have to go back," said the Hot Springs, Ark., pro, who is recovering from elbow injuries. He said he likely will share the water with other competitors, if Thursday was any indication of the competition for fish.
Browning is trying for his first Elite win. This year for the first time, a win is worth an instant qualification for the 2012 Bassmaster Classic as well as $100,000.