By Todd Ceisner
In 70 days, the bass fishing world will converge on Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma for the 43rd edition of the Bassmaster Classic. It could turn out to be like no other before it.
The 53 qualifiers had until this past Monday to put their boat in the water at Grand and poke around or gather local intel about the roughly 46,500-acre reservoir before it went off limits. Many took advantage of the opportunity, while others were content to delay on-the-water prep until Feb. 15 when the lake re-opens to competitors for 3 practice days the week before the Classic. An official practice day will take place 2 days prior to the event.
Some of the qualifiers have fished Ė and won Ė tournaments at Grand before, but very few have any meaningful experience there in mid to late February. Fishing there in November and December wonít reveal much in the way of how the lake will set up for the Classic. The looming winter will have the biggest influence on that, but those who took scouting trips found it to be helpful if for nothing else but to reacquaint themselves with a lake that hasnít hosted a tour-level event since June 2007.
From the anglers BassFan contacted for this piece, there were several dominant themes that emerged from their advance recon trips:
> Grand is absolutely full of fish from the bank out to 25 feet, and theyíre healthy, too, thanks to a stout population of threadfin and gizzard shad.
> Itís as good a pattern lake as there is and features an overwhelming amount of offshore structure (brush piles, points, ledges, drops) and literally thousands of docks.
> The giant X-factor, which is no secret to anyone, is how the weather patterns over the next 2 months will affect the lake. There may be no tougher transition period for bass fishermen than late fall/winter to pre-spawn and itís nothing more than a guessing game at this point as to whatís going to transpire over the next 8 weeks.
Following are some comments gathered from Classic qualifiers who were willing to share some notes about their scouting trips:
> Classic appearances: 6
> Best finish: 17th (2011, Louisiana Delta)
ďI spent 3 days on the water from sunup to sundown and mostly ran around and reacquainted myself with the lake. I went into some areas Iíd never seen before so I explored some new water.
ďThe lake is full of fish and when you have a lake thatís full of fish, there are going to be multiple patterns going on for sure. You can go out there and develop a really good pattern and catch a ton of fish, but the best you can do is finish in the teens. Youíre not going to be fishing to win. I want to make sure that I try to develop the two or three patterns that are going to win the tournament.
ďThe last couple places that weíve been (for the Classic) have been rivers and those fish different than a lake like Grand. It is quite a bit different approach from the last couple in my opinion. Some years, I try to put a best guess on how I think the tournamentís going to be won and thatís how I focus my pre-fishing and tournament. Iíve done that the last couple, but this oneís a bit different. Everythingís close. You donít have to lock through and you donít have to run 80 miles between areas. In this one, you have a lot more options available to you in your fishing.
ďI saw so many places that looked good, itís not even funny. Iíve told people that if there arenít good fish sitting on some of the places I found then itís going to be their own fault because theyíve got everything they need.Ē
> Classic appearances: 0
ďI fished quite a bit up until the last week when everybody started getting there. I spent quite a bit of time up there over the last 2 months. The fishing had been pretty good up until last week. Some cold weather came in and slowed things down quite a bit.
ďRight now, there are fish in all depth ranges. Iíd like for it to be a pre-spawn pattern. Having the water in the 40s would be ideal for me. Thatíd be how Iíd like to catch them Ė itíd have them grouped up that way. They get pretty predictable when theyíre in the pre-spawn stages, but with the weather the way itís been we may not see it get into the low 40s. The water temperature was about 56 when I left.
ďItís a fairly big lake, but I donít think itís going to fish that big in the Classic. You can catch fish up and down the lake, whether youíre way up the river or down by the dam. There are a few sections of the lake that I always fish when I go up there. Iím just going to stick around some of areas that I feel most comfortable in so before I went there I kind of narrowed it down to where I want to spend my 3 days of practice, so weíll see what happens.
Jason Christie said his scouting trip was important to refresh his memory and see what old areas were now covered up.
ďThere is a ton of structure and a lot of good offshore stuff. I donít know if thatíll come into play. It certainly could, but I have a feeling itíll be more of a beating-the-bank kind of a tournament. Hopefully, theyíre suspended and you can catch them that way, but they get shallow on Grand and they live shallow so it wouldnít surprise me if the winning stringers came off the bank.Ē
> Classic appearances: 0
ďI usually donít go fish a lake before it goes off limits, but this is a different scenario. I wanted to make sure I did all I could do to prepare. I asked myself after it was over if I learned anything and I really donít know if I did. What I didnít want to do was not spend any time up there and have the Classic get here and be kicking myself for not doing everything I could to get ready.
ďItíll make me feel better as it gets closer. I may have not learned a whole lot in terms of new places, but I spent a lot of time on little things Iíd forgotten. If the going gets tough, I may remember just one place that could make a big difference. That can work against me, too. If the going gets tough, I have 1,000 places. It did help my confidence, though.
ďThat lake is highly developed. One of the first things I saw the first couple days up there was some of the places Iíve fished in the past you canít fish now. Itís not so much because they added a dock, but they might have moved a dock. On Grand, you have people with million-dollar houses on a point and they have a half-million-dollar dock sitting out on the point. Not that they want to cover up as much as they can, but sometimes they cover up an old spot. The lake has changed a lot over the years. Thereís not as much shoreline cover and Iím just amazed at the number of docks at that place. Itís crazy.
ďIf we get a consistent winter where nothing crazy happens, I wonít be surprised if itís won 25 feet deep or 5 feet deep and thatís whatís so scary for me because itís so good and I could be on the bank catching 18 pounds and someone could be out deep catching 25. I have my perceptions of where itís going to be won, but this is definitely going to be a Classic where a guy can roll in and fish exactly how he wants to and more than likely catch them that way.Ē
> Classic appearances: 0
ďItís a unique deal to go somewhere and practice for a tournament that is 2 months away. Not only is it 2 months away, weíre looking at the biggest change that there will be in any 2 months of the year because weíre going from a late fall to a completely pre-spawn pattern, so what you catch now will have zero bearing on what theyíre doing in February.
ďHaving said that, the way I approached it was to rely on past experience on how I fish in that time of year. What I wanted to do was pick three patterns Ė if theyíre in a pure winter pattern, if theyíre in a pre-spawn and just starting to pull up or if the waterís going to be 50 degrees and theyíre really moved up doing their thing.
ďAny one of those three could happen. When I got done looking for all of those, I realized there was one thing I forgot: What if the lake is blown out and muddy and ice cold? Iíd have to find something completely different. On the last day, I went out and looked for some of that kind of stuff. I didnít let any of the fish I caught while I was down there influence me whatsoever on what I wanted to look for. Itís like a big guessing game. The fortunate thing about that lake is itís a lot like Bull Shoals in that itís a good pattern lake. Once you figure out what theyíre doing, you can repeat it. Thatís how I looked at it.Ē
> Classic appearances: 14
> Best finish: 2nd (1993, Logan Martin Lake)
ďThe first day I launched, it was raining on the way up and we got a little moisture on the boat and when we got in the boat the rod lockers had frozen up and that sort of thing. It just reminded me of the two (events) we fished there back in (1992 and 1993). I think one of them we had a high of 6 one day and the other had a high of maybe 20. They were both brutally cold in November. This could be potentially unfishable just getting the vehicles there and launching. I remember launching on a ramp and the ramp froze over after the first boat launched. The next one came down and the boat and truck went into the water.
Shaw Grigsby hopes the Classic doesn't resemble past cold-weather events at Grand.
ďThere are so many issues that can potentially happen. When it comes to the fishery, though, itís a phenomenal fishery. Itís going to be as a good fishing as you can get in that type of weather. Itís a great lake. I was totally impressed. All Iíve been able to do on Grand Lake is show up and practice for 2 or 2 1/2 days and fish a tournament so you develop a pattern and go fishing and thatís it.
ďBeing able to just spend some days idling Ė I just took my StructureScan and idled and it was stupid phenomenal the amount of structure and places for fish to be. Everything from brush piles to points to ledges to drops Ė itís a great pattern lake and Iím excited about the fishing. Iím hoping it wonít be below zero, but Iím excited about the fishing because I think there will be a lot of fish caught and I think there will be a lot of people smiling watching some pretty good sacks come in.Ē
> Classic appearances: 8
> Best finish: 1st (2004, Lake Wylie)
ďI was there the last week of November. I stayed 5 nights, but I only went out 3 days for 3 to 5 hours a day. I didnít make one cast. I just drove around and looked at the bank and some brush piles and docks. There was one night where it was below freezing.
ďI like fishing in early spring for pre-spawners, but that lake doesnít have any grass. I donít know whatís going to happen weather wise. My guess is itíll be super cold or maybe a little warmer. I want to keep an open mind. I donít want to get too much into where the fish are right now. I donít want to know too much about it. I know the techniques thatíll probably do well at that time of year at that type of lake, but Iím trying to stay neutral and keep an open mind.Ē
> Classic appearances: 1
> Best finish: 26th (1997, Logan Martin Lake)
ďItís a great lake. I think itís a power-fishermanís dream. Iím figuring if they told me I could only bring three rods, Iíd be fine. Other than a jerkbait rod, there would be no light line on any of them. I figure I won't be using much water to catch the fish Iím after.
ďItís a fairly easy lake to pattern in that once you find something thatís holding fish thereís a million other places that look just like it. Itís like that on a lot of rock-and-docks lakes around the country.
Alton Jones is predicting a blizzard will hit Oklahoma during the week of the Classic.
ďA lot of it will depend on the weather between now and then. The research that I did, the fish are relatively shallow in that lake all of the time and thatís attributable to the water color. Itís not gin clear. It has a good stain to it. It was 4 to 5 feet in the clearest parts. The lake has a reputation for fish staying shallow and that may be 10 to 12 feet or it could be 2 feet. Iím betting thereís not anything thatís real off the wall that ends up winning this tournament. Itíll probably be a jerkbait, crankbait, jig or maybe some spinnerbait and a little finesse.Ē
> Classic appearances: 11
> Best finish: 5th (2010, Lay Lake and 2011, Louisiana Delta)
ďI spent 5 or 6 days there and normally I wouldnít go to a lake that I know so well, but itís been a while since I fished there other than the summer and I wanted to go there and fish it with a fresh set of eyes, I guess you could say, and with my skill level now compared to 10 years ago when I used to fish it a lot. I didnít even download any of the waypoints I had from any of the previous years. I just wanted to go and mark new stuff and look at it from a February standpoint.
ďItís what I grew up doing. That type of water Ė Grand Lake Ė I didnít fish it a lot that time of year, but I fished Lake of the Ozarks a lot in February and Table Rock. Itís an upland reservoir and the lake I live on is essentially a mini-Grand Lake, so Iím going to get plenty of practice time and I have plenty of experience fishing for those types of fish. I know how those fish react and set up that time of year so the lake that I live on is going to get a lot fishing time from now until February between tuning baits and honing the skills I think will be necessary to win that tournament.
ďItís a big lake and thereís no way in the 3 days when we come back for practice that a guy can go and fish the entire lake. When we go back I feel like Iím going to have the lake pretty narrowed down to where I want to focus my time and go from there. Iíve got like 650 waypoints, but like I told a buddy of mine, three-quarters of them I may not even look at, but at least I have them in case Plan B has to be executed, Iíve got those options there.
ďPersonally, Iíd just assume have it be cold just because I donít want the whole can of worms to be opened as far as possibilities of techniques. Iíd rather have it to be somewhat tough and fall into the stuff Iíd prefer to do.Ē
> Classic appearances: 14
> Best finish: 1st (2008, Lake Hartwell)
ďItís a big lake and certainly from a fishing standpoint, 3 days is not nearly enough time to see everything. You can see most it, though, or at least the parts that are going to be viable when we come back in 2 months.
"More than anything, I wanted to learn the personality of the lake. Every lake has its own unique personality and I try to take that and see if I can connect with other similar lakes Iíve fished. My real goal was to get enough information so that when we have 3 1/2 days of practice in February that Iím fishing smart. I donít want to have to learn it all over again. I came away excited. It has a lot of similar type formations to Lake Whitney near where I live. I grew up guiding there and loved the wintertime fishing there, so I have a good baseline to work from.
"I eliminated things like big, giant flats. For this Classic, the water youíre going to be fishing will likely need deep-water access nearby. Iím not saying thatís a certainty, but they wonít be a mile back on a 5-mile long flat. The biggest challenge weíre going to face is the potential for bad weather. Iím calling it right now Ė the blizzard of 2013 will hit Tulsa during the 2013 Classic. We just seem to bring cataclysmic weather events everywhere we go."