By Todd Ceisner
Alright, Guntersville. It's time.
Time to find out if you're going to live up to the hype.
Is this going to be the Classic we tell our grandkids about, a slugfest for the ages where bulging bags of brawny pre-spawn Tennessee River bass steal the show and B.A.S.S. needs to send its record book to the printers?
Or will we find that the historically bitter cold winter that only recently relinquished its firm grip on this part of the country knocked the fish for such a loop that BassFans will miss seeing Lake Guntersville's true potential?
Since it was announced back in late 2012 that Guntersville would be the venue for this year's Bassmaster Classic, proclamations such as, "They're going to wreck 'em" and "All of the records will be broken" have been tossed around like a lipless crankbait there.
This week, we get to find out if the big talkers were right and if enough big fish are willing to play along.
Guntersville's only other turn in the Classic spotlight came in 1976, when Rick Clunn won the first of his four Classic titles. Since then, the lake's reputation has grown to a point where it's annually ranked among the best bass-fishing lakes in the country.
Because of its status, the lake receives an immense amount of year-round fishing pressure and still it continues to churn out big fish, and bags of them. Twice it's taken in excess of 100 pounds to win Elite Series events at the lake nestled in the northeast corner of Alabama.
Some competitors are wondering if the fish got a bit of a break this winter with the wicked cold that enveloped the region. Not too long ago, some of Guntersville's creek arms had a layer of ice on them.
Just before the 3-day practice period last weekend, the region was covered by a blanket of snow with some areas seeing 6-plus inches. When the Classic competitors launched their boats last Friday, ramps were icy and water temperatures were in the upper 30s and low 40s.
The snow is long gone and the water has started to warm up this week, which should prompt some fish to start moving. There's a chance the early portion of day 1 will see some rain before the sun moves in for the weekend. Such a scenario could set the table for this to be the Classic to be at, much less win.
"This is starting to look like a slow fastball over the middle of the plate and it's going to get creamed," said David Walker, who's set to fish his ninth career Classic. "The fish are here and the fishermen to do it are here. I just don't see the records hanging in there. This will be a slugfest."
The feeling at the ramp Wednesday afternoon following the final day of practice was that things didn't improve the way some had anticipated. The water temperature rose a few degrees, but it didn't lead to an all-out migration of fish. Quality will far outweigh quantity, at least early on, and it sounds like a fair number of competitors will be targeting the shallows, hoping to be there when some more pre-spawners arrive.
In recent weeks, it's taken 30-plus pounds to win 1-day tournaments at Guntersville, but that seems to be standard in any pre-spawn event here in which the umbrella rig is allowed. Classic competitors won't have the rig at their disposal this week, which likely means it'll take a combination of a couple or three effective patterns in order to reel in a Classic title. Adjusting on the fly will be paramount as this is among the few times of the year when things can change literally overnight.
One competitor told BassFan that he had 25 pounds in his boat by 10 a.m. on one practice day, then didn't catch a fish the following day.
Because it's been the venue for so many past events, there are very few secrets remaining about Guntersville – this is the 12th Classic to take place in Alabama. Community holes will again be just that. Spectator boat traffic will undoubtedly be a factor, as will timing of being at certain spots. Will the morning bite turn on or will it be a predominantly afternoon big bite event?
So many crucial questions remain. Maybe that's why this is shaping up to be the Classic of all Classics.
Before getting into more about how the event could play out, here's a quick snapshot of the lake.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Guntersville
> Type of water: Lowland reservoir fed by the Tennessee River
> Surface acres: Approximately 70,000
> Primary structure/cover: Grass (hydrilla and milfoil), ledges, creek channels, humps, riprap, boat docks
> Average depth: Roughly 15 feet
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass
> Reputation: Big-bass factory that sustains itself despite an incredible amount of fishing pressure.
> Primary forage: Shad
> Weather: Things have warmed up considerably this week, but a cold front is due to bring in some rain Thursday night into Friday morning. The weekend looks pretty clear with negligible winds
> Water temp: Mid-40s and rising
> Water visibility/color: Decent stain in most creeks, heavy stain in main river
> Water level: About a foot below full pool
> Fish in: 2 to 12 feet
> Fish phase: Winter/pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits (lipless and lipped), jerkbaits, swimbaits, jigs, spinnerbaits
> Winning weight: 71 pounds (3 days)
> Cut weight (Top 25 after 2 days): 30 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2.5 for Guntersville
> Biggest factors: Decision-making. It's always a major factor, but even moreso at the Classic where every zig or zag could unlock the path to glory or derail someone's title hopes.
> Wild card: Up north. Whomever chooses to vacate the lower and middle portions of the lake in favor of the historically good upper end north of Goose Pond could tap into something they could have to themselves.
Bill Lowen says he's able to get bites with a multitude of baits in a variety of places.
Something in the Water
Alex Davis is an FLW Tour angler who also operates the Spinnerbait Kid Guide Service at Lake Guntersville. He won a Rayovac Series at Guntersville and a BFL in 2012 and has racked up five other Top-10 finishes in FLW events there since 2010, including a pair of runner-up showings.
Prior to his leaving for Florida for the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour earlier in the month, Davis said water temperatures were around 37 degrees. It jumped to 41 for the BFL event there on Feb. 8, but that was in advance of the most recent wintry blast that dumped several inches of snow across northeastern Alabama.
Now that daytime highs are getting into the 50s and 60s, Davis senses the water will start to warm up and once that happens, the fish are going to react in kind.
"I'd say it'll get to 45 or 47 (by the Classic)," he said. "There was a pretty good stain and it was muddy in some places with some clear water, but I think it'll clear up a lot. We were getting all that snow, but we're not getting any rain. We had so much rain and wind this winter, the river would get super muddy and then just about the time everything would clear up to a stain, we'd get another round of 35-mile-an-hour winds for 3 days.
"I think there will be a slight stain with the water getting clearer and water temps in the mid 40s."
He says it's a great recipe for a fantastic pre-spawn Classic.
"They're going to break every record there's ever been in the Classic," he said without an ounce of hesitation. "The fishing was unbelievable around the first of the year. I fished a tournament on Jan. 1 with a friend and we caught like 70 fish and had almost 30 pounds. It was just one big school.
"It got really, really cold and the fishing got tough in the last 2 weeks just because it's been so miserably cold. They haven't fed up or done their thing in like 2 1/2 weeks and they're wanting to and it's fixing to blow wide-open."
Up until Clunn plucked more than 24 pounds of bass out of a small grass bed during the 1976 Classic, Guntersville had been just another lake along the Tennessee River.
No secret has been made of the TVA and other agencies' attempts over the years to rid the lake of Eurasian milfoil, which is considered an invasive species. In the 1990s, much of the vegetation in the lake was wiped out and the fishing quality suffered. As the grass has come back so have the big bass and those who seek them.
Guntersville's grass, be it hydrilla or milfoil, will get plenty of attention this week, at least what's left of it.
The frigid winter has ravaged a lot of areas where just a few months ago, grass was lush and matted out on top. Dead grass is everywhere and in places where there is some lively green stuff, it's not near as thick as it usually is this time of year.
Finding the right combination of grass in the right depth with deeper water nearby will be crucial, says Davis.
"I think you'll see some guys catching them around rock and the steep creek-channel stuff, but to me it'll be won in the grass," he said. "You'll always have the deep riprap around bridges to worry about, but you won't see the majority of guys fishing rock or flipping a jig at stumps or laydowns. The grass will be the main thing."
Davis didn't fully dismiss the possibly that wood would play a role this week. It's been a big producer in past pre-spawn events. In fact, David Fritts cranked wood to win the Guntersville FLW Tour in February 2009. Still, he insists grass will be among the main attractions.
"There's so much (grass), it can't all die off at the same time," Davis said. "There are places that a month ago I was catching them and I went there a week and a half ago and there was no grass. If there's grass within 50 yards, that's where the fish go."
Tie One On
When asked which five baits he'd have ready if he were competing in this year's Classic, Davis listed a lipless crankbait, a jerkbait, a square-bill crankbait and a single swimbait on a jighead.
"The fifth one, you can have back," he joked. "This Classic will be won on an (XCalibur) Xr50 in red. I'd only need one rod, but if I had four, those would be the ones."
He said jigs could be effective along certain stretches if someone is willing to slow down.
"A friend of mine has been catching great big ones on a jig, but that's a local thing and he's spending 5 hours on a 20-yard stretch of the river channel," Davis noted. "That's something the Classic guys will not find unless someone took them out before the cutoff and said, 'You need to fish this 20-yard section.'"
As far as lipped crankbaits go, Davis doesn't feel they'll be a major player since the fish will be migrating toward the bank.
"I believe a Rat-L-Trap will outproduce a series 4 or series 5 (crankbait) on the edge of the grass because you can fish it so much slower," he said. "Right now, the grass is so weird that you'll be fishing and let's say you're in 9 feet and the grass is 2 feet off the bottom. The thing with the Trap is you can fish it efficiently and get it through there every cast. With the crankbait, the way the grass is growing, you might fish 20 yards and not have a problem, but then you'll hit a big thick patch where it's 5 feet off the bottom and cast after cast you're getting hung up and you're getting frustrated knocking the grass off the bait."
Areas to Watch
In the below map, Davis opened up his playbook for BassFan and broke down some of the best places on the lake and offered up his take on the general makeup of the areas and what role they could play this week:
Records in Jeopardy
Since B.A.S.S. moved the Classic to late winter (February) in 2006, the average winning weight has been a shade over 54 1/2 pounds, or roughly 18 pounds and change per day. Only one angler has broken the 55-pound mark during that time – Kevin VanDam at the Louisiana Delta in 2011 when he finished with 69-11, the highest winning weight in the five-bass limit era. The overall individual weight record belongs to Clunn, who caught 75-09 at the Arkansas River in 1984 when the creel limit was seven fish.
Since '06, there have been 35 bags in excess of 20 pounds caught during the Classic (about 4.5 per event) with the majority of those coming at Lake Toho in 2006 (nine), the Red River in 2009 (10) and the Louisiana Delta in 2011 (nine). Some believe BassFans could see double-digit 20-pound stringers on day 1 alone this week.
Someone will need to average roughly 23 1/2 pounds to beat VanDam's modern-day mark and what's scary is that potentially might not be enough to win. If the conditions are right, Clunn's mark could be in play, too.
For a reference point, George Cochran's 3-day total at the Guntersville Bassmaster Tour event in late February 2004 was 69-11. Three other anglers, including VanDam, also eclipsed the 60-pound mark after 3 days that year.
When the Tour returned the following February, Edwin Evers was the day-3 leader with 62-09. There should be plenty of bags in the 20-pound range. The question is whether someone can carry it through all 3 days and collide with a couple 7-pounders each day.
Since 2006, there have been 13 BFL events held in February at Guntersville. The average winning weight for those 1-day tournaments has been just shy of 27 pounds, with a high of 34-00 (caught on an Alabama Rig) and a low of 22-00. Of the five events held during the third week of the month, the average winning weight was nearly a pound heavier at 27-13.
So what's it all mean?
It means Guntersville has been and still is full of fat fish – the kind that help pros break venerable records. This doesn't figure to be a big numbers tournament in terms of fish caught, but the quality of fish BassFans will see may rival any previous Classic.
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I live below the Douglas (Lake) Dam at the beginning of the Tennessee River and even parts of Douglas had ice on them. I've never seen it freeze like that. It's been stupid cold. I was curious as to what it would do to these fish because they've probably never seen a winter like this. It seems like they'll be just fine (chuckles). It looks like they're going to survive. At this point, I'm anticipating a better event than what I thought just because it had been so bitter cold.
David Walker is among those who feel many of the Classic records are jeopardy of being broken this week.
"This is maybe the coldest water I've ever practiced in, but this lake has too many big fish in it. I don't think the numbers will be great, but the potential to catch eight or nine fish and have a 30-pound bag is definitely there. I'd be surprised if that doesn't happen. I'm looking forward to getting out there. I want to be in on the action. I just want to be in the mix. I don't want to look back and say, 'Yeah, I was there.' It's going to be one for the record books. What else could you want?"
"A lot of the grass has disappeared. With the cold winter we've had, it's killed a lot of the grass. It's usually a lot thicker right now. That seems to be the case all over the lake. It's tough to find good green hydrilla or milfoil. We haven't had a lot of sun so that's knocked it back.
"I didn't really have a great practice, especially (Saturday and Sunday). It was pretty tough to find schools or areas with a bunch of fish. It was really one here or one there. I haven't found what I'm looking for yet.
"It's real hard to say what this warm trend will do. I think a bunch of fish will move up. It's been such a cold winter. It's been the coldest winter I can remember here. I've never heard of creeks freezing over at Guntersville. I saw pictures of Browns Creek completely frozen over. That in itself changes things from what it's been like in the past.
"This lake you never know where it'll won at. That's the hard part about it. It's so good from the top to bottom. I haven't been up north like from Goose Pond up. In years past, a lot of tournaments have been won up there. I just feel comfortable on the middle and lower parts. That's where I'll fish, but it could be won up there."
"I was here in October and it's a lot different. There's a lot less grass now, but I knew most of it would be gone. It did help seeing it when it was matted out, though, because it gave me a reference for how the weed lines lay out.
"I still feel like I have work to do. I don't feel like I've found what I need yet to win. I feel like the guy who wins will have to adapt every day so it might not be a bad thing that I'm still looking. I've explored a good majority of the whole lake to get an idea of how things lay out. At this point, I don't know which way I'm going to go.
"When you have drastic changes (in water temperature), you can have it where it gets really good, which happens in the spring. I've also seen it where it's so drastic so early that the fish aren't quite ready to move and it shuts them down some. I don't know yet which one this will be. Just because you've found some warmer water doesn't mean the fish will be there."
"It's a typical grass lake. There are some areas with grass and some areas where there's not much. I've seen a lot of dead grass, but that's typical for this time of year, especially with how cold it's been here. The more lively grass will be a player. Whether or not it'll be won that way, I can't say, but there will definitely be some top finishers doing that technique.
"The fish are in that later winter phase, but this warming trend should help us out some. For me, it's been hard to build confidence in one deal and push it. I caught one doing this and one doing that. The guy who's willing to adapt on the fly (will do well). It's that time of year when things can change overnight. You may go to a spot where you got two bites in practice and wreck them in the tournament. You just have to anticipate changes and go with your gut and try to put yourself in an area where the potential exists to win this tournament."
"I know this lake really, really well and most of us do. We've had many tournaments here and we're all bumping around on the same stuff, shallow and deep. It's a horrible practice for me. I've been having a hard time getting a bite.
"I know they're out there. I'm watching the locals catch them on the Alabama Rig and that's frustrating. I'm talking big ones. They're in that mode. I think it'll be won on a jerkbait. I've tried it, but can't get it going. I've had some Rat-L-Trap bites and a little of this and that. I think a lot of guys are moving further up the river to the stained water. They can catch 20 to 25 pounds up there, but whomever can get on the consistent 30-pound bags down here will win it. Right now, that's not me."
"The same stuff that was tough last week was tough again today even though the water was 8 to 10 degrees warmer. I didn't catch any more fish.
"I keep going where I think they're going to be and for me they haven't been there yet. I can catch a few keepers, but that's about it. I've gone all the way to the Tennessee border, but most of my better fish have been down here."
"I have a little confidence if I can get to where I want to be by myself. Anywhere there's fish there's going to be a pile of boats – locals and tournament guys.
"The water's warmed up maybe 5 degrees. They're coming and what I tried to do in practice is look for places where they would be. When the water got into the 50s, I felt like if I could catch a few when I got into those places, if it warmed up some more, it would bring more fish in. Maybe it'll play to my favor."
"I'm throwing a Trap and that's all I'm going to do. Maybe swim a jig or a ChatterBait or spinnerbait, but that's it."
"There were a few big fish moved up shallow, but they're still kind of funky. I found some warm water and caught a couple good ones, but I don’t know if there's just not that many of them pulled up or what.
"I'm going to fish shallow. I think it's the best chance at catching big ones that way.
"It's still pretty slow. The water warmed up a little bit, but the fishing didn't get that much better. We could use a little more sunshine. I don't think it's going to be easy like a lot of guys think. I think it's going to take all day to catch five. They might be big, but it's going to take all day.
"There's just not a lot of fish sitting in places where you can sit there and catch them so it's going to be a hustler's tournament with a long time in between bites for me. I've looked from above BB Comer (bridge) to the dam, just trying to stay in the right patches of grass and tried to find the greenest grass, but it's just as hard to find some green grass as it is to find a fish. Once you find it, you hope you can go back and fish it and get bit."
"It's not quite like what I wanted to see yet. I'm going to have to work. I'm basically committed shallow. There's not much grass like there usually is.
Mike Iaconelli has won at Guntersville before, but wasn't thrilled with the number of bites he got in practice.
"They said it was the coldest January on record here and I didn't believe it could do what it did to the grass, but it killed it. I thought it would clean it out a little, but I didn't think it would decimate it like it did."
"It was a lot more of the same (as the first 3 days). I tried to do the same thing in the same places and it was pretty painful, painful. I had a couple of bites, but I ended up figuring something out. It's something I like to do. I had fun in one place and got bit at five out of six stops.
"Some of them were a little different, but it was the same type of deal. I don't feel like I found the fish to win, but I feel like I can catch 18 to 20 pounds and then go play around. I feel much better. Whether I can do well in the tournament, I don't know, but I'm going to have fun."
"I do like that the water is warming up because I feel like it gives you more freedom on bait choice. I can go into the grass and catch some, but I feel like I'll just be one of the guys going through the grass patches. I don't know how you win when you're one of 14 guys doing the same thing going through the same grass.
"I felt like I needed to find something different. I spent a lot of time looking at something out of the norm. I think seven of the Top 10 will be (fishing grass), but I think a couple of the Top 4 or 5 will be doing something a little different. There's too many fish in a place like this where it all doesn't have to be about the grass."
"I'm locked in on an area, not so much a bait. I always try to get in an area and try to figure out multiple ways to catch them in that area. I don't have to spend a lot of time running around. That said, what I found the first 3 days did not work today. I scrambled around and did what I thought I should do and it worked out really well. It surprised me how well.
"For me, it's going to be a combination of things. I'm fishing the way I like to fish – junk-fishing. I'm fishing four or five different deals – rock, wood, grass, dirty water, clean water. It'll be a matter of getting the right bites. I have to go through a lot of 3-pounders to catch a 5."
"The fishing's been finicky for me. I've had one good day where I could've weighed about 29 pounds, but I fished all day and only had eight bites. Today, I only caught little fish and didn't find what I expected to find. It's fishing and you have to keep hustling. I'm around them. I just have to get them to bite."
"Today was as tough as the first 3 days. I've had a pretty miserable practice to be honest with you. I'm not disappointed, but I'm hopeful. I was worried I might have a hard time deciding between areas and spots, but I'm sort of limited to a couple areas and some hunt-and-peck type places after that.
"I really thought today would be a chance for the fish to show us something. They haven't responded yet for me. I have a couple things I think I can do to catch some fish, but I haven't spent enough time on them to really know what the potential is. It could end up being really good or I could just be hanging in there.
"I have a starting area in mind and I'll just go from there. Hopefully the fish will tell me what I need to do. Hopefully, they'll tell me I need to stay."
"In my mind, I was thinking it was going to be wide open today. I thought the bites would be just everywhere. It seemed like we had the perfect storm of warm nights and clearing water, but it wasn't like that for me. The good news was in 3 days of pre-practice, I had 10 bites total. Today, I had seven. My average is up, but I'm still not around those big numbers and that scares me a little bit.
"The average size is really good, but there's just not a lot of bites. Whenever you're getting five or seven bites a day, it scares you. I feel like I know what I need to do and I feel like I've got some good areas, but I'm unable to generate a lot of strikes."
"I got on a pattern, but I don't feel like it's the winning fish. We're all looking for that clue that will get us dialed in.
"I have an area I want to fish. I caught one big one there in practice and had a couple other bites. Whether I can even catch one there again, I have no idea. The weather will determine a lot. There are fish moving up and I had more bites today than I did in practice. That was a plus. They're just keepers, though."
"I actually feel pretty good. The first three days were rough and I totally changed my game plan and I worked out a little deal today where I caught six keepers and got probably 10 bites. I think I can expand off of that and I found some areas that look good, so I found a pattern. That's a big deal.
"I took into consideration if a local starts where I wanted to be, you may need to leave. I feel like I can run and gun so I feel good about that. I think you'll see a Top 10 in Mud Creek, but I don't think you can win it there. Last week, you could have."
> Anglers will take off at 7:15 a.m. CT Friday through Sunday from City Harbor (201 Blount Ave., Guntersville, Ala.). Weigh-ins will be held at the BJCC Arena (2100 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd., Birmingham, AL). Doors open at 3 p.m. CT.
> The Classic Outdoor Expo will take place at the BJCC, just next door to the arena. Hours are noon to 8 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
> Fri., Feb. 21 – Scattered morning thunderstorms, then partly cloudy - 57°/30°
- Wind: From the ENE at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., Feb. 22 – Partly Sunny - 60°/30°
- Wind: From the NW at 6 to 13 mph
> Sun., Feb. 23 – Partly Sunny - 57°/33°
- Wind: From the NE at 5 to 7 mph
> Brent Chapman had a tough practice, but feels like that could be a good thing entering the Classic. Aaron Martens, meanwhile, went hunting for big fish on Wednesday and came up mostly empty. Click here to read about their Classic preparations in BassFan's ProView Report.