By Todd Ceisner
We all remember what happened the last time an FLW Tour Open was held on the Tennessee River in the fall.
In case you’ve been asleep in a cuddy cabin since last Halloween, Paul Elias buried the field at the Lake Guntersville Open last October with a new method, apparatus, bait, lure – however you want to phrase it – called The Alabama Rig. His dominating win essentially spawned a whole new segment of the tackle market over the ensuing months.
The Elite Series pro who’s no stranger to opening anglers’ eyes to new techniques – anyone heard of kneeling and reeling? – used the multi-lure rig to catch more than 100 pounds of bass at a time when most in the field felt 70 would suffice for the win.
But that was last year and that was on Guntersville, the eastern neighbor of Wheeler Lake, site of this week’s FLW Tour Open. Those expecting an even remotely similar outcome will be deeply disappointed.
While some would believe the reservoirs fish similarly because of their proximity to each other, Wheeler has been a lake in flux in recent years, as anglers have seen its plentiful vegetation flat-out disappear, a mystery that remains unsolved. When the Elite Series wrapped up its 2011 season at Wheeler last June, the steady refrain from competitors was that it wasn’t the same lake they remembered from previous visits.
"It's really, really bad – you can't hardly get a dang bite,” Jeff Kriet told BassFan for its Scouting Report then. “It's crazy. I don't even know how to catch 12-inchers and I feel like I've tried just about everything.”
"This place looks sick and I don't know what's up,” echoed Matt Reed. “It's hard to imagine, with as many fish as you usually catch here, that it's this hard to catch one now. I'm a little bewildered, to say the least.”
There are fish to be caught at Wheeler, for sure, but the quality won’t come close to what’s swimming in Guntersville or Pickwick to the west. This week, a 3-pounder may well be considered a kicker.
Practice this week was highlighted by two solid days of rain that put a significant amount of water in the system and overnight temperatures have plunged into the 40s – the first real cold snap of the year for the area. The water came up about 2 feet and bluebird skies along with some high pressure are expected to settle in later in the week, so there’s no telling what’s in store for the field, which will fall well short of the 100-boat mark this week.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Wheeler
> Type of water: Lowland impoundment
> Surface acres: 67,000
> Primary structure/cover: Flats, buckbrush, docks, ditches, humps, channel swings, mussel beds
> Primary forage: Shad
> Average depth: 20 to 25 feet
> Species: Largemouths, smallmouths, spots
> Minimum length: 12 inches
> Reputation: Unpredictable – can serve up a good bag one day and nearly nothing the next
> Weather: Comfortable with light winds, overnight lows in the low 50s
> Water temp: Upper 70s to low 80s
> Water visibility/color: 1 to 3 feet (depending on location)/tinted to stained
> Water level: Normal pool
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Mostly summer with some early-fall transition
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, jigs, umbrella rigs, worms, jerkbaits, finesse (a little of everything)
> Winning weight: 57 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 19 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Wheeler
> Biggest factors: Current. It’s a safe bet the TVA will be moving water through after the early-week rains.
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow. Fish are scattered from bank to ledges.
> Wildcard: Umbrella rig. Water temperatures might fall enough to trigger some schooling action.
Still No Grass
Elite Series pro Tim Horton, who lives in Muscle Shoals, Ala., a few miles west of Wheeler, is still confounded by the disturbing lack of vegetation throughout the lake. It doesn’t square in his mind with the growth on other Tennessee River impoundments.
“It doesn’t make sense because it’s the strongest it’s ever been below there on Pickwick and above it on Guntersville,” he said. “In the mid-90s, it grew better on Wheeler than it did grow on Pickwick or Wilson. It was all milfoil and there was just a little bit of hydrilla. The strange thing about it was it grew on the non-developed area of the lake so there would’ve been no landowners that would’ve had a problem with it. No boating could’ve been done because it was backwoods cypress swamps that were thriving with it.”
Randall Tharp is still puzzled by the steady decline in vegetation at Wheeler.
With the cypress mostly cut now, he still doesn’t understand why it stopped thriving.
“There was no reason why it should’ve ever had chemicals on it and I don’t know that’s what it was,” he added. “There’s strong speculation that’s what it was. Whatever it was it was in the soil because if it wasn’t in the soil, it’d be growing. It’s just a big mystery here with all the locals and it really affected the lake in a not-so-good way.”
Horton’s not alone in his bewilderment. Some FLW Tour pros who live in northern Alabama can't wrap their heads around it either – how Wheeler has gone from a fishing destination to an afterthought.
“Not only is there no milfoil – this place used to be full of it – but even the places where the pads used to grow really good, they’re about one-third of what they used to be,” said Randall Tharp, an FLW Tour pro who hails from Gardendale, Ala. “I don’t know what’s causing the decline, but it’s really crazy to me.
“This used to be a lake where you could come and catch 100 1 1/2- to 2-pounders a day and now those are really hard to come by. I don’t know if those fish are gone or what’s going on.”
While cloud cover and soaking rains dominated the official practice days, the conditions are expected to clear up for the tournament. With Wednesday's off day between practice and competition, there’s no telling what kind of lake will greet the field Thursday morning.
The consensus among the pros BassFan queried for this report was that it’ll sure be different and most believe the rains and falling temperature could activate a more consistent bite.
“I’m sure there are certain areas of the river that are going to be pretty trashed up and there will be some places that won’t be affected at all,” Tharp said. “It’s definitely going to change things up and we’re going to have to go fishing during the tournament.”
Typically, Wheeler is a place an angler can go fish his or her strength and be able to get bit, but let’s not forget it’s mid-September, notoriously one of the tough-bite times of the year down South. As Horton points out, though, there will be plenty of options for anglers to look at.
“Something new that’s been happening this year that’s won a couple tournaments is below the Guntersville dam, guys have been catching smallmouth up there,” said Horton, who’s not fishing the event. “There might be some guys who feel like they could go up there and catch spotted bass and smallmouth and win. It could also be deep cranking that wins or somebody throwing a topwater.”
And it’s safe to assume most will have an umbrella rig tied on and at the ready this week. Some fish have been stuck in practice with it, but some pros feel it’s not quite prime time for it to dominate like it did last autumn.
“It may be just a little early, but it very well could be a factor with those fish starting to suspend,” Horton said. “If it were a little later, I’d say for sure, but there’s still a real good chance it could be won on it.”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“(The rain’s) definitely going to change things. From the time practice started they probably sucked almost 2 feet of water out of the lake. Typically, they draw this place down in the fall, but I think they were just preparing for the rain. I have no idea what it’s going to look like for the tournament, but it’s going to be different.
“I know this lake pretty well and I just wanted to fish my strength so I’ve been concentrating all my efforts fishing shallow.
Takahiro's Omori has as good of a record at Wheeler as anyone in the field this week.
“This is a big body of water and there are tons of rivers and long, long creeks that flow into this thing. You’re definitely going to have to go fishing. I’m sure there are some areas that I was planning on fishing that I’m not going to be able to fish now. You’re just going to have to make good decisions.”
“It’s going to be one of those wild and crazy tournaments, which I’ve seen before here on Wheeler. I have an idea of what I want to do and how I want to do it, but I’m just going to have to see how it goes. It’s been hard to figure much out during practice that’s going to work during the tournament.
“You accept that when you come to Wheeler Lake in September that, no matter the conditions, it’s not going to be a free-for-all. It’s going to be a low-weight tournament and then when you have conditions like we have right now that are drastically changing, it makes it cut and dried for me. It takes a lot of guesswork out of it. I’m going to do what I need to do to fish under sunny conditions with muddy water. I’m going to pick up a flipping stick and a crankbait rod and go to work.
“I was surprised the water temperatures are in the 80s. I was thinking it’d be in the 70s and the Alabama Rig might come into play. I’ve caught a few fish on it, but it just doesn’t seem to be wide open and I think it’s because the water temperature’s still higher on the river. In the creeks, there’s no telling how cool the water’s going to get. It all depends on how much runoff we get over the next couple days.”
“I think the cooler weather this time of year helps out. I could be wrong, but it can’t get much worse. It’s been really tough. The main thing has been trying to get bites. I can’t say I’m just fishing for 2 1/2- or 3-pounders like you’re going to need here. I just want to get bites. I think 2 1/2s and 2 3/4s are going to go a really long way in this tournament.
“We fished by some industrial water pipes and it’s mind-boggling how much water is coming into the lake. The creeks are at least going to change. I don’t know if the fish are going to leave or not. We had some bites in creeks where the water was fairly clear, maybe a foot-and-a-half deep and if it gets completely muddy, you’ll just probably have to change the way you’re catching them. I’m trying to find stuff on the main river because if I find something in a creek and it completely changes, I want to have a backup plan.
“I’ve been throwing the Alabama Rig, but I’m not really catching them on it. The water is still 80 degrees and I think the water needs to cool down some more for it to really come into play. Who knows, though? I think on the Tennessee River, any tournament could be won on it now. It’s just a matter of the fish being willing to bite it.”
“I haven’t had a great practice so I don’t know how all the rain is going to affect the fish. I think it’s good that the day off is going to be the coldest night and the coolest day we’ve had. I can’t see it really putting any kind of damper on them. The only thing that might happen to some people is their area might muddy up some if they were back in the creeks. For the most part, I really don’t think it’s going to affect anything.
“Wheeler can surprise you and it can take 20 pounds a day, but normally 15 pounds a day should be in the hunt this time of year. I haven’t really had a 15-pound day yet. I feel like I’ve got one thing working that I can probably catch a limit on, but weight-wise I don’t have a clue (what’ll be good). It could be 8 pounds or 15 pounds.
Paul Elias didn't have a strong practice, but has caught some fish on The Alabama Rig.
“I’ve caught some on (the Alabama Rig) and I think I’ll catch some on it in the tournament. It’s not anything like it could be in another 30 days or so. The water just hasn’t cooled off enough. They were really pushing the water today and there’s been current every day, which surprised me. We even had current on Sunday. If they generated this past weekend, hopefully they’ll continue that. As long they’re moving water, there’s going to be some fish caught on the Tennessee River system.”
“We’ve got high water and much different conditions, but that might be good. The fish aren’t biting out deep too good. I’m still going to say about 15 pounds a day is probably going to win. The conditions are really pretty tough. The fish are really scattered. They’re not on the bottom. There are some fish biting on top, but it’s a lot of small fish. I found a few fish, but not a real big wad of them.
"Usually, it doesn’t do anything for a day or so, but after 2 or 3 days, the fish will start adjusting to the water. I think it’ll make the fish come up even more. There are already some fish up, so that’s out of my league of fishing unfortunately, but that’s usually what happens.
“We’ve got a big-time bluebird (sky) day today and if that continues and the high pressure stays in here, then that’s going to bring flipping back into play and that’s probably who’s going to win this tournament – someone who’s a really good flipper or pitcher. Just because the water’s come up and usually bluebird and high-pressure days means the fish aren’t going to be chasing a whole lot, so you’ll have to drop it on their head.”
“It’s been like usual down here – tougher than nails. In my estimation, if a man catches 12 1/2 pounds a day, he’s probably got a chance to win. It may take more than that. I’ve said that before over at Guntersville in the fall because it’s usually takes 14 a day to win there and then the Alabama Rig came out. I just don’t think they’re biting it this time of year. I don’t know if the water’s still too warm or if they got conditioned to it. Wheeler’s not noted for its big fish catches anyway.
"I’m going to fish shallow the whole tournament. I won’t make a cast to anything over 5 feet deep. I’m going to fish the way I like to fish and if it works out, it works out. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s all I have. Typically, this time of year on the Tennessee River that’s a real good game plan. I just fished the (Watts Bar Lake) Super BFL back home and did really good in it and that’s the way I fished. The shallow fish just get on a feed pattern this time of year and to me they’re a little easier to catch. It’s more target fishing. It’s my comfort zone."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Bryan Thrift – As good as there is at piecing things together on the fly, which could be the way this one shakes out.
2. Takahiro Omori – Few in the field have a better history at Wheeler than the 2004 Classic champ with six Top-35 finishes there since ’02, including a 12th last year and a 3rd in ’09 – both springtime Elite Series events.
3. Mark Rose – He’s among the best at fishing ledges and Wheeler has plenty of them. He won at Pickwick last year and is coming off a 3rd-place finish at the Arkansas River PAA Series.
4. Jay Yelas – Over his last 10 events, he’s logged a Top-10 finish in every other one. After a 56th at the Detroit River Open, logic says he’s due for another strong showing. Influx of water should open up some shallow-water opportunities for the flipping guru.
5. Jonathan Newton – Hasn’t had a Top-10 in a Tour event since 2004, but Wheeler’s his home lake and he has a stellar track record at Pickwick and Guntersville. Stained water should suit his style.
6. Paul Elias – Despite not having a great history at Wheeler, shallow cranking could be a major player this week and that makes him a threat.
7. David Dudley – He’s always a threat, especially in what’s expected to be a tough-bite event.
8. Russ Lane – Has a handful of decent results at Wheeler, albeit they weren’t in September events, but he’s pretty confident in what he’ll need to do to catch ‘em.
9. Jim Moynagh – It’s the Tennessee River system and that always means a jig bite is in play. Few are better at mining deep water with a football head.
10. J.T. Kenney – He’s got a soft spot now for offshore structure, but he’s also tough with a flipping stick in hand.
> Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. CT all 4 days from Ingalls Harbor (802 Wilson Street, Decatur, Ala.). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3 p.m. at Ingalls Harbor (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will begin at 4 p.m. at the Walmart store located at 2800 Spring Ave. SW in Decatur.
> Thurs., Sept. 20 – Sunny - 80°/50°
- Wind: From the SSW at 2 to 4 mph
> Fri., Sept. 21 – Partly Sunny - 81°/55°
- Wind: From the SSW at 5 to 9 mph
> Sat., Sept. 22 – Partly Cloudy, Thunderstorm Possible - 75°/49°
- Wind: From the N at 7 to 13 mph
> Sun., Sept. 23 – Partly Cloudy - 75°/45°
- Wind: From the ENE at 8 to 13 mph
> Luke Clausen says he's just "goin' fishing" once things get underway tomorrow. To check out his practice recap, click here to Go On Tour With BassFan Big Sticks.