By Todd Ceisner
The FLW Tour hits the halfway point of its season this week at one of its favorite destinations Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas. It's the 11th time since 2000 that the Tour has set up shop at the reservoir on the White River and while some have grown tired of the nearly annual trek to the lake nestled in the Ozark Mountains, it figures to yet again present a formidable challenge to the field of more than 170 pros.
As frequently as the Tour has come to Beaver, one would think certain waypoints would just get worn out such as the area around Prairie Creek, but water levels, water temperature, spawning phase and other factors combine to throw a slightly different lake at the competitors each year and this week is no exception.
"I get kind of bored with (this lake)," said Brent Ehrler, the current leader in the FLW Tour Angler of the Year (AOY) standings through two events. "You get sick of fishing the same stuff and every time you're here, you rotate through the same areas and try to figure out how they're biting. For having fished here so many times, you'd think you could just run to where they bit before and expect it to be the same, but it's not like that. It's different every time."
Mother Nature will get her $.02 in at some point as anglers can expect to encounter post-front conditions Thursday and/or Friday following a rapid temperature drop and thunderstorms that moved across the region earlier in the week.
Time will tell what impact the heavy rains will have on the lake and the fishing. Some have remarked at the extreme clarity they've discovered in some areas of the lake this week, but a fair amount of stain is expected to infiltrate the shallows and creek arms once the runoff works its way into the lake.
"We're fixing to go into the tournament with conditions that we've not faced in the 3 days we've been on the water," said Scott Suggs. "We had wind every day and cloud cover mostly all practice. The low Wednesday night is supposed to be 32 and we haven't seen anything colder than the 50s so it'll be a totally different ball game."
The 2012 Tour stop at Beaver Lake occurred during the last week of April and the vast majority of bass were already in their post-spawn mode as a result of the accelerated spring following an unseasonably mild winter. It also helped that a fair number of anglers seized upon a shad spawn that broke out during the event and that was part of the reason BassFans saw some elevated weights from a few anglers.
The umbrella rig was a key player for several of the Top 5 finishers a year ago, including winner David Dudley, who resorted to a wacky rig around standing timber on day 4 to close out the victory. The umbrella rig will be a component of most anglers' strategies this week, but the changing conditions will prompt some to have an alternate plan to employ should the rig bite tail off on the weekend.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Beaver
> Type of water: Highland reservoir
> Surface acres: 28,000-plus
> Primary structure/cover: River channels, creeks, rocks, points, some standing timber and laydowns
> Primary forage: Crawfish, shad, minnows
> Average depth: Around 50 feet, especially on the lower end
> Species: Largemouths, smallmouths, spotted bass
> Minimum length: 12 inches for spots, 15 inches for smallmouths and largemouths.
> Reputation: Lots of small fish, often tough.
> Weather: Cold, wind and clouds on Thursday will give way to clear
> Water temp: Low to mid 50s with some areas nearing 60 with some sun.
> Water visibility/color: Deeper water by the dam is gin clear, but there's varied amounts of stain throughout the lake, especially toward river
> Water level: Has come up 8 feet since Jan. 1, but is still 3 1/2 feet shy of normal pool and 9 feet down from this time last year.
> Fish in: 1 to 30 feet, many suspended fish.
> Fish phase: Mostly pre-spawn.
> Primary patterns: Umbrella rigs, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, flipping, Texas-rigged plastics, wacky rigs.
> Winning weight: 55 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 20): 22 pounds (2 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Beaver
> Biggest factors: Adjusting to the conditions.
> Biggest decision: When to put down the umbrella rig.
> Wildcard: Early spawners.
The way Brad Wiegmann sees it, all of the crucial variables are present for this week to potentially be a Beaver Lake smash fest.
"Everything is moving shallow so it's the perfect time for them to have some of the biggest stringers ever to come out of Beaver," said Wiegmann, who's operated a guide service at Beaver Lake since 1989. "The fish are big, the water's rising and the fish are moving. You can't beat that."
Clark Wendlandt needs a strong effort at Beaver Lake this week to get back into contention for the Forrest Wood Cup.
However, with the weather expected to shift dramatically come tournament time, what worked in practice might not necessarily be as effective once competition gets underway. As noted above, the water temperatures around the lake are hovering in the 50s and a good number of fish are setting up to make the move to their spawning areas, if they haven't already. With the wind and cloud cover forecast for Thursday, Wiegmann feels that's the perfect recipe for the umbrella rig.
"In reality, if they can get stormy, nasty weather on Beaver Lake and they're throwing a multi-lure rig, they'll catch them good," he said. "The water's still cool enough, too."
When the bluebird skies take hold, possibly by Friday, there's a chance the umbrella rig bite will tail off and open the door for those flipping shallow cover in the river or throwing classic Ozark crankbaits like Wiggle Warts.
"It just dries up so they better have a backup plan," Wiegmann noted. "The biggest thing about this tournament is that there's a lot of stained water so if some of the guys who are really good flippers can figure out a bite up in the river, they might do good for 2 days or even longer. Usually, the fear of people running up in the river is you can catch all kinds of 14 1/2-inchers, but they need to be 15 to keep and you're going to need bigger fish because the Alabama Rig (bite) is going to happen.
"(The Alabama Rig) may not win the tournament, but it's already influenced the minds of every angler fishing in this tournament because everybody knows that someone is going up there with it and they're going to get beat if they're not throwing it in that clear water. The trouble is unlike other reservoirs, when the wind stops blowing and it's bluebird, it's not hard to go up there and not catch them on it."
Early AOY Ups/Downs
Once the Beaver Lake event is in the books, BassFans will have a better picture of how the Angler of the Year race is shaping up for the second half of the season.
While the two tournaments completed so far hardly represent a substantial sample size, it's one-third of the Tour ledger and already some anglers have put themselves in a bind not only in the race for AOY, but also for a Forrest Wood Cup berth. On the other hand, there have been just as many surprises in terms of who's helped their chances.
While Dudley has already locked up a trip to the Red River for this year's Cup by winning AOY last year, he finds himself in 80th in points this season. He's certainly capable of a furious second-half rally last year's win at Beaver lit the fuse for him but it seems doubtful that he'll take home a record fourth AOY crown at this point.
Some other big names that have their work cut out for them over the next four derbies:
> Dion Hibdon: 58th in points
> Scott Martin: 76th
> Chris Lane: 83rd
> Anthony Gagliardi: 84th
> Bobby Lane: 88th
> J.T. Kenney: 93rd
> Clark Wendlandt: 98th
> Ron Shuffield: 136th
Tour rookie Drew Benton, who's currently 2nd in points, leads the list of surprises so far. His victory at Lake Okeechobee got everyone's attention and he backed it up with a 15th at Lewis Smith Lake. He tops an impressive class of rookies that also includes Phillip Jarabeck (19th) and Brandon McMillan (20th).
Michael Neal, a college student in his second year as a pro, is 5th and figures to be among the favorites when the Tour visits his home waters of Lake Chickamauga in late June. Among the notables inside the Top 35 (Cup cutoff) are David Fritts, who hasn't finished in the Top 30 in AOY points since 2002 and is currently 22nd, along with Zell Rowland (31st) and Jimmy Houston (32nd).
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I though it was pretty tough (Monday). It was a lot tougher than I was expected and tougher than last year. It's still Beaver Lake and I'm guessing 12 pounds a day will make the first cut. You have to look ahead and I know there's a big cold front coming. If you can get past day 2, it's going to warm up, but you I have to be concerned with getting past that 2nd day.
"The water's colder and the fish haven't moved up yet. I suspect somebody will get on a school of pre-spawners for a day, but it looks like the weights could be lower than last year. Last year was the first time I've done well here. It's been weird, though. There have been other years where I caught them big during practice and not caught them in the tournament.
"I threw (the umbrella rig) a good bit (Monday). It's not happening near like it did last year, but I'm going to have to find an area where I can throw it. If you're not throwing it, you're going to get beat by it. Personally, I don't care for it much and I wouldn't mind if they banned it, but as long as it's available to use you have to make room for it."
"It's been okay. The lake's fishing really good. A lot of fish are biting, but it's harder to get that bigger bite. The amount of fish that are biting is better than last year, but it's a lot of small fish. I don't like that because that puts more people in play. The way it is now, it seems like a lot of people are going to catch 8 or 9 pounds and I think weights will be higher just because there are more fish biting. As far as what I'm learning, I have a game plan, but I'm not too excited about it.
"I don't know how to factor (the weather change) in, but it's going to change 180 degrees. When we got out of bed Monday morning, it was 61 degrees so I don't know what the cold is going to do to them. It's a deep lake so they won't be as affected as they would be in Florida, but I don't think it'll help. It's going to be interesting. I'll just have to adjust and change right along with the conditions.
"(The umbrella rig) will play a factor. A guy could wing it around all day and do well, but I think it'll take a combination of things. I don't think I can survive solely on it. I have caught them doing several different things. Last year when we were here, I never pulled it out of the box and a lot of us saw what happened so I think more guys are going to be throwing it and that pressure could push the fish down a bit."
"(Practice) hasn't been amazing, but it's not been terrible. It's about what you expect at Beaver. The first day, I had a lot of bites, but you can't sit on a lot of fish here because it could be bad if you catch them all during practice. I just shook them off and hope they were good, quality fish. The water's clearer than I've ever seen it. It's weird how you come here every year and it's the same lake basically, but it's always a little different every time.
"You have to keep looking here because you don't want to miss out on something. I've stayed out of the river like I tend to do. I try to break the main lake down into three different areas. They may catch them in the river, but the cold weather that's coming may hurt the shallow stuff up there.
"There are probably fish that are thinking about getting up close to the bank and that's a dangerous game to play because I've gotten my butt kicked before by not practicing for what conditions are going to be. This is one of those lakes where you never know how you're going to do until the day's over.
"We'll probably have the heaviest bags we've seen (at Beaver) because of the umbrella rig. I've thrown it almost exclusively. I got beat by it too many times last year and I made a point to learn it if it's going to stick around. You still have to find them, though. It's easy to go out and throw it and not catch anything."
"From guys I've talked to, a lot of people wrecked 'em on the first day of practice. They were absolutely munching. I caught some of the biggest, prettiest fish out of all the years I've been fishing up here.
"I was happy with the first day, especially, and pretty pleased with Monday, but the smallmouths and spots here are about as spooky as they get when it comes to storms, especially when you have a lightning storm before daylight. (Tuesday morning), we had a big lightning storm around 4:30 a.m. and I told the guys I was fishing with to not be surprised if they didn't catch many spots or smallies. It was a lot tougher and I think it had a lot to do with the storm.
Scott Canterbury had an abbreviated practice, but thinks he may have something going.
"I'm taking a hit-and-run approach. There's three different types of things I'm doing with three different bait selections so I'll mix them up and see what's going on and hopefully one of the three is still working (Thursday). I might be surprised by the weights being bigger than I think they'll be, but if you're chasing the Cup or $10,000, I still think 10 pounds a day will get you a decent check here."
"It's been a tough practice, the first 2 days, especially. Tuesday was a decent day. The weather's changing every day and with the major storm coming through, I just tried to keep an open mind. I already have the Cup made so I'm trying to swing for the fences this week. There is a ton of fish in this lake, but the better quality ones are tougher to catch. The water's still down 3 1/2 feet from summer pool so there's still a lot of stuff on the bank that I wish was in the water. Otherwise, I'd be doing a lore more shallow-water fishing than I have been.
"I spent a lot of time Tuesday looking around. I tried to keep fishing new water every day. From my years of fishing at Beaver, the best thing to do is fish new water, even in the tournament. It'll be mixture of some shallow and some caught further out. You can catch them on anything you want to throw. It doesn't seem to matter. It'll be one of those deals where some guys will have 10 rods on their deck.
"I can catch little bitty ones on an Alabama Rig or good, solid keepers. It's the same with spinnerbaits, cranks, jerkbaits or shaky-head. It's a little weird now. If you body holds up long enough to throw the A-Rig for an extended period of time, you'll probably catch better quality, but you could also go 6 to 8 hours without a bite."
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. Andy Morgan He was 2nd to David Dudley a year ago and is riding a serious wave of momentum right now. Thanks to five straight Top-15s in Tour competition and a Top-5 at the recent Douglas Lake PAA, he's risen to 5th in the latest BassFan World Rankings presented by Livingston Lures.
2. David Dudley His Beaver Lake triumph last April started a furious four-tournament stretch that culminated with another win (at Lake Champlain) and his third career Angler of the Year award. He's hit a rough patch recently and is presently 80th in points so if he's to mount a rally in the season's second half, it'll need to start this week.
3. Brent Ehrler Off to a near-perfect start this season and with another deep, clear reservoir on tap, there's little evidence to indicate he's going to cool off any time soon.
4. Jay Yelas Finds himself in 8th place in the AOY chase and has multiple Top-10s at Beaver Lake to his credit, including a 6th-place effort last year.
5. Mark Rose He's coming off a solid showing at the Douglas Lake PAA where the umbrella rig dominated and his recent history at Beaver suggests he'll be in contention again.
6. Jacob Wheeler Has shown no let up since hoisting the Cup last August. This should be a good test for him, though. He was 44th at Beaver in '12.
7. Bryan Thrift The No. 2-ranked pro in the BassFan World Rankings has been in the money every time out since the Lake Champlain Open in September 2011. He's won at Beaver before and he's positioned himself (10th place) for another charge at AOY.
8. Jason Christie Has shown some resilience so far during his first season fishing both tours. He's coming off a 12th at the Falcon Lake Elite Series, which came on heels of a 69th at the Sabine River. Beaver is typically one of his strong venues and the changing conditions should suit his wing-it mentality.
9. Clark Wendlandt Aside from last year's Forrest Wood Cup, he hasn't cashed since Kentucky Lake last June, but his Beaver Lake history (2 wins, 3 other Top-5s) is enough to make him a threat. He could use a strong outing this week to get the ship righted.
10. Jacob Powroznik His average finish in the last 8 Tour events is 18th and that includes a pair of runner-up placements and two other Top-10s. He's ascended to 9th in the World Rankings and seems poised to make another run at AOY this season.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. CT each day from Prairie Creek Park (9300 N. Park Road, Rogers, Ark.). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3 p.m. at Prairie Creek Park. Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will get under way at 4 p.m. at the John Q. Hammons Center (3303 Pinnacle Hills Parkway, Rogers, Ark.).
> Thurs., April 11 Mostly Cloudy - 50°/30°
- Wind: From the W at 15 to 20 mph
> Fri., April 12 Mostly Sunny - 54°/36°
- Wind: From the NW at 10 to 15 mph
> Sat., April 13 Partly Cloudy - 60°/45°
- Wind: From the SSW at 5 to 15 mph
> Sun., April 14 Partly Sunny - 70°/64°
- Wind: From the S at 7 to 12 mph
> To learn more about Wiegmann's guide service, http://www.bradwiegmann.com/trip-information.html