The long-awaited 2009 FLW Tour opener – the first event of a season that shapes up to be primarily power-oriented rather than finesse-focused as in years past – has arrived. Alabama's famed Lake Guntersville disappointed some of the pros during the 4-day official practice, but it may yet live up to its reputation.
Some in the field were feeling pretty good heading into the off-day today, but a higher percentage were a bit confused by the dearth of bites they got during pre-fish. When they hooked up, it was usually a good one (in the 4-pound class), but that didn't occur often enough to give them confidence they could make it happen at least five times on each tournament day.
The water warmed up a couple of degrees per day as practice wore on, but a massive migration
toward the banks hadn't occurred by the time the session wrapped up Tuesday afternoon. There are fish gathered in the warmer water of the shallows in specific locales, but also some that are still sitting offshore.
A front that brought 40 mph winds blew through the Huntsville area on the off-day, and its impact won't be evident until the anglers get back on the water for day 1. Some might find that the banks and coves they'd been counting on are mud-choked and unfishable. On the flip-side, a few might discover that they're on a bigger group of good fish than they were 2 days earlier.
This one will be a toughie for devotees of fantasy fishing – it looks to be an area- rather than a technique-driven event, and right now there's no way to tell who's got the best spots. Or just as importantly, whether they'll have to share them. At least a few guys will wreck the fish, but it's real hard to say whom.
Before getting into more detail, here's a look at the lake itself:
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
> Average depth: Roughly 15 feet
> Species: Largemouths
> Reputation: Big-bass factory, but groups of winter fish can be tough to locate
> Weather: Post-frontal conditions with a mix of sun and clouds and a chance of showers increasing as the tournament progresses. Daytime highs should range from the mid-50s to low-60s. No serious wind forecasted for the tournament days.
> Water temp: 48-53 degrees
> Water visibility/color: 2 to 3 feet
> Water level: About 1 1/2 feet below full pool (insignificant)
> Fish in: 2 to 20 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Jerkbaits, Rat-L-Traps, crankbaits, jigs, spinnerbaits
> Winning weight: 45 pounds (final 2 days)
> Cut weight (Top 10): 38 pounds
> Check weight: 12 pounds a day
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Guntersville
> Biggest factors: Will huge numbers of fish move shallow in preparation for the spawn?
> Wildcard: The right spot – anybody can find it, but anybody can pass right over it too.
A Little History
This is the FLW Tour's maiden visit to Guntersville and the first wintertime tour-level event it's hosted since the Bassmaster Tour stopped here in both 2004 and '05.
George Cochran, who's in the field this week, totaled just a few ounces shy of 100 pounds for 4 days en route to victory in '04 when he milked one loaded-up area with what he said was a Strike King Wild Shiner jerkbait. Zell Rowland employed a crankbait/dock-flipping combo the following year to win with 87 pounds.
On a much more recent note, it took more than 25 pounds to win a 60-plus-boat local event last weekend, and there were several other sacks that topped 20.
The Big Three
Guntersville guide Troy Jens said there are three baits that outshine all others at Guntersville this time of year – lipless crankbaits, jigs and jerkbaits. The abundant grass – hydrilla and milfoil – that makes Guntersville such a fertile bass lake will be targeted by most of the field, but he added that wood shouldn't be overlooked.
"The grass is all dying out and it'll be completely gone by the first week of March," he said. "Because of that, the stumps become more important right now – there are some fish that are real shallow on the stumps and the red clay banks.
"It's fishing pretty normal for this time of year right now, and I expect it to be won shallow. I expect the bite to get better in the next few days – one of the strange aspects of this place is the bite is better this time of year right after or even during a front. Even though practice was tough, I expect it to be a good tournament and we'll probably see some big sacks."
Reigning Angler of the Year David Dudley got a confidence boost from what he found on the final practice day.
Due to heavy rains in December and January, the water's a bit darker this time than it was for those Bassmaster tournaments earlier this decade. Cochran is all but convinced that the jerkbait pattern he employed 5 years ago will be futile.
"This time the water's got so much color that when you pull (the bait) down, you can't see it a foot and a half under the surface," he said. "I've caught a few little ones on them, but no big ones at all."
Current Should be Favorable
All of the rain this winter has allowed the Tennessee Valley Authority to pull a lot of current through Guntersville for power generation, and that's a positive for the fishing.
"Current definitely plays a role," Jens said. "The bite is better on the open-water humps and the ledges when the current's running, and I expect that they'll keep it going."
An even bigger factor could be the annual migration to the skinny water. If it occurs en masse over the next few days, it'll change the complexion of the tournament.
"Some areas that were decent will get that much better, and there will be some bites to be had," said David Dudley, who'll open defense of his 2008 Angler of the Year (AOY) title. "This is Guntersville, and it's full of 4-pounders. If you can catch five of them, you've got a pretty decent sack."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from some of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"Somebody will whack them. It's early in the year and the water temperature's about right for them to be eating. It'll be a good tournament and I'm sure it'll be won by somebody chunking and winding something – a Rat-L-Trap or something a lot like it.
"Dad (Guido) and I just figured them out a little bit (Tuesday), so I'll mill around some (on day 1) and try to find some new spots. The great thing is it's that good of a lake – you can just go fishing and figure them out."
"I haven't had much of a practice – I think when we were here before (with BASS) the water temperature was a little bit warmer. But we've had some 65-degree days and the water's warming up, so it might go. Or it might be tough."
"Practice was tough on me, but when I did get bit, it was a good one. If I can catch five of them a day, I think I'll have a shot at the Top 10, and that's what I'm staying focused on.
"I think it'll be won shallow, in the grass on a rattling bait. I'm sure you'll see some great big sacks weighed in – 25 pounds or better. If you're catching 4-pounders and you can add a couple of bigger ones, you can get there real quick."
Jacob Powroznik hooked some big fish in practice and hopes there are more where they came from.
"I've caught one over 7 pounds every day, but there doesn't seem to be a pattern to them so I'm just going to have to get out there and go. There's a lot of fish still roaming around a lot.
"A lot of it is timing, too. If you're there when they're feeding, you'll be fine."
"I caught a few every day – no giants, but some 4s and 5s. I think I can do fairly well. I've got a lot of little areas in one general area, so I won't have to run around a bunch.
"It's kind of a feast-or-famine thing – you might catch them real good or you might not get a bite. There'll be some unhappy faces, but this is one of the best lakes in the country and it'll probably show it."
"I'm not real pleased with what I've got going on, and I'm not pulling any punches, either. I'll catch one good fish, but then go 4 or 5 hours without getting another one. I'm out of sync or something.
"One thing is the water is a color I've never seen it before – kind of a dark green or muddy light brown. You just don't have good color unless you go under the bridges and up into the creeks, but there's not enough grass in those areas. I just don't have much going."
"It'd been pretty tough, but it got a little better (Tuesday). I found about four areas and I hit a couple places where I'd caught a few previously and they were in there a little better. Right before the front the water warmed up pretty good, and that seemed to help."
"I feel okay – (Tuesday) was a real confidence-booster. I kept trying to fish where I thought they were going and I wasn't doing real well, but they finally started showing up where they should be.
"I had 20-plus pounds and I caught 10 keepers (on Tuesday). It should keep getting better as the week goes on."
"The fishing's changed since we've been here and it's gotten a little better each day. I have a couple of areas where I'm confident I can catch some fish.
"Guys don't seem to be catching as many fish as they have in the past, but the quality's still there. You have to try for five or six bites this time instead of knowing you're going to get 15 or 20."
Top 10 to Watch
In no particular order, here are BassFan's recommendations for the Top 10 to watch in this tournament.
1. George Cochran – He's won here twice in the past – the '04 Bassmaster Tour event and a Bassmaster Invitational in 1992. He's a master at shallow-water cranking and should be able to ply that technique from start to finish each day.
2. David Dudley – His confidence is up after the final day of practice, and he's real dangerous in that mode. He can flip and he can crank the skinny water, and many factors are working in his favor.
3. Greg Pugh – Next week's Bassmaster Classic weighs heavily on his thoughts, but he has enough Guntersville experience to where he shouldn't have to do much thinking. He knows where the fish should be right about now, and he knows how to catch them.
4. David Walker – The Tennesseean hasn't made a lot of noise recently, but he logged a Top 10 here back in 2005 on the Bassmaster circuit and would love to get the new season off to a strong start. Has all the skills that should be needed this week.
5. Luke Clausen – These aren't really his type of conditions, but he'll occasionally figure something out that escapes everyone else and allows him to turn in a high finish while staying away from the crowds. A darkhorse pick.
6. Rob Kilby – A savvy veteran who found something pretty decent in practice. He's a whiz with a spinnerbait and hasn't had a Top 10 on the Tour in almost 3 years, so he's overdue.
7. Michael Bennett – The reigning Forrest Wood Cup champion is known more for his finesse game, but this tournament is such a crapshoot that it's hard to dismiss a hand that's as hot as his. Coming off a two-win season, can he keep the momentum rolling?
Ron Shuffield will be seeking his third straight strong finish in a season-opening event.
8. Ron Shuffield – This is a guy who's started each of the last 3 seasons with a Top-5 finish. He has a lot of experience here, and the conditions are well-suited for his shallow-based style.
9. Bryan Thrift – Another notoriously fast-starter and a guy who seems to be getting better all the time. If the dock bite turns on, he'll be someone to be reckoned with.
10. Andy Morgan – Had a phenomenally consistent year in 2008 before his bomb in the regular-season finale at the Detroit River cost him the AOY. He's determined to make another run at the award and he's right in his element here.
Anglers will take off at 7 a.m. CT each day from the Lake Guntersville State Park Resort (1155 Lodge Dr.) in Guntersville. Thursday and Friday’s weigh-ins will also be held at the Resort beginning at 3 p.m.
Saturday's and Sunday’s weigh-ins will be held at the Von Braun Center (700 Monroe St. in Huntsville) beginning at 4 p.m.
Here's the weather forecast for the tournament days. For more weather information, including satellite and radar imagery, visit OutdoorsFanWeather.com.
> Thur., Feb. 12 - Mostly Sunny - 85°/66°
- Wind: From the NW at 7 mph
> Fri., Feb. 13 - P.M. Showers - 58°/50°
- Wind: From the SE at 8 mph
> Sat., Feb. 14 - Mostly Cloudy - 60°/41°
- Wind: From the W/NW at 10 mph
> Sun., Feb. 15 - Mostly Cloudy - 52°/34°
- Wind: From the N/NW at 8 mph
> Jay Yelas has filed his practice report. To check out what he's on, click here to go On Tour With the BassFan Big Sticks.