By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
One of the things that differentiates competitive bass fishing from most other sports is the degree to which a particular venue can change from one year to the next. The world's best golfers go to the Masters every year and know they'll find lush green grass on the famed Augusta National layout, and tennis players head for the French Open knowing that the clay at Roland Garros Stadium will be red and firm.
Lakes and river systems aren't nearly so predictable, and the current state of Bull Shoals is a prime example. The water looks nothing like it did a year ago.
The 2012 event, which was dominated by Brandon Palaniuk, was a whack-fest from start to finish. Just about any square-bill crankbait would produce an easy limit of largemouths and/or smallmouths despite the 15-inch minimum length standard. Forty-keeper days were routine.
The situation is a little bit different this time, though. The water is cooler due to a chilly winter and early spring, and it's much, much clearer, which has the fish in a decidedly spookier state. Some competitors are predicting that weights will be down considerably and that it might take only 11 1/2 pounds a day or so to make the 50-cut, compared to a little over 13 1/2 last year.
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the venue itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Bull Shoals
> Type of water: Highland reservoir on the White River
> Surface acres: 45,500 at full pool
> Primary structure/cover: Chunk rock, bluff banks, brushpiles, some boat docks
> Primary forage: Crawfish and threadfin shad
> Average depth: 75 feet
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass, smallmouths
> Minimum length: 15 inches for largemouths and smallmouths, 12 inches for spots
> Reputation: A newly vibrant fishery with all three species well-represented, but the bigger fish are greatly affected by conditions
> Weather: Volatile – a front will arrive for day 1 bringing thunderstorms, strong winds and a double-digit drop in temperatures
> Water temp: Mid 50s to low 60s
> Water visibility/color: 20 feet in many places/ultra-clear
> Water level: About a foot below normal
> Fish in: 6 inches to 25 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, jigs, plastics, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, crankbaits, topwaters, dropshots, shakey-heads
> Winning weight: 60 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 38 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50): 23 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Bull Shoals
> Biggest factors: The gin-clear water – it makes keeper bites much harder to come by
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow (or a combination of both)?
> Wildcard: Spawners - the big females are coming, but the weather might delay their arrival.
Where'd Those Fish Go?
When viewing Bull Shoals from a historical perspective, last year's Elite event was an aberration. A number of factors combined to produce an overall haul that's simply not the norm for the White River impoundment.
The primary difference this year is water clarity. The annual algae bloom had already begun prior to last year's derby, and recent rain had contributed some additional color. None of that has occurred this time and that lovely green tint the water possessed is absent.
Much of the lake is absolutely gin-clear, with the bottom easily visible at depths of 20 feet or more. Many competitors believe the lack of color is what's making the 2- to 3-pound fish, which were literally everywhere on the lake last year, much more difficult to catch.
Small males ready to begin the spawning rite dot the pockets, but most anglers are saying (for public consumption, anyway) that the larger females have yet to arrive. The impending weather conditions don't bode well for sight-fishing, as the winds accompanying the storm that's set to arrive on day 1 will make sub-surface viewing difficult, and the system may further delay the approach of the fat mommas.
On the flip side, it's the hope of many that the volatile weather will entice some 3-pounders to bite – something they were apparently reluctant to do in practice.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from some anglers who'll compete this week.
"I'm absolutely not confident. I've caught some fish, but I haven't been able to make heads or tails of what's going on. Nothing seems to be any better than anything else and I can't figure out what these fish are doing. I'm pretty confused at this point.
"With the way it's set up, I think a lot of fish are trying to spawn and I have seen a few on beds. Thursday is supposed to be cloudy and rainy and nasty, though, and that might make the ones that are committed to being shallow pretty hard to catch.
"Last year there was quite a bit of stain in the water, and not having that this year is not helping anything. Plus the fish seem to be in a real funky stage. I think a lot of variables are coming together to make it pretty tough."
"Last year is all I have to compare this place to, and I'm glad I was here to see how good it could be. It's hands-down different this year.
"The fish I'm seeing on beds and stuff wouldn't even make the 15-inch minimum, where before every fish you caught was over 15. Where'd they all go? It just goes to show you that any body of water can be spectacular when conditions are right and conducive to catching them.
"I've caught some. It's been a grind – it's not bang, bang, bang – but I think I've got a pattern figured out. The wildcard is what is the front going to do? If it wasn't for that, everybody'd be looking at them. Every pocket has a fish on a bed somewhere, but it's not a total bum-rush like a lot of people expected. I haven't seen any fish with any eggs.
"I usually do terrible in sight-fishing tournaments, so I'm glad it's coming."
"I wasn't here last year, but it sounds like it's not quite as good as it was then. It's definitely not as good as I expected. I can't say that I'm real pumped up yet. I'm still trying to put a gameplan together.
"There's a lot of little ones pulling up, but so many of them are freaky and the ones you can catch aren't very big. I'd like to be sight-fishing, but it seems like that might be a pretty dangerous deal at this point. The weather could make catching anything that comes up real difficult."
"There's a lot of little ones on beds everywhere, but not many females have pulled up yet. But the first day we were hear there wasn't even many bucks, so they're coming hard. They're in every pocket.
"The real question is going to be what's going to happen when the storm gets here? If you were planning on sight-fishing, it'd probably be real smart to have some 'fishing fish' also.
"Last year you could throw a square-bill anywhere and catch a 2 1/2-pounder, and it's not like that. It's a much tougher lake than it was."
"I've gotten quite a few bites, but not a whole lot of quality. I'm expecting it to be getting better each day with the water temperature steadily rising.
"There's a lot of males up cruising right now, but very few females – at least in the areas where I've looked. If a bunch move up, there's definitely going to be a lot of sight-fishing. If the front holds them back, it'll be more of a 'fishing around' kind of thing.
"I expect the weights to be down, although maybe not on day 1 when people will catch some sight-fish. But it's not like last year, when you could stop on any bank and catch 2 1/2-pounders.
"It's unbelievable how clear the water is in some places, and that definitely makes them a little spooky."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above in mind and more, here's BassFan's recommendation for the Top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Jeff Kriet – The veteran Oklahoman should be right at home in a tough-bite Ozarks event. At 3rd in the Angler of the Year points, he's picked up some strong early-season momentum in the wake of a lackluster 2012 that caused him to sit out the Classic at Grand.
2. Alton Jones – The sight-fishing ace has to be salivating at his first opportunity of the year to do some serious looking around. If there are some big females up, he stands a good chance of finding them.
3. Kevin VanDam – He's a feared man at any time of the year, but his presence is particularly daunting in an event in which the majority of the fish have yet to go through the reproduction ritual. He's now fished 20 consecutive events without a win, and that streak won't go on forever.
4. David Walker – He has lots of experience on the White River from his FLW days, particularly downstream at Beaver, and his record in the region is strong. Cranking is one of his specialties and there'll be ample opportunity to ply that this week.
5. Aaron Martens – He's always a major threat when the bite is in any sort of transition-type funk, and this qualifies as one of those derbies. The ultra-clear water won't scare him as he's one of the top light-line practitioners in the game.
6. Kelly Jordon – He began the year with two decent showings in his home state of Texas, but it's now been 22 months since he's logged a single-digit finish. One of the best there is at finding them on the beds.
7. Matt Herren – A 3rd-place finish at Bull Shoals last year was the foundation of a hot streak that kept him in AOY contention the rest of the way. He's another guy with useful White River experience from the FLW Tour.
8. Ish Monroe – He's logged three Top-20 finishes over two tours during the last 6 weeks and is coming off a 16th at the Beaver Lake FLW Tour. There's no reason to think his good mojo is on the way out.
9. Brent Chapman – The reigning AOY is off to a much slower start than a year ago, but he grew up fishing in the Ozarks and has seen these venues under every condition imaginable. He should be a contender right from the start.
10. Brandon Card – Some might be surprised that the 26-year-old is the AOY leader at the season's quarter pole, but he just seems to get better as he goes a long. He was 18th at Bull Shoals last year and a third straight Top 10 in 2013 certainly isn't out of the question.
Anglers will launch at 6:15 a.m. each day from Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock (719 Shorecrest Dr., Bull Shoals, Ark.). Weigh-ins will start at 3:15 p.m. at Bull Shoals White River State Park Pavilion No. 2 (153 Dam Overlook, Bull Shoals).
> Thurs., April 18 – T-Storms/Wind - 67°/35°
- Wind: From the SW at 20 mph
> Fri., April 19 – Mostly Cloudy - 56°/34°
- Wind: From the W/NW at 15 mph
> Sat., April 20 – Partly Cloudy - 67°/42°
- Wind: From the S at 8 mph
> Sun., April 21 – Partly Cloudy - 69°/46°
- Wind: From the S/SE at 11 mph