By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Most Bassmaster Elite Series anglers will have a much easier time catching keepers at the Alabama River this week than they did last week at Georgia's West Point Lake. The river isn't among the top big-weight venues in its region, but numbers aren't an issue and the bass (particularly the spotted variety) are chomping with reckless abandon under the present conditions.
The Alabama, which will host a full-field Elite event for the first time, is running extremely high through its namesake state's capital city of Montgomery as a vast amount of water from recent rains continues its progression through the region toward the coast. The general rule for the river is that when the current rips, the spotted bass bite like crazy and the largemouths become difficult to catch. When the flow and the water level drop, the spot action cools off a bit and the bigmouth-laden creeks come back into play.
It appears as if the former scenario will dominate the first event of the season's second half. The prolific spots will be relatively easy to catch, but the quality will vary from place to place. Those who advance to Sunday will likely need their average weigh-in fish to be at least 3 pounds.
Before digging deeper into the bite, here's some of the lowdown on the fishery itself:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Name: Alabama River
> Type of Water: Meandering waterway formed by the junction of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, eventually joining other rivers and discharging into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay
> Primary structure/cover: Wood (laydowns, bushes, trees), rock, gravel, some grass
> Average depth: 25 feet or more along the main channel
> Species: Spotted bass and largemouths
> Primary forage: Threadfin and gizzard shad
> Length limit: 12 inches (both species)
> Reputation: An excellent numbers fishery when conditions are right; fish over 6 pounds are uncommon
> Weather: A mix of sun, clouds, thunderstorms and rain
> Water temp: Mid to high 60s
> Water visibility/color: 8 to 12 inches/stained
> Water level: About 10 feet high
> Fish in: 10 feet or less
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn/post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, jigs, flipping, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, plastics – all of the shallow-water staples
> Winning weight: 68 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 45 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 26 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4
> Biggest factor: The water level, as it could change daily
> Biggest decision: Whether to work through numbers all day or specifically hunt kicker fish
> Wildcard: An out-of-the-way concentration of quality largemouths.
Which Way to Go?
The Alabama's history in regard to the Elite Series (which debuted in 2006) consists of its inclusion in post-season events from 2009 to 2011. The first two of those helped secure Angler of the Year (AOY) titles for Kevin VanDam and the last was an all-star affair won by Ott DeFoe.
Nothing that happened in those derbies will carry much relevance this week due to the dramatically altered conditions. The difference in the time of year and the greatly increased current and water levels have the fish doing different things in different places than they were back then.
Jim Hardy, who guides frequently on the Alabama, said the eventual winner will probably have to fish quite a ways from the launch site in Montgomery.
"It'll be one direction or the other - to the far north or the far south," he said. "There'll be some caught in the middle and a guy could make a check there, but it'll be won at one of the extremes."
To the north lie the tailraces of the Jordan and Bouldin dams, where better-than-average fish can be caught on swimbaits and crankbaits. To the south are places such as Beaver Creek, Prairie Creek and the Holy Grounds, where tactics like flipping and swimming a jig prevail.
Mike McClelland resurrected his career on the Alabama River when he won the Bassmaster Open Championship in 2005.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see a 20-pound bag of spots, but whoever wins will probably have to mix it up. The big fish could be either species – there aren't many 6- or 7- pounders in the river, but a 5 1/2-pounder has just as good a chance of being a spot as a largemouth.
"The local tournaments the last few weeks have been won on the northern part and there's been some dramatic bags of spots up to 23 pounds. With all this current flow, it's perfect conditions for those spots because they love to feed in current."
Following are practice notes from some of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"Practice has been decent and the fishing's pretty good for this place. Compared to what it was the last time I was here, it's quite a bit better. The fish are real healthy and most of them are chunky. I think it's going to take at least 11 pounds a day or so to make the Top 50.
"I have to try to avoid getting myself locked into one thing too much. I just have to go fishing and fish with an open mind. We could get up one day and the water might be 3 feet lower and that changes whatever you had going.
"The one thing I don't have a clue about is how much (weight) it's going to take to win. A lot's going to depend on the water level."
"Practice has gone okay. I don't know if the fishing's really good or just seems that way because of where we just came from. Getting bites isn't too difficult, but getting the right size might be tough.
"The big question as far as good weights is what are the largemouth going to do. It's not as easy to catch them as it seemed in the past. A good bag of spots is 15 or 16 pounds, but in the spring they catch a lot of 20-pound largemouth bags.
"It's a good fishery with a lot of water coming through it right now. If it would fall a little bit, I think it would position the largemouths a little better."
"It's about as different as you can get from last time I was here, just in the way it's set up and what's going on. I don't remember what the flow was then, but the only time you'd notice it was when they were actually generating current. Now it's constantly high and the water's 12 feet higher in some of the areas I fished when I won here.
"Those fish are still there, but I haven't caught any around those places. Somebody probably will, though.
"The weights should be better with the amount of current there is because that's what these fish like. I think 15 pounds a day would be pretty good. I'd say I'm the most confident I've been all year, but that's not necessarily saying a lot."
"It's a lot different than it normally is at this time of year, but the fishing's pretty good. A lot of the fish are bunched up in certain places, but when you get around them, they're really biting.
"Usually by now the fish are all post-spawn and the water's getting hot and stagnant and clear. I think a lot of fish are still pre-spawn. They really don't spawn here until the water settles down.
"It's all about catching a solid bag with a big one or two, and I guarantee I'll be doing the right thing in the right places to have a chance at those bigger ones."
"The light bulb hasn't come on really bright for me yet. I had a decent day (Monday), then it was a little tougher (Tuesday). I think in general that guys are going to catch them reasonably well, and the key is going to be to do it every day.
"I think 13 or 14 pounds a day would be a reasonable number if a guy could repeat it. There's going to be some big sacks, but can they back them up? The big thing is going to be the water – if they cut the current, it's going to get more difficult, I would think.
"I wish I was grinning ear to ear like I had it really nailed down, but I don't. I'll put it this way, though: This is a lot better fishery than where we were last week."
"I'm pretty encouraged by my practice. This is the place where I kind of got my career back up and running in '05 when I won the (Bassmaster) Open Championship and you know how it is when you go to a place where you've caught them before. You feel like you're going to catch them even if you shouldn't feel that way.
"There's a lot of current and the spots are biting well, along with some largemouths. If a person can cover a lot of water, they could walk away with a good bag.
"The only dilemma I have is that to win, I think you're going to have to be pushing 20 pounds every day. They're biting well, but there's a lot of small ones to be caught. If you get in a bad area or in a bad rotation, you could catch 8 or 10 pounds pretty easy.
"I don't think we could've hit it at a better time, though. All this water should make it fish a lot bigger."
"The river looks good and guys are catching them, but I don't have that much experience fishing current and it's been kind of slow for me. The current has just been ripping – like 5 1/2 or 6 mph.
"I fished for spots (Tuesday) and didn't do well at all - my biggest one was just a little over 2 pounds. I went for largemouths (Monday) and that was tough, too. I might've had 10 pounds if I was lucky."
"Just based on how people are talking, I think you're going to need 23 or 24 pounds on the low side to have a chance of making the Top 50. That's something for me to shoot for."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above in mind and more, here are BassFan's recommendations for the Top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Russ Lane – A lot of factors favor him this week, but the two biggest are that he's on his home water and it's the start of the second half of the season, which is traditionally when he makes most of his hay. Many will be surprised if he's not fishing on Sunday.
2. Edwin Evers – The AOY leader has never had any problem excelling in current, or in water that was high and muddy. After numerous near-misses, he finds himself with yet another clear shot at the points crown and a single-digit finish would be another big step toward that goal.
3. Bill Lowen – He can dissect river systems with the best in the game and usually finds some productive stuff that he has all to himself in these situations. Currently 33rd in the points, a good showing here would put him on more solid ground in pursuit of another Classic berth.
4. Kevin VanDam – The Michigander has had tremendous success competing in Alabama and this venue played a major part in two of his AOY titles. He's built a firm foundation for a run at an 8th points crown with the circuit soon to head toward his home region.
5. Jamie Horton – Like Lane, he's a local with many years of experience on this venue and has collected a lot of hardware from lower-level events on the Alabama. The second-year pro has had a miserable run dating back to late last season (no finishes higher than 65th in the last six events) and this is an opportunity to turn that bad mojo around.
6. Cliff Pace – The reigning Classic kingpin comes in off back-to-back 7th-place finishes and the conditions on the Alabama seem to suit him just fine. At No. 10 in the points, he has a chance to join VanDam as the only competitor to follow up a Classic triumph with an AOY title since the Elite Series' inception in 2006.
7. Jason Christie – His 70th-place finish at West Point slowed down his freight train, but it's highly unlikely that it derailed it entirely. The high water in the bushes is a welcome sight for him and another Sunday appearance would surprise no one.
8. Greg Vinson – He's another Alabamian who'll get to go home every night and he seems to have straightened things out following a rough start to the campaign. He's spent time at the top of the leaderboard in each of the last two events and is a definite threat to continue that streak this week.
9. Skeet Reese – His victory last week was his first since his phenomenal 2010 season and his single-digit finishes are rarely stand-alone occurrences. He hails from California, but has always felt right at home on moving water in the South.
10. Gary Klein – A very solid first half of the campaign has the veteran at No. 11 in the points, and his record on current-based fisheries in the region his strong. He seems determined to halt his streak of missed Classics at two.
Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. CT each day at Cooter’s Pond Boat Ramp, 1844 Cooter’s Pond Road, in Prattville, Ala. Weigh-ins will be held each day beginning at 3:15 p.m. CT at the Riverfront Park Union Station Train Shed (300 Water St., Montgomery, Ala.).
> Thurs., May 9 – Sunny - 86°/62°
- Wind: From the W at 8 mph
> Fri., May 10 – Isolated T-Storms - 83°/66°
- Wind: From the S/SW at 10 mph
> Sat., May 11 – Rain/Thunder - 77°/63°
- Wind: From the W/SW at 6 mph
> Sun., May 12 – Few Showers - 80°/52°
- Wind: From the N/NW at 9 mph
> Aaron Martens will attempt to continue the momentum from his runner-up finish at West Point, while Brent Chapman will attempt to rebound from an 83rd. To read their Pro View reports, click here.
> Jim Hardy, the guide, can be contacted via his Facebook page .