By Todd Ceisner
Bill Darby has fished Lake Eufaula longer than just about anyone and even he is hard-pressed to remember a spring that's been this drawn out and the temperatures have fluctuated so dramatically.
Just this week, the overnight temperature twice dipped into the low 40s around the lake, a sign that spring is still hanging on. The water temperature has been fluctuating as much as 10 degrees from day to day and it's still a good 10 degrees lower than normal for this time of year.
However, if the forecast for the rest of the week along the Alabama-Georgia border is accurate, those competing in the Lake Eufaula FLW Tour shouldn't have to deal with much in the way of chilly weather. What they'll be contending with is a lake that's seemingly changing the by day as the bass continue their post-spawn transition, which usually is accompanied by on-again, off-again feeding habits.
"We've had an extremely long spring with fluctuating temperatures and the bass are not obeying their natural patterns," said Darby, who was a regular on the Chattahoochee River before the lake was formed after the construction of the Walter F. George Lock and Dam in 1963 and has operated a guide service there for more than 30 years. "They're scattered from one extreme to the other."
Eufaula is a lake where largemouths rule, at least size-wise, and that's how it's been for years. Nobody's expecting that to change this week. Spotted bass have become plentiful, but a good limit will only weigh about 10 pounds. There's not near as much current moving down the Chattahoochee system as there is down the Tennessee River, which could take some adjusting for those anglers who dominate on TVA lakes.
Anglers are confined to Eufaula's waters this week as no locking will be allowed in the direction of Lake Seminole to the south. That was Scott Canterbury's pathway to victory in the 2011 Eufaula EverStart.
This week marks the opening of the second half of the FLW Tour schedule as anglers start the push toward qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup. This will be the second FLW Tour event at Eufaula (David Fritts won the first in 1997) and the first tour-level event at the lake since the Bassmaster Tour visited in mid-March 2004. It's a regular on the BFL circuits and has hosted several EverStart Series derbies.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Eufaula
> Type of Water: Chattahoochee River impoundment
> Surface Acres (full pool): 45,000 acres
> Primary structure/cover: Humps, ledges, rock piles, wood, milfoil, pads
> Primary forage: Threadfin shad, gizzard shad, bream
> Average depth: 15 to 18 feet
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass
> Minimum length: 14 inches for largemouths, none for spots
> Reputation: Once hailed as the "Bass Fishing Capital of the World," it's gone through some up-and-down cycles recently. Still plenty of big-fish potential.
> Weather: Supposed to heat up into the upper 80s with slight chance of thunderstorms on Thursday and Friday. Overnight temps are expected to hold in the 60s.
> Water temp: Low to high 70s, warming through the day with sun
> Water visibility/color: About 18 inches on upper end, 3 to 4 feet toward the dam, stained in the middle
> Water level: Just below normal pool
> Fish in: 0 to 25 feet
> Fish phase: Post-spawn, few (small) late spawners
> Primary patterns: Jigs, Carolina rigs, cranks, worms, frogs, topwater, flipping, umbrella rigs
> Winning weight (4 days): 72 pounds
> Check weight (Top 75 after 2 days): 15 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 10 after 3 days): 42 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3
> Biggest factors: Having enough offshore areas to hold up
> Biggest decision: Whether to target early-morning topwater bite or work intermediate depths and out first
> Wild card: Running up the river and having a stretch all to yourself
It's safe to say Eufaula is a lake in transition right now. As Darby noted above, fish can be found from the bank out to the ledges in 20-plus feet of water where they tend to school up. It seems that any angler who has success this week will need a mixed pattern going that includes shallow-water areas in the morning and deeper locales for later in the day.
"I've caught fish in the early morning in 2 feet of water and caught them 2 hours later in 20 feet of water on a Carolina rig," Darby said. "Normally at this time of year, they're on the shallower ledges in the creek channels and river channel that break at 12 to 14 feet. Typically in May, a lot of fish are caught cranking the ledges or dragging a Carolina rig off the ledges. A few fish are being caught in the early morning on frogs in thick vegetation.
Troy Morrow is no stranger to Lake Eufaula and his off-shore skills should suit him well this week.
"The key is finding that vegetation near deeper water, such as a flat that goes out to 12 or 15 feet and drops into 20. After that, if you don't know where some fish attractors are offshore, you're in a heap of trouble. The locals will have a big advantage that way."
As far as water clarity this week, a good bit of clean water has moved down the system from West Point Lake and it's slowly pushing the stained water that was upriver at Eufaula down toward the dam. The dirtiest water appears to be around the mid-lake area.
"Coach" Les Bratcher is the pro staff director for Big Bite Baits and a longtime Eufaula angler. He said the colder nights have helped the shallow-water bite somewhat this spring, but it caused the fish to spawn differently.
"Primarily, they all do it in March, but last month with the full moon there were still fish bedding," he noted. "I think these fish have gotten strung out because the weather has been so up and down."
Bratcher said the most important factor in his mind this week is the water level. He said the Corps of Engineers has kept it pretty steady all spring, just below full pool.
"All spring, it's been at 189 and that's something they haven't done in 4 or 5 years," he said. "Having the water high like this means we should've had a great spawn. There are fry everywhere. Another thing the higher water does is it tends to keep the fish shallow longer."
In recent years, Bratcher said the lake has seen more milfoil and hydrilla take root and that's drawn more fish toward the flats where the vegetation thrives. He envisions some people hugging the grass all day and trying to root out five bites.
"In the past, it's not been a big flipping lake," he said. "This lake is famous for its ledges, but the grass beds have definitely attracted more fish to them. Whomever can figure out a mixed pattern of shallow-water stuff in the morning and offshore later on in the day will do well."
For those anglers who struggled during the first three events of the season, they've left themselves scant room for error over the final three tournaments.
Since 2002, only twice has the Angler of the Year come from outside the Top 10 after three events, the lowest being David Dudley, who was 17th in 2008 before rallying to the first of his three AOY titles. The other nine years, the AOY has been inside the Top 8 at the halfway point.
The Top 17 in the current AOY standings is a pretty strong group that includes a broad mix of experienced veterans with AOY credentials along with Tour-level rookies and young anglers starting to find their way in addition to a couple wild cards who are in the midst of career years.
While it's certainly possible the 2013 AOY could come from outside this group, the math supports the notion that one of these men will come away with the crown. Dudley's pursuit of a third straight AOY crown will likely fall short, so let's break down who still has a legitimate shot at the top spot, which will be worth $100,000 and a berth in the 2014 Forrest Wood Cup.
1. Brent Ehrler – The even-money favorite to capture his first AOY title after being 2nd twice (2008 and 2011).
4. Koby Kreiger – Has three career Top-10 AOY finishes, but has been sneaky consistent this year with two Top-10 cuts already.
5. Jacob Powroznik – Runner-up to Dudley last year, he hasn't logged a sub-40th finish since 2011.
7. Jay Yelas – A two-time FLW AOY, he hasn't finished a year inside the Top 10 since his last title in 2007, but he's as unflappable as any when the pressure's on.
8. Andy Morgan – A legit contender with Chickamauga still on the schedule. No one has more tournament Top-10s in FLW history than Morgan, who hasn't placed outside the Top 10 in AOY points since 2006.
9. Jason Christie – There's no telling if the two-tour grind will wear him down as the season hits the stretch drive, but with what he's accomplished over the past 2 years, who are we to say AOY is out of the question?
12. Stacey King – No stranger to pressure-packed events, the veteran of 12 Classics and three Cups is looking to top his 6th-place points finish 2 years ago.
13. Ray Scheide – Having his most consistent season since 2006 when he was 4th in points. Has BFL victories at two of the remaining venues on the schedule (Eufaula and Grand).
14. Bryan Thrift – Stubbed his toe at Beaver Lake (58th) where he's usually strong, but it's hard to bet against the 2010 AOY who's seeking a sixth straight Top-10 points finish.
16. Mark Rose – With a Tennessee River venue (Chickamauga) and structure-rich Grand Lake still on the ledger, he'll be a threat to make a push up the standings.
17. Jimmy Houston – Probably a longshot, but his competitive fire still burns hot (here's evidence) and he gets to fish in his backyard at Grand later this year.
2. Drew Benton – Got everyone's attention with a win at Okeechobee to start the year and has acquitted himself well on foreign water so far.
3. Michael Neal – College kid with three BFL wins to his credit. He's going to be a favorite at Lake Chickamauga (his uncle is Rogne Brown) later this season.
Koby Kreiger will look to continue his great start at a lake he adores.
10. Adrian Avena – Coming into his own this season after finishing 23rd in points as a rookie in 2012.
15. Spencer Shuffield – After fishing the last six Forrest Wood Cups as a co-angler, he's positioned himself for a run at his first Cup berth from the front of the boat.
6. James Watson – In three previous years on Tour, he's never placed higher than 103rd in AOY points. He's already eclipsed his career earnings through three events and is riding a wave of momentum.
11. Brandon Coulter – Rebounded from a stinker at Smith Lake by finally solving Beaver Lake. He's never finished in the Top 20 in AOY points.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It's a little bit tough. The bites are few and far between. It seems like they've moved out of the main creeks and are holding on the first ledge outside the mouths of the creeks, anywhere there's a channel swing or hard bottom in 20 feet or so.
"I've been amazed at how little fry there is. I haven't even seen fish guarding fry and haven't seen any fish on beds. It appears that they've moved out quickly. I thought there'd be some lingerers, but anything you catch near a bed is barely a keeper. It's going to be an interesting tournament. From Sunday to Monday, it looks like they moved out of the creeks to that last ledge leading out into the lake. There's a lot of fish in transition.
"I think the pattern that'll win this thing is something a guy figures out on the first day of the tournament, not on the last day of practice. If I had to throw one thing, it would probably be a topwater just on main-lake points. That's been the only way I've been able to catch decent fish. I've never had a practice like this, though. I have space for 24 rods in my rod locker and I have six extras and they were all on my deck (Monday). I've just been rotating through stuff and trying to figure it out."
"Practice has been pretty good. The lake's fishing tough and I'm liking that. It seems like it's setting up for my strength, which is offshore fishing. The shallow bite seem like it's being really stingy so I'm hoping that holds, but I know it could change at any time. I keep fiddling with some shallow stuff, but it looks like it'll be offshore for me.
"I'll be mixing some stuff up. The biggest thing I'm planning on is having too many spots to fish. Instead of relying on five spots, I'm going to have 200. I'm going with quantity with the hope I can run into some quality along the way. I like offshore better than anything else. I pre-practiced down here and they were all on beds so I tried to plan ahead 2 1/2 weeks and I think I guessed correctly."
"There are a lot of fish scattered. If it would stay 80 (degrees), it might make them all go deep and make things a little easier. I would say it's been inconsistent for me. The mornings are going to play a major role, at least for me. I think it will for a lot of people, too. It seems like after a certain point, like 9 or 10 o'clock, it's hard to get a bite. The key will be catching your fish early and hope the ones out deep will bite for the majority of the day.
"There's really not one thing I feel like I can catch them good on. I've never been here before so on Sunday, I burned a lot of gas just running around and looking around a lot. It's a very unique lake, but I've found there's not a ton of fish in this lake. Normally on a Tennessee River lake, you expect to see huge amounts of fish. It looks the same here as far as the ledges but there just aren't as many fish.
"I shook off a few that felt like good ones and I feel like I can catch a good bag if everything lines up right, but that's the thing – everything has to line up just right. It seems to me it's not necessarily a pattern deal for the big ones. It's not that easy to go out and catch a limit right now. You can't go down a stretch and call your shots. There's just no easy way out now."
"I don't have a clue what's going on. The first day of practice was awesome. I'd never been here before and when I started looking around it reminded me so much of my favorite lake back home – Lake Millwood. They're like identical twins with the same vegetation and the banks look the same. I immediately felt at home. I started doing the same thing I do at home and it was working good. I caught several 3-pounders. Since then, I don't know what's happened. Maybe it's these cooler nights. I have no clue what's happened to them. I'm not the only one. My dad caught them good the first couple days, but couldn't get bit doing the same thing Tuesday.
"I have about four ledges with fish on them and only one that seems to have a good school on it, but I'm sure other guys have found them, too. After what I saw the first day, I'd say you could win it up shallow and that's what 90 percent of the field is doing so I'm thinking they're going to beat it up to where it might not hold up for 4 days, maybe not even 2. It's going to be a grind for sure, unless something just turns around."
"My goal this week is to get back on track. I had two big finishes and then two sorry finishes. I just want to go out and catch some fish and get back on track. I had a lot of dry spells in practice. It seemed like I'd get a bite or two and go 3 or 4 hours and not get bit. It was real random.
"It seems like for a lot of the fish, we hit the lake perfectly at the wrong time. The spawn seems to be done for the most part and they're laid up out there and not really wanting to eat. I have a couple of baits I'm going to throw. I didn't get a lot of bites, but those are what worked. I didn't beat up some stuff because the lake's not that big and it's going to fish small. I'll probably go fish the shad spawn for the first couple of hours and then move off the bank.
Ryan Ingram is one to watch this week as he has multiple victories at Eufaula.
"This will be the first tournament in a while where I'll have just three or four rods on the deck and that'll be it. It's not going to take me long to get my stuff ready. I'm not saying I'm going to win. It's just that I only got bit doing a few things."
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. Troy Morrow – Has a strong history at Eufaula and sounds confident he can contend this week, especially if the off-shore bite stays hot. Currently 39th in points so a good finish could really help his chances at a third career Cup berth.
2. Ryan Ingram – Has four FLW wins and two B.A.S.S. victories – all at Eufaula. He didn’t fish any of the first three Tour events, meaning he paid all of his deposits just for the opportunity to fish a tour event on his home water. Probably the best of the Eufaula locals, he's planted hundreds of brush piles so don't expect him to run low on optons.
3. Scott Canterbury – Having a decent season so far in 23rd in points. His lone FLW win came in an EverStart in late April 2011, but he only fished Eufaula waters on the final day (he ran to Lake Seminoles the first 2 days). Still, if there's a flipping bite around grass, that'll play to his strengths.
4. Ish Monroe – If they're in the pads, a-froggin'-he-will-go. Versatile enough now to move off shore and probe the ledges. Has turned things around since missing checks at Lake Okeechobee and Smith Lake.
5. Randall Tharp – His finishes have trailed off since a 15th at Okeechobee, but he's usually pretty stout in his home state. Expect him to excel if there's a flipping bite in the green stuff.
6. Koby Kreiger – As noted above, he's off to a fine start this year and just booked a 5th-place finish at the Wheeler Lake EverStart last week. He loves Eufaula and he's won twice there (EverStarts in 2004 & 2007).
7. Jason Christie – It's been a while since he won – a whole month! Fishing the moment looks like it could be a crucial element this week and few are better at playing hunches than the world's No. 1-ranked pro, especially when a flipping pattern could be in play.
8. Brent Ehrler – The current leader in AOY points, he should be able to adjust on the fly no matter what the lake throws at him. He's been that good so far.
9. David Dudley – He caught fire in the second half of last season and while he's never won at Eufaula, he has a couple Top-10s to his credit.
10. J.T. Kenney – Coming off a runner-up finish at the Wheeler Lake EverStart, he can't afford any more bombs (87th in points) in the second half if he has designs on fishing the Cup.
> Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. CT from Lakepoint Resort State Park (104 Lakepoint Drive, Eufaula, AL). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3 p.m. CT at Lakepoint Resort State Park (same address). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will be held at the Walmart located at 3176 S. Eufaula Ave., Eufaula, AL.
> Thurs., May 16 – Partly Sunny - 84°/63°
- Wind: From the SW at 5 mph
> Fri., May 17 – Partly Sunny - 87°/64°
- Wind: From the N at 4 to 6 mph
> Sat., May 18 – Mostly Sunny - 89°/65°
- Wind: From the S at 3 to 5 mph
> Sun., May 19 – Mostly Sunny - 89°/65°
- Wind: From the S at 7 to 12 mph
> For Jay Yelas, practice for this week's Eufaula event went from miserable to memorable in the matter of a couple days. Meanwhile, Luke Clausen struggled to find much that he has a whole lot of confidence in. To check out their practice recaps in BassFan Pro View Reports, click here.