By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Due to the Bassmaster Wild Card, which took place in early December, qualifiers for the 2014 Bassmaster Classic got an extended time period to pre-practice at Lake Guntersville. Instead of going off-limits following the second week of December, as has been the norm since the event shifted to the late winter in 2006, competitors had the option of being on the venue right up until the new year was rung in.
Whether they went in October or November or waited until the week after Christmas, what the anglers found was an enormous amount of grass. While that was certainly no revelation for Guntersville, some said they encountered more of the green stuff than they'd anticipated and there was a lot of it in places where they'd expected to discover little – and vice versa.
Alabama is just emerging from a severe cold snap (Tuesday's temperature was predicted to top out at 25 degrees) that likely laid waste to a portion of the grass, and more will die off over the next 6 weeks leading up to the tournament. The field won't grasp the full effect of the die-off phenomenon until it returns for official practice in mid-February.
Here are some pre-practice reports from anglers who visited Guntersville prior to the Jan. 1 cutoff.
Martens' residence in Leeds, Ala. is only about a 90-minute drive from Guntersville. He spent a total of 7 days on the lake prior to traveling to his native California for Christmas.
He boated a fish in the 8-pound class and several others that exceeded 5 pounds.
"It was about what I expected," he said. "The grass looked really good, but the fishing was hot and cold because of the time of year. There was a ton of grass and a lot of it will still be there in February. There's so much grass for them to be in that they could be hard to find.
"It doesn't have the numbers of fish like it had before just because it's gotten hammered – I don't think there's a lake in the country that has more tournaments. But it's still got quality, and winning the Classic might take 25 pounds a day."
VanDam sometimes opts to forgo pre-practice on a Classic venue with which he's familiar, but he spent a couple of days at Guntersville following a visit with his brother in North Carolina.
"The reason I went this time is it's a grass lake and It's been several years since I've been there and I really wanted to get a feel for which areas have grass and which types of grass they have," he said. "There's a lot more grass than when I was there last time and the fish have so much more habitat to utilize now. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but there's a lot more water you have to look at now.
Four-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam was able to film a TV show during his pre-practice trip.
"I spent most of my time looking, but I fished a little bit just for fun and because I had a few things I wanted to try, and we also filmed a show for Strike King. I caught some good ones even though it was pretty tough fishing with the water (temperature) in the upper 40s."
Roumbanis made his pre-practice trip all the way back in October. It was at least somewhat educational, but not a lot of fun.
"The fishing was horrible – the worst I've ever seen it there," he said. "The fish were in their fall transition and it was just tough. Those fish used to get a break in the late fall and winter before the (Alabama Rig) came along, and now they can get that by going way back in the thick grass where you couldn't get a boat into if you tried. It's good to let those fish get a rest.
"The cold weather should be killing that grass off, though, and that'll open up some new areas. You won't have to fish the same strike zone that everybody else has been hitting or weeks on end. When the Classic comes around, I think the lake will be fishing to a lot of people's strengths. Yes, they'll bite (lipless crankbaits) and yes, they'll bite jerkbaits, but there's other things they'll bite, too."
Rojas visited Guntersville during the first week of December. It was chilly then, but not as cold as it was over the past week.
"I spent 4 full days there. I've been there eight or nine times before, but I wanted to look at it as a brand new lake. Instead of just looking at areas I'd fished in the past, I wanted to expand to the outside of them and open up some more options because so much at that lake has changed over the last 5 or 6 years.
"I fished for a little bit, but the better fish just weren't biting. I caught a couple of 3- and 4-pounders, but nothing real spectacular. It was more about trying to familiarize myself with what's there now and I think I got a pretty good handle on what I'll be getting into."
Chapman paid his visit to the lake during the week prior to Christmas.
"I saw a lot of grass – a lot of it – and a lot of coots," he said. "It kind of made it hard to fish because the coots had pulled up the grass in a lot of places and there was so much hydrilla on the surface that you couldn't make a cast.
Brent Chapman got a reminder of how many quality fish Lake Guntersville harbors.
"I didn't go there to catch a bunch of fish. I wanted to get myself in the right frame of mind. I figure the areas that had good grass then, the fishing should be better when we go back. A lot of places that traditionally have grass don't have it now, and some places that don't usually have it do now.
"I didn't wear the place out by any means, but I caught a few. It was a good reminder of how many 3- to 5-pounders are in that lake."
Biffle waited until the final week to take his pre-practice trip to the venue.
"I mainly looked around and didn't fish much," he said. "There was still a lot of grass. The weather was kind of crappy – it rained all of one day and one night.
"Everything's going to depend on the weather. They'll be up shallower if it gets warm between now and then, and if not they'll be out deeper. I just hope there's not a lot of rain that muddies up the (Tennessee) River real bad. That's the worst thing that could happen."