By Todd Ceisner
George Cochran and Zell Rowland know what it's like to win a tournament at Lake Guntersville in February.
Come early Sunday evening, someone else will, too.
For Cochran, his 2004 win at Guntersville was his second career win at the Tennessee River impoundment (he'd won the Alabama Invitational in April 1992) and he nearly cracked the 100-pound barrier in the process, finishing with 99-10 to beat Stacey King by more than 9 pounds.
Rowland, who finished 6th the year Cochran won, came back stronger the following February and held off a furious final-day charge from Morizo Shimizu to win the Bassmaster Tour event there with 87-00, including 27-06 on the last day of competition.
Guntersville still holds a special place in each of their hearts. For Cochran, a two-time Classic winner who's now retired from tournament fishing, his 2004 triumph represented his first Bassmaster Tour win against a pretty stout field. For Rowland, his 2005 victory was the last time he's hoisted a trophy at a major tournament.
"In my opinion, over the last 30 years it's always been one of the best lakes in the country to go to," Cochran said. "Of course, I think this is prime time for it."
"That lake is one of the most special lakes in the country," Rowland added. "It's been very well managed over the years and it's one of the best fisheries that we have in the U.S. that's centrally located. Regardless of the weather, I look for them to break a lot of the (Classic) records there."
BassFan caught up with Cochran and Rowland last week to look back on their respective Guntersville wins in February and get their take on whether any of the little nuances that played a role in their victories could figure into this week's event.
Cochran Threw Back 5-Pounders
By 2004, Cochran was already a giant in the sport. He'd won two Classics (1987 and 1996) and was a year away from adding the Forrest Wood Cup to his crowded mantle. Still, the 2004 Lake Guntersville Bassmaster Tour stands out to him as one of the finest sequence of days he's ever spent on the water.
Kevin VanDam led on day 1 before Mike Iaconelli assumed the top spot after day 2. Cochran was in 6th place halfway through the event, 2 1/2 pounds off the pace.
"I'd been fishing lipless baits like a Rat-L-Trap and fishing this and that," he said. "Then I started throwing a jerkbait because the water temperature was cold, probably about what it's like now."
He made his move on day 3 when he caught 23-10 Ė he was the lone angler to weigh three straight 20-pound bags Ė and carried a 1-pound advantage into the final day, when a fresh blanket of snow greeted the anglers in the morning.
The jerkbait bite on day 4 was as good as any he can remember, but it was the way he fished the bait he said that made all the difference. He relied on a tip he'd picked up from Doyle Caine, a guide he knew in Arkansas, who told Cochran that after casting the jerkbait out to let it sit for 5 to 8 seconds. Caine called it "soaking a jerkbait."
"There was plenty of grass and there were all kinds of little points in this bay I was fishing," Cochran said. "The first day, I wasn't letting it sit very long, just a little while and they'd hit it, but I was catching mostly 3- and 4-pounders. As the tournament progressed and I really found the right stretch where I was catching big fish I'd slow down and let it sit for a longer period of time and I started catching bigger fish. Every fish I caught, I'd let it set there for 5 to 8 seconds before one would hit it.
"That wind didn't blow the last day and when you're fishing jerkbaits you need some wind. At about 10 o'clock, I had one fish. I knew they were there and when the wind started blowing, I started catching those 5- and 6-pounders. Eventually I was throwing back 5-pounders. I think I remember my camera man telling me I threw back 12 fish over 5 pounds. That's the best feeling in the world."
Zell Rowland had three different patterns going when he won at Lake Guntersville in February 2005.
He said he threw a Strike King Wild Shiner jerkbait, but eventually caught the lion's share of his fish on a suspending Lucky Craft jerkbait. He closed the tournament with a tournament-best 29-11 stringer to win in convincing fashion.
"To me, that was one of the most fun tournaments I've ever fished in my life," he added.
He feels whomever wins this year's Classic will have to display a similar amount of patience and take things slow.
"If the weather stays like it is and the fishing's good, the guy who wins this week will find a real good area and he'll slow down," he said. "What surprises me about Guntersville is that from the dam just about all the way up to where it turns into the river, it can be won just about anywhere. In my opinion, it'll be won in the middle of the lower end. It just seems like early in the year the middle of the lake is the best part of the lake."
Rowland Rolled With Changes
The following year, Rowland constantly adjusted to the conditions en route to his second career at Guntersville.
One day, he threw a lipless crankbait. Then, it was a jerkbait. Then, he flipped docks with a jig. His multi-faceted approach produced 87 pounds over 4 days and was strong enough to fend off Shimizu, who weighed 30-05 on the final day.
He feels that grass will produce plenty of fish in this year's Classic, but other shallow areas will also harbor healthy numbers of bass.
"There are always fish on that lake that live shallow and they will play part in this year's event, regardless if a guy's catching them out on the river," Rowland said. "When I won, I was doing several different things. I knew where the fish were before they started to make their move back on the grass line. There were already fish on the back of the grass line. What will be interesting is those high-water conditions we had back then, they're going to have them this time, and that's going to make a lot of those fish move toward the bank.
"It could almost be sort of a repeat of how I caught them when I won there."
He said he caught a lot of fish on a Rogue jerkbait, but it wasn't as productive as the jig he flipped.
"There's a key to catching those fish there flipping," he said. "If you're going to flip docks, you need to flip the deepest docks there. Those fish always live on those docks. It's like the fish living on the edge of the river. The guys that know those docks or some of them, they'll catch some key fish off of those deeper docks."
A lipless crank at Guntersville is like fishing with a small Swiss Army knife.
"Where the rattlebait will play is it'll allow guys to catch them on the inside and outside edges of the grass with that bait," he added. "It's like having one tool to do two different things."
One bait he wishes he was more comfortable with in 2005 was a swimbait. He's aware of the massive stringers caught on the Alabama Rig at Guntersville and other TVA lakes, but even a single swimbait may have outperformed his three-pronged attack.
"It would not surprise me to see somebody throwing a swimbait tied on," he said. "When you ask yourself how many 6- or 7-pounders swim in there, there's a whole bunch of them and your odds of throwing a swimbait and getting one of them to bite are probably pretty good.
"I don't think it'll be the bait that wins. It'll be won doing a combination of two things. The guy that figures out those two or three things, he'll run away with it."
> David Fritts won the most recent tour-level event in February at Guntersville, claiming the FLW Tour event there in 2009. He weighed 38-01 over the final 2 days to earn the victory. His chosen method? Cranking, of course.