By Todd Ceisner
The warnings were clear and suggestive – they always are – and the aftereffects were felt all over Lake Guntersville on Friday.
Any time the National Weather Service issues tornado warnings like it did across parts of north and central Alabama on Thursday, the immediate concern lies with the safety of the general public. At the same time, the 55 competitors in the Bassmaster Classic were left to wonder what impact the heavy winds and rain would have on their playing field for day 1 of the Classic.
Many anglers who were hoping to pick apart Guntersville's typically fertile shallow water first thing Friday morning found those areas muddy, debris-filled or otherwise unfishable. It left some of the bigger names in the field scrambling to find alternate areas to get some forward momentum going into day 2.
Six former Classic winners will start day 2 in 27th place or below, meaning they have plenty of work to do if they have designs on making the Top-25 cut for Sunday.
"With the change in conditions, today was a day you go out and find what is still there," said Alton Jones, the 2008 Classic champ, after he found himself in 31st place with 15-07. "One of my primary areas was washed out. I didn't realize we had as much rain as we had last night. For tomorrow, I'll have to go fish some different area and see what happens."
Rain wasn't the main culprit, though. Heavy winds, which eventually died down, had sections of the lake rolling in the morning, churning up shallow-water areas even more. Some anglers noted that their areas weren't necessarily muddy, but they noticed differences in the way they fish were positioned or how they were biting.
Here's a snapshot of the storm front that pushed through the Guntersville area on Thursday night.
"I had an area where I thought I was going to catch them good," said Terry Scroggins, who's 21st with 16-15. "I got there and the water had a little bit of color to it. I think the storm system that came through last night might have had an effect on them in some areas. In some areas, it didn't, but the area I was in it did. I was looking for a 25- or 30-pound bag where I was at."
As water temperatures warmed throughout the week, much of the pre-tournament chatter centered around waves of fish starting to move toward their pre-spawn haunts in the creeks. Thursday's storm essentially served as a speed bump in that process as prolonged sunny conditions are in the weekend forecast.
The rate at which the water clears up and continues its warming trend will determine a lot about how those trying to scratch their way into the Top-25 cut fish on day 2.
Four-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam has a bit of a hole to climb out of after catching 16-02 (27th), but he feels like he's in tune with what adjustments he needs to make.
"I'm pretty sure I have a good idea of what I need to be doing," he said. "With the wind laying down, hopefully some of the water will clear. The more that it stabilizes out, the better it will be.
"The fish were really funky today. I have not missed any bites this week and then today, they were just weird. It didn't really matter if I was fishing a bottom bait or a moving bait. Before, you'd feel a thump when you get a bite. Today, all of a sudden your line would just go off to the side. It was just weird."
For Mark Davis, who won the 1995 Classic, his day was spent mostly in salvage mode after the creek he opted to fish well up the lake had fallen victim to the storm surge. He's currently in 46th after weighing four fish for 10-00.
"One area was blown out," he said. "I made a big run and shouldn't have. It ate up too much time going up there. I knew it was a gamble, but it was there in practice. It just wasn't there today. I tried to make it work, but once you're in that deep, you have to try to make it work. It didn't work.
The fish Davis had been catching were keyed on stumps and he'd been able to trigger strikes with crankbaits. The heavily-stained water took that out of play today.
"The mud line was close and I don't know if that affected them," he added.