By Todd Ceisner
“It’s a big question mark.”
“It looks awful fishy for there to be so few fish here.”
“It’s going to be a grind.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard these statements before from pro bass anglers on the eve of a major tournament.
The Elite Series’ first-ever trip to Winyah Bay, a beautiful natural landscape located between Myrtle Beach and Charleston along South Carolina’s Atlantic coast, figures to be a memorable one. Some say it reminds them of the first time the circuit went to the Sabine River, a vast and diverse system that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Others think it’s a mix of the Mobile Delta, the California Delta and the Red River.
One thing’s for certain: As far as fishing potential goes, it’s nothing like the St. Johns River, where the season kicked off last month. Big bass just aren’t that plentiful in the rivers that flow into and around Winyah Bay. What bass are around seem to be concentrated in certain areas and that has some competitors concerned about what they found in practice holding up for as many as 4 days.
Winyah Bay and the numerous rivers that feed it is still recovering from historic flooding that occurred last fall and kept water levels high most of the winter. The Georgetown, S.C., area received close to 19 inches of rain during the first week of October. The storm was blamed for 17 deaths and triggered catastrophic flooding around the state, especially around Charleston.
The storm’s impact on bass fishing is just now being measured as the Elite Series pros try to figure out the best places to be for the different tidal scenarios they’ll face this week. The word coming into the event was that there were plenty of fish to be caught, but there was a shortage of big fish (5-pound class). There’s not an abundance of submergent vegetation, according to some, and it’s been difficult for some anglers to generate bites from anything other than mudfish so far.
There are still fish to be caught – some several zip codes away from takeoff – but which areas will be able to hold up to multiple days of fishing pressure remains to be seen.
Couple the flooding fallout with a new, sprawling tidal fishery and a cold front that’s in progress along with a weather forecast that’s calling for significant winds, plus a population of bass that seems to be behind on its normal spawning routine and this week has the potential to be one of the more interesting Elite Series events in some time.
For anglers who struggled at the St. Johns River, another poor finish will ratchet up the points pressure the rest of the season. For those who came out of Florida in good shape, they will be looking to survive this week before the schedule shifts to more familiar venues.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Fishery name: Winyah Bay
> Type of water: Coastal estuary (confluence of Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Black and Sampit rivers)
> Surface acres: N/A
> Primary structure/cover: Marsh grass, hydrilla, lily pads, wood (cypress stumps prevalent, laydowns, submerged timber)
> Primary forage: Bluegill, crawfish, shad (Cooper and Santee rivers)
> Average depth: Less than 10 feet
> Species: Largemouths
> Minimum length: 12 inches
> Reputation: Good fishery for numbers, but quality is hard to come by
> Weather: Cold front will follow thunderstorms on Thursday; winds will be persistent out of the west throughout the event
> Water temp: Mid-60s
> Water visibility/color: Some rivers are stained, others are naturally tannic. Effects of flooding still washing through.
> Water level: Higher than normal
> Fish in: 1 to 5 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn, spawn, few post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Topwater (frogs, prop baits), Senkos, spinnerbaits, flipping/pitching, squarebills, swimjigs, ChatterBaits.
> Winning weight: 52 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 51 after 2 days): 17 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2
> Biggest factors: Finding enough fish for 4 days.
> Biggest decision: Whether to sacrifice gobs of fishing time by running a long way or putting head down and grinding right away.
> Wildcard: Big bites. They’re few and far between.
Here’s a look at the area near Winyah Bay, thanks to Navionics. This event is basically without boundaries; the anglers are not allowed to lock through to another body of water.
Where to Start?
On a map, the area that’s covered by the water that’s in play this week can appear overwhelming. The information sheet distributed by B.A.S.S. to the anglers spells out that all water (rivers, creeks and canals) connecting to the Winyah Bay/PeeDee River Basin will make up the playing field. That’s a sizable amount of real estate that covers (at least) eight rivers – the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, North and South Santee, Sampit, Black, Cooper and Wando – and all of the corresponding feeder creeks, canals and backwaters.
John Proctor, who lives in Conway, S.C., grew up fishing the rivers that empty into Winyah Bay and last April he won the B.A.S.S. Nation Southern Divisional on those same waters. That event took place in the latter part of the month and he capitalized on knowing the effect the tides have on areas where bass tend to spawn. His winning weight of 34-11 over 3 days included a key 7-pound kicker and came out of a stretch of water between Bucksport and Myrtle Beach, to the north of this week’s takeoff point in Georgetown.
“I think it definitely helped me,” he said, referencing his history on the fishery. “Where I fished was a place that we considered a big community area and I had it mostly to myself. I was really disappointed with what I had for a total, but I was fortunate to win.”
South Carolina native John Proctor doesn't think catching a limit will be that difficult this week.
Proctor went on to the B.A.S.S. Nation Championship last fall and qualified for the Bassmaster Classic at Grand Lake, where he finished 42nd competing against some of the same anglers who are in his backyward this week. He said having so many options around Winyah Bay will be a good thing for the field.
“I like the vastness of it,” Proctor said. “You don’t have to be around other people if you don’t want to be. They’ll be crowded in some places, though.
“The numbers are really good. I’ll be surprised if there aren’t a lot of limits caught, but quality will be the challenge.”
The calendar would seem to indicate it’s time for the bass to be well into the spawning ritual, but practice reports have been mixed on that front. Some are convinced most fish are pre-spawn while others have caught some that appear to be post-spawn. With a new moon on tap for Thursday, that could trigger some changes, but it’ll also bring larger tide swings as well.
“The time of year they’re here, the fish will be spawning, but on these systems, they only spawn on certain types of places like canals, marinas or backwaters,” Proctor said.
It’s challenging enough trying to break down what amounts to a delta system in 2 1/2 days of practice. Add to that what figures to be a pretty stout west wind all week and it could significantly change water levels and how some areas fish compared to the norm.
Granted, the wind might not be a big factor in some protected canals and backwaters, but it may force some competitors to think twice about making lengthy runs, especially toward the Cooper River toward Charleston, which requires a nearly 2-hour ride one way via the Intracoastal Waterway.
The water in the Cooper, which flows out of Lake Moultrie, is typically clearer than the other rivers, a product of the hydrilla that’s established itself there. It also has a reputation for holding some above-average sized bass. Last spring, the Cooper River produced a purported state record 42-pound stringer during a South Carolina B.A.S.S. Federation tournament. There were four other bags in excess of 18 pounds caught that day as well.
While Proctor isn’t as familiar with the Cooper as he is other rivers in the area, he knows that it could be factor this week for those assuming to take on the risk of going there and getting back. With 3-pound fish considered gold this week, having a chance to catch a few of those specimens in a compacted day could be worth the trip.
“The hardest thing for me is how to factor the Cooper in when you only have 3 1/2 hours to fish on a bad tide,” he said. “It’s an altogether better river than the others. I think it’s just the right amount of risk in having to sacrifice a lot of fishing time to make that run.”
Running in the other direction, toward Myrtle Beach, could be productive as well. Either way, Proctor is stoked to see how the pros tackle his home waters.
“I think they’ll want to come back when they’re done,” he added. “It’s one of those places they’ll want to learn more about.”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“It’s better than I thought it would be. I’ve done a lot of running and the reason I like it is you can run away from people if you really want to. You don’t have to fish next to anybody. You can get away from the wind and water-color changes. That’s the great part about it. You can run 100 miles in any direction you want to run except for east. It’s like combination of the Sabine, the Cal Delta and the Red River.
“I can run far, far away or I can put the trolling motor down and fish. I’ve done both, but I haven’t figured out what to do yet in the tournament. In the first 2 days of practice, I fished three different rivers. It’s like the Delta in that certain places need low tide and certain need a high tide to catch ‘em. It’s not like you have to have it at a certain place. You can fish on high and low and fish in between. You just have to figure out how to catch ‘em.”
“This is my kind of tournament, but I’m not around the fish so far. I’m still looking. I don’t know what to expect. They might live here when the conditions are right. I saw a bunch of empty beds yesterday so maybe they’ve spawned already. I really enjoy this kind of fishing – beating the bank and fishing muddy water. I like the way it sets up, but I don’t have any good places to settle down and fish yet.
“This will be the toughest tournament for the year. You could easily get screwed up in points this week. Everything looks good. You could make a long run and hit high tide and not have much time to fish or pick an area and grind and grind. At a place like this, somebody could get into a place here that nobody’s fished, even a local, and maybe win the tournament. There’s so much water and a lot of stuff is unknown. I was very excited about it 2 days ago. Not so much anymore.”
Mike McClelland gained some confidence in practice, but he's not sure how it will translate during the tournament.
“I think this place has had so much rain since last fall that the fish haven’t got to where we all think they should be. There’s no sign that anything that should be happening this time of year is happening. I came here with anticipation that fish had already spawned and we’d be seeing lots of fry or some schooling, but from the few fish I’ve caught, they seem to be completely pre-spawn. I don’t think they’ve staged even.
“I’d heard it was full of fish, just not a lot of big ones. Normally by now, you’d see a lot of topwater activity and fish schooling around mouths of creeks and things, but none of that is going on. You get to the back of a dead-end canal where you’d think they’d be piled into and there is no signs of anything happening yet.
“I spent 2 1/2 days here before off-limits and I thought I had a good grasp of what I wanted to look at. With the rain they got last week, I think it was more than what I expected it to be. I launched and loaded my boat three times on Monday and emptied the gas tank in my truck and boat that day. It was a day of frustration, but a day well spent because if I’d not done it then, I would’ve wasted time later on. I feel good about what I did Tuesday. Do I think it’s the winning pattern? Not necessarily, but it’s something that could keep me in the hunt.”
“This is my first time ever here and it’s a got a few fish in it. It’s hard, though, because if you pick the wrong river, you’re sunk. If you pick the wrong other area you’re sunk because all the water will blow out of there. It’s a tenuous deal really.
“I’ve found fish in small areas within big areas. You’ll go down one little 20-yard stretch and catch a few and that’ll be it. I don’t have a lot of hope, but I have caught a couple better ones. Last year at the Sabine, I’d never been there, but I burned six gallons of fuel in 3 days and finished 25th. You can do that here I believe or you can go Federal Express and keep going and going.
“If you give me 10 pounds a day after 2 days, I’ll walk out right now and not even fish Saturday. Decision-making on being sure to pick the right river will be huge and if you hook a 3-pounder, you better get it in the boat because those are going to be like gold this week.”
“It seems pretty tough. I’d heard from some other guys that there’s supposed to be a lot of fish and that having 25 to 30 bites a day wouldn’t be uncommon, but there’s just not a lot of good ones. I’m not catching that many at all. I’m getting maybe 10 bites a day. We’re having a cold front and that might have something to do with it. Plus, the water was high for so long that that might have them in a different mood.
“I fished three different rivers in 2 days and if the tournament started right now, I’m not sure what I’d do yet. I don’t have much confidence at all. When you catch them it’s random and I think it’s going to fish a lot smaller than you’d think an eight-river system would. They just don’t live everywhere. Some water is brackish. Some is salt. There are only so many places that seem to be good.”
“I wasn’t able to spent a lot of time pre-practicing over here because it was flooded from November to January. The water was really high for a long period of time. Before the cut-off, the word was bites weren’t a problem. It’s that the quality wasn’t as good as other places. A 1- to 2 1/4-pound fish is pretty common here, but in 2 days, not only is it tough to get bites, it’s been tough to get one over 2 pounds.
Todd Faircloth has a track record of doing well in tough, low-weight events.
“The water’s pretty in some places, but with the way it’s setting up, the Santee River is blown out and muddy and with the wind blowing hard out of the north, it’s difficult to find clean water. I’m not getting many bites and the size isn’t there. I’m not sure if the fish are behind as far as spawning goes. There’s been a lot of hype about the Cooper, but it’s so far and with the weather we’re due to get, it might not be worth the run. A few guys who I’ve talked to who’ve been there said they haven’t been that impressed.
“There are a lot of question marks for a lot of guys. There are a few areas that have fish and they will have half the field in those areas.”
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. Todd Faircloth – Could this be the Sabine River 2013 all over again? If so, count this ever-so-steady Texan among the faves.
2. Bill Lowen – A river rat if there ever was one. He’ll be a kid in a candy store with so many options this week and after decent showings at the Classic and the St. Johns River, his confidence level is in good shape.
3. Dean Rojas – Topwater and sight-fishing are expected to be factors this week and few can match Rojas’ abilities in both disciplines, especially in the spring. Posted a Top-20 at the St. Johns to kick off the year.
4. Greg Hackney – He’s no fan of fishing in crowds so expect him to be off by himself somewhere. When he’s rolling, look out, and with a 10th at the Classic and a 2nd at the St. Johns, looks the like Hack Express is picking up steam.
5. Luke Clausen – He’s a classic junk-fisherman and this could be an event that changes each day. He has a win on a tidal river, too (Potomac FLW Tour – 2011), and posted a decent finish in his Elite Series debut.
6. Justin Lucas – Has quietly become one of the top performers on the circuit during this time of year, not to mention on tidal fisheries. He has five Top-25s in six Elite Series events on tidal waters in 2-plus years.
7. Terry Scroggins – He’s no stranger to tidal water, but this will be a little different than the big-fish potential of the St. Johns, where he took 7th. He’s more focused this year and needs a good result to keep the momentum going.
8. Drew Benton – Lives on the Florida panhandle and is comfortable in tidal situations. If there are fish on beds, he’ll find ‘em. Made his presence felt with a 4th at the St. Johns.
9. Mike Iaconelli – Comfortable in virtually any situation, especially tough tidal waters. He’s coming off a rare strong showing in Florida and another top-half finish will put him on solid footing in the points race.
10. Aaron Martens – Was the first guy out of the cut at the St. Johns, ending his tremendous streak of six straight Top-15s in full field events. Expect him to bounce back. Hasn’t missed two straight cuts since early 2012.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. ET all 4 days from Carroll Campbell Marine Complex (800 Venture Dr., Georgetown, S.C. 29440). Weigh-ins will get under way at 3:15 p.m. at Carroll Ashmore Campbell Marine Complex (same address).
> Thurs., April 7 – Chance of Thunderstorms - 72°/50°
- Wind: From the WSW at 20 to 30 mph
> Fri., April 8 – Clear - 64°/42°
- Wind: From the WNW at 10 to 20 mph
> Sat., April 9 – Partly Cloudy - 60°/37°
- Wind: From the WNW at 15 to 25 mph
> Sun., April 10 – Clear - 61°/42°
- Wind: From the W at 10 to 15 mph