By Todd Ceisner
Bassmaster Classics are like snowflakes. No two are alike.
Each year, it seems something distinctive – historic, even – occurs and raises our collective eyebrows toward our hairlines while we gaze at the tournament that has grown into an unrivaled spectacle bedazzled with equal parts glitz and Gitzit.
“Never seen that before!” and “He was in what place yesterday?” have become frequent utterances at recent Classics as a result of the dramatic final-day rallies that now seem to be commonplace in the sport’s marquee event.
The Classic is a celebration of the sport, a gathering wrapped around a tournament that tests the skills and mettle of some of the best bass anglers in the world. Thirty of the top 50 anglers in the current BassFan World Rankings are slated to compete this week. And for many reasons, the Classic that’s about to unfold along the Tennessee River with the vibrant college town of Knoxville, Tenn., serving as the backdrop will be unlike any before it and surely any to come in the near or distant future.
The interest level surrounding Classic XLIX (that’s football-ese for 49) is hard to describe. The location – Knoxville lies within a day's driving distance from two-thirds of the population of the United States – and facility (Thompson-Boling Arena seats 20,000-plus for basketball) are likely to attract record crowds to the event, topping last year’s turnout in Greenville, S.C.
For some, this will be the first time seeing the Classic up close. Take a picture because it’s quite possibly the last time this collection of anglers will gather together for a tournament under the B.A.S.S. shield. With the migration of many of the sport’s top talents to Major League Fishing’s new Bass Pro Tour, those who regularly qualified for the Classic via the Elite Series could be taking part in their last Classic this week, including past champions Kevin VanDam, Skeet Reese, Mike Iaconelli, Chris Lane, Casey Ashley, Cliff Pace, Edwin Evers and Jordan Lee, who has won the last two Classics, both in comeback fashion.
Make no mistake, a significant chapter in the sport’s history is going to close with the conclusion of this tournament and that’s what makes this week so deliciously intriguing. Of the 52 men in the field, 36 chose to depart the Elite Series following the 2018 season in favor of the Bass Pro Tour. They did so with the knowledge that it would also likely mark the end of the B.A.S.S. portion of their careers. This Classic could very well be their swan song.
One item that remains unresolved is what will happen if a current MLF angler wins this week. Per B.A.S.S. Elite Series rule C2A (Participants and Eligibility), “To be eligible for the 2020 Bassmaster Classic, Elite pro anglers must participate in all 2019 Elite Series events in which they are eligible unless an exemption is approved by the Tournament Director.”
If one of the 12 current Elite Series anglers competing this week wins, it’s a moot point, otherwise Elite Series tournament director Trip Weldon will have the final say on whether this year’s champion will be allowed to compete in next year’s Classic.
Fort Loudoun-Tellico lakes should provide a level playing field for this marker post tournament on the sport’s historic timeline. Only a handful in the field have experience in multi-day tournaments there and the most recent one of those was six years ago in the now-defunct PAA Tournament Series. The stretch of Tennessee River in play this week doesn’t get near the notoriety for its bass fishing that other TVA lakes do, but Lou-Tel receives plenty of fishing pressure. The Classic anglers got a glimpse of that last Sunday when the sun finally made an appearance during their last day of unofficial practice.
This will be as diverse a fishery to host a spring time Classic since the event shifted to this part of the year in 2006. All three species (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted) inhabit these waters and smallmouth are expected to be a factor despite an 18-inch length requirement.
As far as current conditions go, it’s been a case of cause and effect as water levels all along the Tennessee River continue to fluctuate in response to what’s been a tremendously wet winter. In fact, 2018 was the wettest year on record in the Tennessee River Valley.
If you think it has rained a lot this year... well, 2018 is now the wettest year on record for the 41,000 square-mile Tennessee River Valley - that's from 129 years of weather data! We surpassed the previous record of 65.1" set in 1973 and there is still more rain to come. pic.twitter.com/hKY9pEwe9l— Tennessee Valley Authority (@TVAnews) December 28, 2018
Knoxville experienced its eighth-wettest year ever in 2018 and the first part of 2019 has not been much different. As a result, the lakes – Cherokee and Douglas – that feed the Holston and French Broad rivers which join to form the Tennessee River just east of Knoxville are close to their summer pool levels a couple months ahead of schedule. Water is being released out of the both lakes this week, which will push more water through the Loudoun-Tellico system.
More rain is in the forecast for Thursday and a cold front is due to arrive in time for the start of competition Friday. Neither sound appealing, but some are dreading more changes to the water levels and clarity as the fish will reposition depending on how much fluctuation there is and how the current flow changes. According to data published on the TVA website, plans are to lower the water in Fort Loudoun by nearly a foot between Tuesday and Thursday, likely in anticipation of the coming rainfall, which is projected to be in the half-inch range.
The influx of water has the river doing things it’s not done before, according to locals. Wesley Strader, a resident of Spring City who learning to fish for bass on this part of the Tennessee River, said he’s never seen this amount of current so early in the year. At Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville on Wednesday morning, boats were drifting at 3 miles an hour with the current.
“I’ve never fished anything like this right here,” Strader said as he pointed to the water flowing under the James White Parkway bridge. “It’s never done this ever. This (water) is flying. If it were the fall or the summer, it’s great, but in the winter or this early in the spring, it’s not good. The largemouth don’t like the current like that and it makes it difficult on the smallmouth, too, because the water is so dirty. You have to get (a bait) right in front of them.”
Combined with the lower stretches of the Holston and French Broad, anglers will have roughly 30,000 surface acres to work with this weekend, but if early indications are accurate the bulk of the field could end up fishing within a small portion of that space. It’ll put an increased emphasis on decision-making and a premium on fishing water that’s not been hit previously by other competitors.
Before diving into more about the Classic venue, here’s a close look at some details about Loudoun-Tellico:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Name: Ft. Loudoun and Tellico
> Type of Water: Tennessee Valley impoundments
> Surface Acres: 14,600 (Loudoun), 15,560 (Tellico)
> Primary structure/cover: Docks, rocks, points, laydowns, brush, some bluffs
> Primary forage: Threadfin and gizzard shad, crawfish, bream, some river herring
> Average depth: Unavailable, but the lakes are fairly shallow with classic narrow river layouts – steeper to the outside bends, shallow and flat to the insides
> Species: Largemouth, smallmouth, spots
> Length limit: 18 inches for smallmouth, 14 inches for largemouth, 12 inches for spots
> Reputation: A heavily-pressured fishery with few secrets and some big smallmouth
> Weather: Rain is forecast for Thursday – up to a half-inch – before a cold front moves in Friday. The sun is expected to burn through the clouds for the weekend.
> Water temperature: High 40s to mid 50s
> Water color/visibility: Varies based on location; Muddy to stained on Loudoun with clearer sections more prevalent on Tellico end
> Water level: It’s been all over the place with all the recent rain, but seemed to be stabilizing prior to whatever rain accumulates Thursday
> Fish in: 2 feet to 25 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, jerkbait, vibrating jigs
> Winning weight: 49 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 25 after two days): 22 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Loudoun–Tellico
> Biggest factor: Stable water conditions. Clarity is key
> Biggest decisions: Which lake to fish, and which species to target
> Wildcard: Big smallmouth – they’re there to catch, but tough to rely on
Here’s an overhead look at how Loudoun-Tellico lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
Where to fish and what to fish for are two key questions that each of the competitors will grapple with starting Friday. There are certainly plenty of choices between Loudoun and Tellico that could be productive.
“This tournament will allow guys to exploit their strength and that’s my favorite part about this,” said Randall Tharp, who will be competing in his fourth Classic. “You will have guys all over the map doing what they’re best at.”
That could mean targeting smallmouth in the clearer waters of Tellico or playing in the stained water of Fort Loudoun or a mix of both.
“This time of year, a Rat-L-Trap in the backs of pockets can be good if you find the warmest water on the lake,” said Tommy Brown, a local angler who won the 2013 Lou-Tel PAA Tournament Series. “A jerkbait comes in big, too. These lakes fish similar to others in the TVA chain because the fish set up on current flow.”
When it comes to Tellico, FLW Tour angler Chris Whitson, a native of nearby Louisville, Tenn., says long channel points often hold smallmouth, which are susceptible to a jerkbait or a jig.
“The lower end of Fort Loudoun and Tellico seem to be stronger in March and it seems like largemouth on Fort Loudoun start to dominate come April and May,” Whitson added.
With all the color in the water, BassFans are likely to see a lot of moving baits thrown around this week, especially shallow-running square-bill cranks along with flat-sided plugs that have a cult-like following in parts of Tennessee.
Something to Rely On
With plenty of options to choose from, it would stand to reason that this fishery can be dynamic from end to end. Not so.
The book on Lou-Tel is that it can be your best friend on Friday and an arch enemy by Saturday. A cursory glance at FLW Tour results from 2007, 2008 and 2010 illustrates that point. In 2010, Roy Hawk, who will compete this week, held the day-1 lead with 20-14 (the biggest stringer caught in three FLW Tour events here) before blanking on day 2. He managed 8-01 on day 3 but finished 28th. In the same tournament, Ott DeFoe, who is considered one of the local favorites this week, had a 16-01 limit on day 1, then caught 12-13 (six fish) over the next two days to finish 28th.
Jordan Lee will be in search of a third straight Classic win this week.
Consistency will be critical in this Classic, but with the conditions and fish changing daily, that will pose the ultimate challenge this week.
“Somebody will bust 22 pounds on a spinnerbait at Loudon, but struggle to carry that for three days straight,” said Whitson.
He feels the finicky nature will favor those with past experience and success on the venue and nobody in the field has more of that than DeFoe and Strader.
“You’ve got have the guts to bail on something that worked the day before,” Whitson said, “and they’ll know where you can’t stay in one place for too long.”
Randall Tharp is one competitor who doesn’t trust Lou-Tel to be consistent.
“To pull this off, you have to be extremely versatile and make gut decisions,” he said. “The guy who wins won’t be catching a lot of fish. The emphasis will be on quality bites. From my practice, you’re not going to get 15 3-pound bites, but you are going to need 3-pounders to compete here. No matter what pattern you have, whether you’re in the river or in the backwaters, I don’t see it being a catch-fest.”
The minimum length requirement for largemouth this week is 14 inches, a very reachable figure. For the smallmouth, however, an 18-inch standard is in place. Some contend the conditions aren’t prime for smallmouth to be a major factor, but others are certain whomever wins this week will need a couple each day.
“The special thing about Fort Loudoun is there are a lot of good fish in there – largemouth and smallmouth,” said Brown, won the 2013 PAA Tournament Series event at Lou-Tel. “I’ve caught more 6-pound plus smallmouth there than anywhere else. It could be won on smallmouth if someone gets to Tellico and finds the right group of them. You can catch 25 pounds in 25 minutes. They’re like ghosts, though, and I’ve been burned by that before.”
“The largemouth population is good all over the lake, but the smallmouth are running in groups now. If someone finds a bunch of them, there will be others.”
And when the smallmouth bite, typically, they’re not of the juvenile variety.
“We don’t catch a lot of smaller smallmouth, never have,” he added. “There’s a good population of 18-inch plus fish.”
The Mud Factor
Brent Chapman arrived in Knoxville the weekend prior to the start of unofficial practice and made the rounds in the area, taking note (from shore) of the water conditions at various locations.
“I did a lot of driving around,” he said. “I went to 20 different boat ramps and laid eyes on different parts of the deal. I did my homework and spent three days trying to figure out how I wanted to approach it. I’ve seen most of the fishery and with the conditions, I feel like I have my brain wrapped around what I want to be doing.”
By the start of three-day practice session last Friday, the water had come down 4 1/2 feet before coming back up following heavy rains last Saturday. Since Feb. 24, the lake has come down six feet.
“It’s amazing the volume of water and how they can move it here,” Chapman said.
He’d prefer to not be amazed at how quickly water can be let in and out of the lake and instead would like conditions to stabilize so the fish can get accustomed to one set of conditions. Unfortunately, constant change seems to be on the menu this week.
“I’d like to the see the water stabilize and not get muddy,” he said. “Any little bit of rain water muddies it up quick. We had a lot of rain last Saturday night I went back to one area on Sunday and I was shocked at how dirty it got. At the same time, though, it seems to clear up pretty fast.”
The clearer water typically can be found in Tellico and that will again be the case this week. Will it be clear enough and stable enough to make it worth the hour-long run to get there, though?
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“They’ve been getting rain all winter long and it’s not like it’s creating havoc on the fishery. Way up river, there is more floating debris, but down the lake it just looks how it looks. I did notice in the backs of pockets, the mud that had washed in clears up pretty quick.
“It’s not in the same category as Guntersville or Chickamauga, but the entire Tennessee River is a fertile fishery and it’s got a ton of fish in it. I definitely think we’re here at the perfect time to catch some big bags of fish. It’s time. They have one thing on their minds and they’re ready to eat something. A lot of fish will be caught and we’ve got some good fishermen here. You’re going to have to catch ‘em to make the top 25 cut.
“I ran completely new water each day from takeoff to as far as you can go on Tellico. I didn’t fish any of the same places on Wednesday either. I tried to learn as much as I can. I had way more rods out than I’m comfortable with during practice, but I caught fish on just about everything. I’m just trying to dial in how I want to fish.”
Randall Tharp thinks anglers should be able to find a comfort zone somewhere on the tournament waters this week.
“It seems like the Classic is famous for making guys do some sort of change up in the tournament, but I’ve got my plan pretty dialed in. It’s the Classic and you go for it all, so that’s what I’m going to do.
“You have to be careful, though, not to get sucked into a certain gameplan because they can change. This is my 14th Classic. I’ve done it enough. It’s just another tournament and it happens to be the most coveted title in the sport Plus, it’s a three-day event and those are easier to win than a 4-day tournament. I’m not going to let pressure get to me. I’m going out to do my job.”
“The very first day I would consider my best and most productive day. It’s hard, though, because we’re practicing a week ahead of time. What you find you have to take with a grain of salt and move on. At the same time, you’re trying to find out where they’re at this moment and where they may move to. You just have to go with the flow when the tournament starts.
“On Friday, I probably had 10 bites, but nothing spectacular, and I did catch two keeper smallmouth. It was not necessarily a pattern or specific area, but I was encouraged that I got bites. I changed up areas Saturday and didn’t get as many bites. I caught some, but they were mostly small. On Sunday, we had plenty of sun so I went back to an area from Friday and got a few more bites, but not as many. Still, that was encouraging. Overall, it’s been tough with the water coming up and going down.
“I’ve been to several Classics as a fan and worked the Expo, but I’m most excited about getting to be here as an angler and getting to experience all that goes on. It’s a big deal. To be one of the 52 that made it and represent the people who support me is amazing. There are a lot of fantastic anglers who didn’t qualify, so just to be a part of it is special. I want to be successful like all the others. Being here is great, but I also want to be successful.”
“It’s kind of a cool place. It doesn’t fish quite like Guntersville or other sections of the Tennessee River. I was shocked with all the flooding from day 1 to day 2 and how they dropped the river more than a foot or 18 inches. When it’s at winter pool, it’s already pretty shallow.
“There is a lot of fish in it, though, but it seems I haven’t figured out how to catch big ones. Just from doing research it’s hard to gauge what a good bag is here. I do know a big bite is going to be very crucial here. I was shocked when I put the boat in the water and the temperature was 46 degrees, I thought it would be a finessey deal, but it wasn’t. I’m used to when it gets that low it’s hard to get a bite, but these river fish are used to the changing conditions, and the mud and the current with the high water and low water.
“It’s going to be an interesting tournament, for sure. I like fishing places like this where there isn’t a lot of history and guys haven’t been here 40 or 50 times. I think it’ll be really cool because it’s mostly unknown and in my opinion, there are probably several ways to catch ‘em.”
Mark Daniels Jr.
“It’s consistently changing. It’s been all over the place. A couple weeks ago, it was 7 feet high and we got a ton of rain the last day of practice and it blew the creeks out. It’s going to make things a lot more difficult.
“It seems like they don’t live everywhere, and guys are aware of where they do live, so you could get in a bad rotation here. I’m just hoping that’s not the case for me.
“Staying consistent will be very challenging. It’s going to be challenging the first day, but to do it again it’s definitely going to be a challenge, no doubt. There are certainly some good fish that live in here. Staying consistent and how it handles pressure, from what I’ve seen I’m not sure how well it will hold up.”
Gerald Swindle, competing in possibly his last Classic, says Loudoun-Tellico has been a tough puzzle to solve this week.
“It’s got some fish in it and I’ve caught some, but I’m having trouble with size. I’ve caught one good one so far. The main challenge will be I think a lot of people will be on top of each other. The river is flowing so much and it’s cold water. That’s not a good mix. It’s a big lake, but it’s shrunken with those conditions.
“I’ve caught everything in stained water. There is some clean water near the dam, but there’s a ton of current there. The hope is to just grind out two to three big bites a day. I’ve caught some smallmouth, but no keepers. I do think someone will have a good day on them, though. It’s the springtime and there is so much change going on. If we get one warm day, they could all get to moving.”
“I think it could be alright if the conditions were perfect, but we won’t have that. This is not what people think when they hear about the Tennessee River. It’s more like a mountain lake.
“My practice didn’t have anything that blew me away. I have confidence in some areas, but big ones seem random and you have to get past that. You can’t go out and say, ‘If I throw this all day and get bit, it’ll be five big ones.’ It won’t be a typical style tournament. It’s just different. There are a lot of variables you can’t control.”
“From my time on the Tennessee River, from Kentucky Lake to here, these river bass are used to the ups and downs of the river levels. We’ve had a warm-up and a cool down, but it’s not like the water’s been super warm and then we get a huge cold front. It won’t affect them too much.
“The smallmouth are going to break some people’s hearts. People are going to catch some 17-inchers and those would be the winning fish, but you can’t weigh them in. If we had less flow and the water was cleaner, they might be a bigger player. Some will be caught and weighed in, but I don’t think they’ll be as big of a key because of the dirty water and flow.
“This lake at this time of year, will fish as good as it’s going to fish. It’s the middle of March, so if you’re going to be here, now is the time to be here and on the Tennessee River, any time there’s flow, it always will amplify the bite.”
“The fishing, on paper, looks like it should be really terrible, but it’s really good and it’s because of the current. All of the negatives – the dirty water, the cold water – are being offset by the current. The good thing is they’re biting. The other good thing is it probably evens the playing field a little bit. The bad thing is they’re biting. I don’t think a guy can find a magic spot because they’re biting. You have to go fish and get fortunate to catch a big one – something in the 4- to 6-pound range every day and a couple smallmouth.
“The guy who wins will probably catch four to eight smallmouth of the 15 over three days. It’s going to be a good tournament. My confidence is as high as it’s ever been in a Bassmaster Classic and it’s not because of a spot. I’ve had ones like the Classic I won, I knew what I’d found. It was the glory spot. I don’t have anything like that, but I feel as confident in the four patterns I’ve developed than I’ve ever felt in the Classic. Again, me and whomever wins needs to catch one of those magnums and two or three good ones each day.”
“We’ve had some nice weather the last couple of days and I feel like a lot more fish have actually moved up. Not to spawn, but moved up on stuff. My practice has gotten better. I started off pretty weak the first two days. I had a bit better day Sunday and I expanded on what I’d learned and ran around and was able to duplicate it Wednesday and had some quality bites. I feel pretty confident. I know it’s going to be a tournament where you’ll have to put your head down and grind and cover water, but if you do that enough you’ll put yourself in the right spot.
“The only deal is everybody knows what’s going on and you’re in a rotation. Your first stop you’ll probably have to yourself, but after that you’re going to be fishing behind somebody all day, so if you get in a bad rotation you might not catch them. You’re going to have to feel that out during the day and figure out what adjustments to make.”
“Day 1 of practice they bit really well for me. As the week has gone on it’s gotten more difficult and part of that is maybe me trying to look off the wall. For the Classic, nobody remembers who finishes 2nd. You always want to make the top 10 and fish the final day and be in the Super Six and have a chance, but ultimately you have to find something that’s unique. That’s been difficult for me. I feel like we’re all fishing pretty similar to each other. Maybe a couple guys got on a different deal over on Tellico, but that’s always a wild card. It’s a longer run.
“In other Classics, we’ve had nine hours to fish, but now we only have eight with the Daylight Savings change. Most everybody is going to be running 45 minutes so that’s 90 minutes to two hours of running, which leaves six hours of fishing time. If you get in a bad rotation you might not have time to adjust so you have to make every decision count.”
“My confidence is okay, but it’s just random when you get a good bite. You just have to fish. It seemed like they started biting later in the day Wednesday instead of this morning. I’m just going to cover a lot of water and hit specific stuff – 10 casts here, next spot, 10 casts there.
“I can’t get bit on the main channel very good. I think it’s just due to the current and water coming up so high. All the bait has pushed out of the river and into the creeks. There’s no bait in the river that I’ve seen.”
> Anglers will take off at 7:30 a.m. ET all three days from Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville (via Neyland Drive or Volunteer Landing Lane). Doors to Thompson-Boling Arena will open at 3 p.m. for B.A.S.S. Life and Nation members and at 3:15 for the general public. Weigh-ins will begin at approximately 4:15 p.m. The Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo will run all three day at the Knoxville Convention Center and the adjacent World’s Fair Exhibition Hall. Hours will be: Friday – 11 a.m.-noon (Media/B.A.S.S. Life/Nation/Dick’s Scorecard Members preview); Noon to 7 p.m. (general public), Saturday – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday – 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
> Fri., March 15 – Mix of morning clouds, afternoon sun – 57°/36°
- Wind: From the WSW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sat., March 16 – Cloudy - 51°/31°
- Wind: From the NNW at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., March 17 – Mostly Sunny - 54°/34°
- Wind: From the N at 4 to 7 mph