Flash back to 2002, and there you'll see Jay Yelas, way up a tailwater.
That was the last time the Bassmaster Classic was held at Alabama's Lay Lake, near Birmingham, when Yelas put on a commanding performance. He won the event wire-to-wire, and weighed the big bass each of those 3 days.
His secret was current, and the right spot. He needed flow for his fish to bite, and waited for it every day. Just as important, he was far enough up the tailrace that spectator traffic didn't pummel the banks and muddy his water. That happened to 2nd-place finisher Aaron Martens, but not Yelas.
Of course, the 2002 Lay Classic was a summer event, with a wildly different set of conditions than what the field faces this week at Lay.
That said, could the winning fish still be swimming in Yelas' spot? He's not fishing this Classic – he left BASS last season to fish FLW Outdoors exclusively – so his water's wide-open.
BassFan sat down with him for a brief Q&A about this week's Classic, and asked, if he was fishing it, what would he do?
BassFan: Do you think your old spot will play a role in this week's Classic, even though it's a winter event, and you fished it in the peak of summer?
Yelas: You better believe it will. That Classic I won at Lay was in the middle of summer – I think the last week of July – and my pattern was perfect for that time of year, because fish like current in summer.
The water temperature was in the 80s, but this time of year, it's probably in the 40s – maybe low-50s at best. So the water's 35 degrees colder now than it was then.
If you were fishing this Classic, what would you do?
I'd probably have a totally different practice. I'd be looking down near the dam, where the water's usually more stable. There's a lot of fish around the lower end.
For my deal, it was the perfect time of year. But those fish live up that river, and the guys will probably be having to fish a little bit out of the current this time of year. The fish are up that river to win, and those fish I was catching are still up there – probably within 5 miles of where I was.
What would concern you about fishing your old spot this time of year?
The whole thing, on all those Coosa River lakes, is the fishing's dictated by current flow out of the dam. So even if the fish are up there – and the winning fish might still be up there – it won't make a bit of difference if they don't generate (current) at a level that's conducive to get the fish feeding. If they don't, it'll be really tough. And if they're running a lot of water – too much – it might also be tough.
I have no idea what the conditions are there now, but I'd have to think they'd be a lot more volatile in February than in July. Everything's pretty steady in July – the current's on a certain schedule. This time of year, it's a huge wildcard.
So you probably wouldn't fish your old spot? You'd go down-lake?
I'd say the odds of winning upriver are slim this time of year. If I had to bet, I'd say it'll be won on the lower-third of the lake. There's more fish down there than up that river.
When I won, I just happened to have one little sweet spot that had some big fish. And actually, in that Classic, four of the Top 5 were fishing within 2 miles of Logan Martin Dam. They were feeding better on that part of the lake than on the lower end.
But again, this is February. I think there are more fish down the lake, and the conditions should be better for them to be caught down there. But sure, the guys should give the river a good look.
Yelas said to win a Classic, you need to find fish that'll still bite with 50 other boats around.
The biggest problem with rivers is unpredictability. You can have rainstorms, floods, and different (current) schedules from a weekday to the weekend. They're just so fickle. If all the conditions are right, the fish in rivers will bite and you can win. But if they're not quite right, forget it. Whereas in the lower ends of reservoirs, conditions are a lot more stable. The water doesn't go up and down. It doesn't get as muddy either.
What about the spectator traffic? It hurt Aaron Martens in 2002, and Kevin Vandam in 1996. How would spectator traffic affect your choice of a location or pattern at Lay this time of year?
I was exposed to spectator traffic when I won, but here's the key, and this probably trumps everything I've said so far: To win the Bassmaster Classic, you have to be able to have fish you can catch with 50 boats following you around.
The spot where I won was so far up that tailrace that it was a major boating hazard to get there. Huge boulders were sticking out, and it was very dangerous. Everybody figured I was nuts to run up there. So I had zero boat wake crashing the bank and muddying the spot.
The four of us that were up there had 75 spectator boats watching us fish. All the water just below me, downstream for the next 5 miles – the banks were totally washed out on the final day. There was a mudline coming off the bank for 15 feet for 5 miles down the river. The boat wake had totally destroyed the shoreline for long stretches, and I still think that's a major factor that can keep a guy from winning a tournament up there this time of year.
> This event marks the first time in 16 years that Yelas has not fished the Classic. Does he have any misgivings about leaving BASS and sitting out the Classic? "I really don't have any," he said. "It's funny, but I don't even think about it anymore. It doesn't bother me not to be there. I always thought it would bother me – I've fished the last 16 of them – but it doesn't bother me a bit."
> Even though he won't be competing, he'll be at the Classic outdoor show working for his sponsors. If you want to meet him, check the Skeeter, Yamaha and Berkley booths.