By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

While their FLW Tour brethren mix it up in northwest Arkansas at their annual Beaver Lake gathering this week, the Elite Series field will see just how cozy they can get at Ross Barnett Reservoir in central Mississippi.

Most tournament anglers will tell you they prefer to be off on their own, away from the prying eyes of the competition. Having an area to oneself for the duration of a tournament is a rarity and it’ll likely be a longshot at Ross Barnett.

It didn’t take long during the three-day practice session for the competitors to reach the following conclusion: This place is small and may fish even smaller when the tournament kicks off Thursday. With winds approaching 30 miles an hour set to arrive Friday and last through Sunday, “The Rez,” as locals call it, will present a host of challenges.

Chief among them will be fishing in close proximity to other competitors. Lake Conroe, this year’s Bassmaster Classic venue, covered roughly 21,000 surface acres. By comparison, Ross Barnett covers just over 30,000 acres and will have more than twice as many boats on it as Conroe did for the Classic. Bottom line: Anglers are going to have to adjust to knowing they’re likely going to be fishing behind other competitors each day.

“That’s what it will boil down to,” said Bill Lowen. “There are no secrets here. It’s just too small. You’re going to be fishing in a crowd and you’re going to have to make better presentations and be better at everything. You have to turn your brain off and know you’re going to be behind somebody everywhere you stop.”

Ross Barnett has hosted two Bassmaster Opens in the past five years (in 2013, the field was 148 boats; in 2015, it was 197) so a big multi-day tournament isn’t anything new there, but the post-spawn phase of the fish will likely have the field condensed in a few select places this week.

The lake breaks down into three general areas – the main lake, Pelahatchie Bay (southeast corner of the lake) and the riverine portion (Pearl River) that begins essentially above the Highway 43 causeway. Expect all three to have a hand in the outcome with the backwater-rich river portion serving as a wild card of sorts since it’s uncertain how well it can withstand heavy fishing pressure.

This will be a shallow-water shootout with some intermediate depth areas possibly coming into play for those targeting post-spawners. But with the water heavily stained across the main lake, the reliability of a deeper bite is questionable. Cleaner water can be found up the Pearl, where a good portion of the field could be headed Thursday. The water came up six inches, then came down a foot in the span of two weeks earlier this month and has been steadily rising again since the middle of April. Currently, it is a fraction below normal pool.

This marks the fourth event on the Elite Series schedule and while most anglers are taking the “it’s still early” approach when it comes to the Angler of the Year points race, those who have dug themselves considerable holes across the first three tournaments will look to make some headway this week before the scene shifts back to Texas and Sam Rayburn Reservoir next month for the Toyota TexasFest (formerly BASSFest and the Texas Bass Classic).

Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.

BassFan Lake Profile

> Lake name: Ross Barnett Reservoir
> Type of water: Impoundment on the Pearl River
> Surface acres (full pool): 33,000
> Primary structure/cover: Stumps, ledges, lily pads, hydrilla, laydowns
> Primary forage: Threadfin shad, gizzard shad, bluegill
> Average depth: 12 feet
> Species: Largemouths, some spotted bass
> Minimum length: 14 inches for both
> Reputation: Decent fishery with potential to produce big fish; tends to fish small
> Weather: Stable Thursday but heavy winds arrive Friday with a chance of rain throughout the weekend
> Water temp: Low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Heavy stain throughout the lake
> Water level: Normal pool
> Fish in: 1 foot to 15 feet
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Flipping, frogs, spinnerbaits, jigs, cranking, vibrating jigs, soft plastics
> Winning weight: 64 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 51 after 2 days): 21 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2
> Biggest factors: Fishing in crowds. Doing something a little different from the rest may be the key this week.
> Biggest decision: Stay or go. It’s likely you’ll be behind someone regardless of where you’re at, so grinding it out might be the best option.
> Wildcard: Pearl River. It’s unknown what kind of population of fish is up there, but it could carry someone through to Sunday.

Here’s a closer look at Ross Barnett Reservoir, courtesy of the Navionics Web App:

Local Lowdown

For all the talk about how confined the field will be across the lake, there are good fish to be caught. How well it will hold up for four days is the $100,000 question. According to data collected by the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Department (MWFPD), the average tournament-winning weight over the past five years at Ross Barnett has been 16.3 pounds. Much of that data was taken from single-day tournaments, but it offers a glimpse at how healthy the fishery has been over the last several years.

“Barnett can be real tough when water isn’t stable,” said Ryan Jones, the Central Region fisheries biologist for the MWFPD. “The bite can be tough. Earlier in the spring, we had some warmer weather and we had an early spawn compared to other years.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Greg Hackney could find conditions to his liking at Ross Barnett this week.

But it doesn’t take much to knock the Barnett bass for a loop. Jones said the week after a 30.7-pound bag was caught in a local derby earlier this year, a front came through and the winning weight in a local tournament the following weekend fell to 12 pounds.

“It can be great and it can be tough,” Jones added. “It all depends on how stable the water is and the pressure changes.”

Navigational hazards have already claimed some victims in practice and the stumpy flats around the main lake could pose headaches during the tournament if special care isn’t taken when running through certain areas. It’s reportedly common around the lake for hazards (stumps) to be marked by a section of rebar, which is pounded into the stump. Problems arise when the top of said rebar is even with the water line.

“Anywhere outside a channel is a gamble,” Jones said.

Questionable Consistency

Ross Barnett is plenty capable of producing stringers in the 20-pound range and higher – a 30-pound bag was caught there this spring – but being able to piece together solid bags in support of a mega-stringer will be the main challenge this week.

Reviewing the weights from the Central Open that was held in March 2015, there were eight 20-pound bags registered by six different anglers. Out of those six, four anglers had another day during the event where they were one or more fish short of a limit, including tournament winner Gene Bishop.

“I think it’ll be a particularly low-weight event as far as getting paid,” said Elite Series veteran David Walker. “What I can see is going to be problematic will be consistency. You could have a good day Thursday, but the chances to do it over and over are pretty slim. If someone figures out a consistent bite and isn’t around a ton of people, it’ll be a blowout.”

Jones says having the luxury of being off by one’s self is highly unlikely. Pelahatchie Bay is the only significant creek arm on the lake, so there are not many options to get away from the crowds.

“Along the western side by the Natchez Trace Parkway, it’s mostly shallow flats with not a lot of cover,” Jones said. “Those areas don’t hold a lot of fish. The eastern side is where most of the guys will be concentrated.”

There is a causeway that separates Pelahatchie Bay from the lake and Jones says that stretch of riprap will get plenty of attention, especially if there’s a shad spawn in progress in the morning. The residential canals in the area have seen some silting over recent years, but they’ll be worth a look considering a good many tournaments release their fish on the lower end of the lake.

“It will fish small,” Jones added. “There will be a lot of guys in small areas. They won’t fish without fishing behind someone at some point.”

Notes from the Field

Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.

David Walker
“It’s tough to fish around people all the time, which is what you have to do here. It looks fishy. There are so many places you pull into that look good, then you don’t catch anything, but you’re always around somebody else. Throw in the weather that’s coming. We had high winds Wednesday and supposed to get storms Wednesday night, then a decent day Thursday and big winds Friday. That might put everybody in a few little places. We will have our work cut out for ourselves. Certainly, it can play with you. If you avoid the crowd, you’re probably avoiding any chance to catch fish.

“I know one thing: It’ll make it easy for (Bassmaster photographer) James Overstreet. He can stay in one spot and get shots of the entire field. Someone will win it with four pounds or 400. Who really cares? I still feel confident in that I’ll catch some fish, but I don’t know what they’ll look like. I’ve caught some big crappie this week and seen a ton of alligators. There are a lot of critters swimming around in here. What’s puzzling is why the bass are so scarce because I see lots of bait and other critters.

B.A.S.S./Gary Tramontina
Photo: B.A.S.S./Gary Tramontina

Bill Lowen finds the conditions at Ross Barnett to his liking, but he's not looking forward to fishing in a crowd.

“Ideally, I wish I had an area where I had a lot of confidence and I could just grind it out. When fishing is tough and the place is small, that’s probably the smartest plan, but I’m not sure I have the spot I’m that particularly fond of to stay there. With it not being a big lake, it’s easy to pull up and change plans, though. You can be anywhere on this place in 10 minutes.”

Josh Bertrand
“It’s fishing really small right now. It probably does most of the time, but it’s insanely small right now. There are only a handful of sections that are known for having bass in them and I’ve seen the same guys in all different parts of the lake. That tells you these are the places to fish. You have to make a couple casts out deep, but that doesn’t seem to be the deal. With the conditions, it hasn’t been easy to get bites. You can catch fish, but we’re post frontal, post-spawn and the lake is fishing super small. Those factors are not helping.

“I’d like to settle into one area, but I’m not there yet. If I get a couple bites in an area I might try to settle in. I’m not sure yet where I want to fish. It’s definitely one of the dirtiest lakes you’ll ever see as far as average clarity. I think the river will be a factor for sure. Patience is what I’m going to be telling myself. The guy who does well will be someone who’s patient and keeps his head in the game and only gets five or seven bites a day.”

Brandon Coulter
“Every time you get a bite, is it something you can actually expand on that 70 other guys aren’t doing right behind you? It’s been a weird practice for me. It’s almost like when I do get a bite, normally I’d run this and that, but then you start looking around and there are nine other guys throwing the same thing. You’ll go to the next pocket and four others are there doing the same thing. It’s a different deal for sure.

“Everything is based off trying to do something that you can get multiple bites on and not be going behind nine other guys. You can get a few bites in the morning, but if you’re fishing the shad spawn you’re going to be fishing with 108 of your best friends. Timing and the field will have a big impact on this tournament if you don’t find something that’s out of the way.

So far, it’s been tough for me, tough as far as finding something successful for the tournament. I haven’t found one thing that’s a little different that takes off some of the pressure. It’s got that feeling of one where you just lace ‘em up and get as much as you can out of it. There are bites to be had, but I can’t see someone doing one thing for four days. You’ll have to knock around.”

Luke Clausen
“During the 2015 Open, the fishing was better. It was pre-spawn and there was better average fish and more fish then. It seems like there are a lot of fish missing this week. It’s been random. You’ll get a bite here and there doing so many random things and the concentration of fish is so scattered.

“I have a couple areas where I’ve caught more than one, but I hate going back to fish for one. I’ve had one decent day and a couple mediocre days and it’s not like there’s a bunch of good ones here. I really don’t know how somebody will win here. It’s hard to fathom how to string something together for four days.

“The river will be the wild card – how many fish are up there and how will it hold up? We’ll see how many fish are in there. Last time, it felt like the better quality was down the lake, but they’re not showing themselves this week.”

B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito
Photo: B.A.S.S./Seigo Saito

Randall Tharp comes to Mississippi looking to overcome a bomb at Toledo Bend Reservoir.

Bill Lowen
“I can’t believe we’re on this thing. The bad thing is there are only about three areas that are any good and guys are piled on them. It is shallow and it is dirty, but I haven’t found a comfort zone. After Monday, I thought it would be simple, but after Tuesday, I felt like I’d never been here before. It’s a weird deal. It’s one of those deals that will make you pull your hair out.

“It’s pretty dirty everywhere. The river was looking good Monday, but after the front they had a few days ago, it all came pushing through Tuesday so some places I’m sure are trashed. There’s plenty of cover here, though. Between the reeds and pads, there is no lack of targets to throw at. It’s been a mix of both flipping and winding for me. I’m just covering water and trying to get a bite. I haven’t pulled out any of my high-pressure baits … yet.”

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. Greg Hackney – Stained water. Check. Shallow water. Check. Opportunities to flip. Check. Sounds like this one is right up Hackney’s alley.

2. Cliff Pace – Says he hasn’t fished The Rez a lot in the past, but being in his home state he’ll want to put on a good show. Hasn’t scored a top-12 finish since 2013, but his results have steadily improved this season.

3. Randall Tharp – A zero on day 2 at Toledo Bend put him in a sour mood so we expect him to bounce back in a big way this week. It also helps that’s he won at Ross Barnett in the past (2013 Central Open).

4. Jason Christie – He’s up to 3rd in points and has made the money in all but one of the last 10 full-field Elite Series derbies.

5. Matt Herren – Has a couple 90-plus finishes this year that he’d like to forget about. Getting a flipping stick in his hand this week should help with that.

6. James Elam – Hasn’t finished lower than 34th this season and should find The Rez to his liking as it compares to the Arkansas River in many ways.

7. Stephen Browning – He followed up a top-12 at Lake Okeechobee with a triple-digit dud at Toledo Bend. This one is more in his wheelhouse with plenty of shallow water and river-like options.

8. Justin Lucas – After three missed money cuts, it’s about time he snaps out of the funk he’s in. He’s not missed four straight cuts in his career.

9. Bill Lowen – Practice was hit and miss, but these conditions are to his liking. This will be a grinder’s sort of event and few are better in tight, low-weight derbies than the Ohio River ace.

10. Russ Lane – With flipping and shallow cranking on the menu this week, this could be an opportunity for Lane to continue the momentum he’s built during the early portion of the season.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> Anglers will launch at 6:15 a.m. CT all four days from Madison Landing (115 Madison Landing Circle, Ridgeland, Miss.). Weigh-ins all four days will get under way at 3:15 p.m. at neighboring Old Trace Park (Post Road, Ridgeland, Miss.).

Weather Forecast

> Thurs., April 27 – Partly Cloudy - 78°/63°
- Wind: From the SE at 5 to 10 mph

> Fri., April 28 – Overcast - 89°/72°
- Wind: From the S at 15 to 25 mph

> Sat., April 29 – Partly Cloudy, Rain Possible - 90°/74°
- Wind: From the SSE at 20 to 30 mph

> Sun., April 30 – Cloudy, Thunderstorms Likely - 77°/52°
- Wind: From the S at 20 to 30 mph