By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
For the first time in its 13-year history, the Bassmaster Elite Series will begin a new season in the state in which B.A.S.S. was founded and is presently headquartered. However, the venue isn't one of the traditional Alabama stops that are familiar to BassFans across the country.
Lake Martin is a beautiful, healthy fishery that's home to lots of bass (both spotted and largemouth). The Tallapoosa River reservoir, though, doesn't contain nearly the number of large fish that reside in the state's impoundments along the Tennessee River and there's a very good chance that no bags in excess of 20 pounds will come to the stage this week.
The vast majority of the 110 competitors should catch a limit each day, but a lot of those stringers won't reach double digits on the scale operated by B.A.S.S. tournament director Trip Weldon, a longtime Martin ace who won both an EverStart (now FLW Series) and a BFL on the lake in 2000.
"Ounces are going to make a big difference," said FLW pro Rusty Trancygier, who owns a cabin on the lake that's being occupied this week by Florida competitors Bernie Schultz and Cliff Prince. "The weights will be really close.
"A lot's going to come down to the bigger bites – the 5- or 6-pounders. They used to be a rarity there, but not so much anymore. You'll see some weighed in."
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Martin
> Type of Water: Highland reservoir on the Tallapoosa River
> Surface Acres: 44,000 acres
> Primary structure/cover: Rocks, bluffs, points, docks, scattered wood, brushpiles
> Primary forage: Various species of baitfish (including the recently introduced blueback herring), crayfish
> Average depth: 41 feet
> Species: Largemouth and spotted bass
> Length limit: 12 inches
> Reputation: A good numbers fishery that's seen the average size of the spotted bass increase in recent years
> Weather: Unsettled, with at least a chance of precipitation on the final three tournament days
> Water temp: Low to mid 50s
> Water visibility/color: Stained to gin-clear, depending upon location
> Water level: A bit higher than normal for this time of year, which should make the lake fish even bigger.
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Winter/pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Finesse worms, spinnerbaits, jigs, jerkbaits, crankbaits – just about anything goes
> Winning weight: 55 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 51 after 2 days): 19 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Martin
> Biggest factor: Kicker fish – the 3- to 5-pounders will create a lot of separation in the standings
> Biggest decision: Whether to continually sort through fish in one locale or stay on the move in search of bigger specimens
Here's a look at how Martin lays out, courtesy of the Navionics WebApp:
Big Boost from Bluebacks
A bag weighing 10 pounds or more from Martin used to be a cause for celebration, but that's not the case these days. The average size among the enormous population of spots has increased.
Those with intimate knowledge of the lake say the recent introduction of blueback herring is at least part of the reason for that. But as they've done everywhere else where they reside, the bluebacks have altered the habits of the bass. They often set up considerably in considerably deeper water than they did before and spend more time away from traditional cover while pursuing the nomadic baitfish.
Mark Daniels Jr. will be relaxed and comfortable this week, spending each night in his own bed.
"I don't know if it was the striper guys or who it was that put them in there, but they've changed things a little bit," Trancygier said. "You can still catch some fish shallow, but you can also catch them out in 30 or 40 feet of water chasing bait.
"It used to be that you couldn't catch largemouth away from the bank, but last time I was there I caught one in 17 or 18 feet that was up under the bait. I'd never done that before."
As for patterns, Trancygier said just about anything will play.
"You can fish from one end of the lake to the other and kind of do whatever you want to do. Any way you want to catch them, you can catch them there. Last time I was there I probably caught between 40 and 50 fish and I didn't fish that hard."
He added that a bit of wind can go a long way toward enticing some of the larger specimens to bite.
"When that happens, but biggest ones are usually caught on jigs and jerkbaits and maybe some cranking. Sometimes even in places where the water's totally clear, the wind will create a mud line and you can catch them pretty good up under that stuff."
He expects the 4-day winning weight to end up somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 pounds.
"If you can catch 15 pounds a day, you should be right in it. The fish are as big as they'll be all year, being pre-spawn and feeding up, and there's a lot of fish in the lake."
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I came here in the fall and rode around for a day and a half and it was considerably different then than it is now. The water was at full pool and all that, and I guess I didn't realize how big it is. There's a lot of shoreline, for sure.
"For me, the bite's been relatively tough so far, but I figured it'd be somewhat tough because of the conditions. It's warming up and I'd like to say there's going to be more fish moving up.
"I'll probably mix it up (deep and shallow). I'd like to fish shallow, but that hasn't been easy for me yet. I haven't had a bite over 2 1/2 pounds since I've been here, so hopefully I'm saving those for the tournament."
Mark Daniels Jr.
"I don't live very far from here and I've fished the lake some, but I never considered it a tournament venue so I never fished it seriously. There's a lot of numbers here – the lake is full of spotted bass.
"The first day I got quite a few bites, but the second day was a lot slower. I did a little of shallow fishing for largemouth, but I've mostly been out deep for the most part. If I stick with the deep bite and grind it out, I think I might be able to catch maybe 11 pounds. The I could go shallow and try to catch a rogue largemouth, but I did that for a couple hours (Tuesday) and couldn't get a bite, so that's kind of questionable.
"I'm sleeping in my own bed and I'm relaxed and comfortable, so I'm going to fish my strengths and just roll with it."
"I haven't really found anything to get excited about. I've caught some fish deep and some shallow, but I haven't caught any size. The biggest one was 2 1/2 pounds.
The tournament setup could favor electronics-reading experts such as Brent Ehrler.
"I really don't know what to think. I've caught them cranking, on a jig, on a dropshot, and a spoon – a lot of different things – and I've run a lot of water. You'd think I'd have run into at least one or two of the bigger ones.
"A lot of the groups I've found I haven't really pounded and there's some schools I haven't fished at all. You never know when that 3-pounder is going to show up in one of those schools. And with the water warming, there should be some largemouth moving up somewhere."
"The first day pretty much stunk, but the second day was better. I changed things up and got some bites. I didn't catch any monsters, but I don't feel like I'll be coming to the weigh-in with three fish, and it's not like you're going to catch three 8-pounders around here.
"I tried fishing deep on both of the first 2 days and it wasn't working a whole lot for me. There's a lot of guys out there, so it's working for some of them. Shallow is probably going to be my best bet unless something changes.
"I've hooked up with a couple of fish that felt better than average, so we'll see what happens. I'm certainly not an expert on highland reservoirs and I'm hoping the (money cut) is around the 9- to 10-pound range."
"It's been tough, man. I live not far from here and I've fished it some in the past, but it's a lot tougher than it's supposed to be this time of year. I would've had a decent limit the first day, but the second day I only caught two keepers.
"I've found a couple places that have schools roaming on them, but you have to find where they're at on that given day. They're doing a lot of swimming around and they're up and down in the water column. I don't know if they're chasing the bluebacks, but it kind of has that feel to it.
"It's just been really hard to get bit covering water."
Top 10 to Watch
Here, in no particular order, are BassFan's recommendations on the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Brent Ehrler – Pre-spawn spotted bass on deep, rocky structure? "Meter Man" will be right in his element.
2. Aaron Martens – One of his numerous strengths is finding fish that are slightly larger than average on bodies of water where most of the specimens seem to have been produced by the exact same mold.
3. Matt Herren – He's fished Martin for a lot of years and knows some of its secrets. He usually does some of his best fishing early in the season.
4. Casey Ashley – Word is that Martin fishes a lot like Lake Hartwell, where Ashley won the Bassmaster Classic in 2015. If that's the case, he should be a contender.
5. Jason Christie – He has just one finish outside the top 50 in his last 15 starts. There's seemingly no puzzle that he can't solve these days.
6. Jeff Kriet – This one's a bit of a stretch, as the veteran from Oklahoma hasn't posted a top 10 in nearly 4 years (a span of 33 tournaments). This one appears to play to his light-line expertise.
7. Jacob Wheeler – The No. 1 angler in the BassFan World Rankings does a lot of things well and this venue gives him a lot of options. He's started only one professional season with a finish outside the top 25, and that occurred in his rookie year on the FLW Tour (2012).
8. Shinichi Fukae – The setup looks to be ripe for the longtime FLW pro to make a smashing Elite Series debut. Clear water doesn't scare him a bit.
9. Kevin VanDam – There are fish spread all over the lake, and KVD likes to see a lot of a lake on a daily basis. That should be a potent mixture.
10. Steve Kennedy – The resident of nearby Auburn, Ala. has fished Martin a lot and he's always tough to beat on bodies of water that he knows well.
Anglers will launch at 6:15 a.m. CT each day from Wind Creek State Park (4325 AL-128, Alexander City, Ala.). Weigh-ins will begin at 2:30 p.m. in the same location.
> Thurs., Feb. 8 – Partly Cloudy - 61°/37°
- Wind: From the NNE at 6 mph
> Fri., Feb. 9 – P.M. Showers - 61°/50°
- Wind: From the ESE at 6 mph
> Sat., Feb. 10 – Thunderstorms - 66°/59°
- Wind: From the S at 9 mph
> Sun., Feb. 11 – Thunderstorms - 69°/44°
- Wind: From the W at 7 mph