By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
It's been a dozen years since FLW conducted a high-level event at Lake Lanier in March. The Georgia impoundment known as "Atlanta's Playground" has changed quite a bit since then, and mostly for the better - at least from a bass fisherman's perspective.
There may not be any more spotted bass in the lake than there were in 2006, when the original FLW Series (a four-tournament, tour-level circuit developed as a supplement to the FLW Tour) made its debut. However, the average fish is bigger now - a phenomenon that's largely attributable to the continued growth of the calorie-rich blueback herring population.
The majority of the spots are in their pre-spawn mode right now and are as heavy as they'll be all year. They've been biting well and it should take considerably more than the 56-06 that winner Tim Farley compiled over 4 days in '06 to drive away with the trophy and the six-figure paycheck.
The one big variable, however, is the weather. A cold front has moved in, which will keep the air temperature in the 40s on day 1, and the wind is forecast to blow violently out of the west/northwest (estimates have its speed reaching 25 mph). The wind is expected to settle down on the weekend, but it'll get cloudy and rainy, and those are conditions that spots don't usually cotton to.
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the lake itself:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lanier
> Type of Water: Highland reservoir
> Surface Acres: 39,000
> Primary structure/cover: Trees, brushpiles, docks, dropoffs, submerged humps, rock outcroppings
> Primary forage: Blueback herring, threadfin shad
> Average depth: 60 feet
> Species: Spotted bass, largemouths
> Minimum length: 14 inches
> Reputation: One the world's greatest spotted bass fisheries
> Weather: A cold front has settled in that will bring wind, sun, clouds and rain at various times over the next several days.
> Water temperature: Mid to high 50s
> Water visibility/color: Pretty clear in the main lake, dirty in the backs of creeks and up the Chattahoochee River
> Water level: Full pool
> Fish in: 0 to 55 feet
> Fish phase: Mostly pre-spawn, some still in the winter mode
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, topwater, under-spins, jigs (traditional and bladed), Carolina-rigs, big worms, crankbaits, spinnerbaits
> Winning weight: 65 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 30, 2 days): 30 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4 for Lanier
> Biggest factors: Weather - it'll affect both the fish and their pursuers
> Biggest decision: When to pick up and go. Running into a feeding school or hitting the right set of docks at the right time will separate the leaders from the rest
> Wildcard: Largemouths - a few boats will be heading up the rivers in search of them
With the help of the the Navionics Web App, here's a close look at Lake Lanier:
Busy Down South
Veteran guide and occasional tournament competitor Ryan Coleman, who operates LanierSpots Guide Service, said most of the field will congregate in the southern end of the lake this week.
"It's a little clearer and it holds more of the blueback population and, in general, the spots are bigger down there," he said. "It's going to be really interesting down there on the first day, though, if the wind blows like it's supposed to and the 4-footers are rolling."
Human-placed brush piles have traditionally been the key cover type for the spots, but he doubts it'll play out that way this time. Fish are moving toward the banks and a great deal of formerly dry vegetation is now flooded due to a rapid rise in the water level over the last month and a half. The natural stuff, though, will probably play second fiddle to the lake's many docks.
"The docks are the first thing I check in the spring to find out if (the fish) are there, and they are even though it's a little earlier than normal," he said. "They don't tend to get on them until the water hits the 50-degree mark and when you show up in the morning and it's already above that, you know there's going to be a dock bite."
Go Big on Day 1
Anglers who hope to stay in contention throughout the event had better catch a hefty bag on opening day.
"Some guys could have a big day on Thursday when the wind positions those fish on the big points," Coleman said. "It wouldn't surprise me to see a 22- to 25-pound bag of spots that day.
Jason Lambert got onto a pattern in practice that he thinks should hold up in rough weather.
"When the wind dies down on Friday they'll lock onto the boat docks, but the clouds and rain on Saturday and Sunday could scatter them out again. It'll become more of a traditional Lanier tournament at that point."
It'll be important for competitors to avoid becoming fixated on a particular location, as it likely won't hold up for the duration of the event. Developing a strong pattern that can be run in multiple places will be critical.
That's when the advantage will shift toward anglers with a lot of experience on the lake. He mentioned three specifically - David Nichol, Jason Johnson and Rob Jordan.
"They're three of the best sticks down here and they'll know not to lock in on a place - it's going to be much more of a pattern thing."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I've caught some nice spots and a few good largemouths, so I'll probably mix it up and do a little bit of both. I think if you can get a few good largemouths to bite you can have a pretty good showing. I didn't spend a lot of time fishing for spots in practice, but I did catch several 2 1/2-pounders. It seems like that's the average size of a keeper, which is crazy for spots.
"I'm going to start on the largemouths and then go to the spots and bounce back and forth and see what I can do - unless I really start getting some big ones one way or the other. The one day I practiced for all largemouths I caught six keepers, and you might be able to catch six keeper spots in an hour or so.
"I came here for the first time in 1991 and the spots used to be little skinny things, but now they're as fat and heavy as the largemouths. It's pretty impressive how this place has come on as a spotted-bass fishery."
"They were biting for me on Sunday, but it got slower as practice went on and I think it was because of the weather - those spots like the sun. I targeted spots on the bottom half for the whole practice, figuring I could expand from there, but as it got worse and worse I started calling people who I knew were fishing for largemouths to see how they were doing.
"If I get a limit down south they should be the right kind of fish that'll add up to 13 pounds or so. If you go north it's harder to catch the bigger spots, but there's a better chance of catching a big largemouth. I haven't seen a largemouth yet out of the 25 or 30 bass I've caught.
"If I have to put all my eggs in one basket, my odds to do well are better with the spots. They're fat and healthy, and the bluebacks being more prevalent on the lower end makes them more healthy."
"I'd say my practice was fair. This is a big pond and I tried to cover a lot of it and fish in both dirty and clear water and I didn't really sit down where I intend to fish a whole lot. It's going to be an interesting tournament because everybody's going to catch them and the difference between 12 1/2 and 14 pounds will be 60 to 70 places (in the standings).
Two-time Angler of the Year Andy Morgan will be looking to move up from his No. 99 position in the points standings.
"I expect it to be dominated by spotted bass because there's so many of them and they've been eating well and they look fantastic, but a guy who can put together a largemouth pattern could have a good tournament.
"There seems to be a lot of different ways to catch fish. When guys can fish their strengths and there's multiple patterns going on, those make the best events and I think that's what we'll have this week. I wish we had more venues on the Tour like this."
"Practice wasn't terrible for me, but it wasn't great. I had one really good day, one okay day and one terrible day. I think I've found something that the wind and the weather isn't going to hurt, but I don't know how the fish here react - I'd never seen this place before Sunday.
"I'm going to start in the dirty water (on day 1), but I've actually been catching spots there. I did catch a couple of largemouths in practice, so I'm not necessarily keying on either one. I'll probably end up going to the lower end and doing some spot-fishing, but we'll have to see how the day goes.
"I'm not seeing a lot of people doing what I'm doing. I spent four hours Monday just running that pattern and I didn't see four other boats. Some tournaments you're just grasping at straws, but I feel like I have an opportunity to do well in this one. We'll have to see how it plays out."
Top 10 to Watch
Here, in no particular order, are BassFan's recommendations for the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Cody Meyer - Spotted bass are his forté and Lanier is a place where he's always fared extremely well. He's off to a much better start this season than last and this isn't a venue that's likely to set him back.
2. David Nichol - He's plied Lanier's waters for well over a quarter-century and knows most of its secrets. It'll be a real surprise to many if he doesn't advance to the weekend.
3. Bryan Thrift - The defending Angler of the Year had one stinker (65th) and one solid showing (13th) at the season-opening events in Florida. He's due for a top-10 finish and the lake seems set up for his frenetic style.
4. Randy Haynes - Some of the biggest spotted bass are still holding in 50-plus feet of water and he's an expert and finding and catching deep fish. If he can pin down a couple of schools of them, he could be in the mix throughout.
5. John Cox - There are plenty of good fish near the banks and the Floridian has few peers when it comes to catching them from skinny water - whether he can see them or not.
6. Andy Morgan - The two-time Angler of the Year currently sits at No. 99 in the points race. With as many fish around docks and other shallow cover as Lanier is currently harboring, there's very little chance that he won't move up quite a ways.
7. Cory Johnston - Following a good start to the campaign, he logged a triple-digit finish in the previous event at the Harris Chain, which was won by his brother, Chris. He has a lot of incentive to bounce back in this one.
8. Mark Rose - His versatility makes him a constant threat - he can compete with the best of them whether there's a little water under his boat or a lot. He's done well at Lanier in the springtime before and this should be a suitable set-up for him.
9. David Williams - The North Carolinian is 5th in the points race - easily his best start in his four seasons as a tour-level pro. He's very good with a topwater plug and a spinnerbait and either or both could produce for him in this event.
10. Anthony Gagliardi - He comes in with some momentum after a 10th-place finish at the Harris Chain and he has vast experience on lakes in which bass feast on blueback herring. He's currently 6th in the AOY race and this is a good opportunity to inch closer toward the top.
Anglers will take off at 7 a.m. ET Thursday through Saturday and at 7:45 a.m. Sunday from Laurel Park (3100 Old Cleveland Highway, Gainesville, Ga.). Thursday's and Friday's weigh-ins will be held at the park beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday's and Sunday's weigh-ins will start at 4 p.m.
> Thurs., March 8 - Partly Cloudy/Wind - 47°/30°
- Wind: From the WNW at 21 mph
> Fri., March 9 - Mostly Sunny - 55°/40°
- Wind: From the W at 15 mph
> Sat., March 10 - Mostly Cloudy - 63°/48°
- Wind: From the WSW at 8 mph
> Sun., March 11 - Rain - 53°/39°
- Wind: From the NE at 12 mph