By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The fourth edition of the Bassmaster AOY Championship is the first that will be contested outside the Upper Midwest. Lake Chatuge, which sits on the Georgia-North Carolina border, is the site of this year's event that will be largely overshadowed by the sport's impending shake-up.
The recent announcement of the new Bass Pro Tour, an endeavor co-owned by Major League Fishing, has the entire sport focused on what will occur in 2019 and beyond rather than what's still to be determined this year. Many of the 50 anglers at Chatuge are among the 80 initial invitees for the launch of the BPT, and B.A.S.S. is going to great lengths to keep them in the fold for next year. Within a couple of weeks they'll be forced to make decisions that could greatly impact the rest of their careers.
For the moment, however, they're confronted with solving a relatively small (7,000 acres) body of water that's full of spotted bass and a smattering of big largemouths, but may still be in the final stages of its summer doldrums. Anglers have reported that the spots, although ganged up in many deep-water haunts, are for the most part uncooperative and confining their biting activity to periods of "schooling," during which they corral and feast on baitfish.
Justin Lucas and Josh Bertrand, tight-knit friends who are the prime contenders for the points title and its $100,000 top payoff, are very familiar with the ways of spotted bass. Both have Western roots and have pursued them many times on reservoirs such as Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville in Northern California, where the species has been dominant for decades.
There's some question as to whether Bertrand, the winner of the Elite Series regular-season finale at the St. Lawrence River who trails Lucas by 9 points in the AOY standings, will even finish the event. Wife Chantel is due to deliver their second child late next week and he's vowed that he'll return to Arizona immediately if the baby comes early.
As it stands now, there could be just one double-qualifier for next year's Classic – Bobby Lane, who's 9th in the Elite Series points and the leader in the Bassmaster Eastern Open standings. The Top 36 in the Elite points after this event should be secure for next year's Classic on the Tennessee River out of Knoxville, Tenn.
Here's a list of the anglers within 5 places of that mark going into the event, along with their season point totals:
32. Jake Whitaker: 521
33. Randall Tharp: 519
34. Jared Lintner: 516
35. Edwin Evers: 509
36. Scott Rook: 507
37: Bill Lowen: 504
38. Micah Frazier: 503
39. Chad Pipkens: 502
40. Gerald Swindle: 500
41. Jason Christie: 499
42. Greg Hackney: 497
The entire field will be on the water for all 3 competition days (Thursday, Friday and Sunday). Saturday is devoted to Bassmaster University seminars featuring the competitors.
Before getting into more detail about the bite at Chatuge, here's some of the lowdown on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Lake Chatuge
> Type of water: Power-generation impoundment on the Hiawassee River
> Surface acres: 7,000
> Primary structure/cover: Laydowns, docks, humps, ledges, brush piles
> Primary forage: Shad, bream, blueback herring
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: A smallish lake that's full of spotted bass – some of which exceed 5 pounds. It's also home to some lunker largemouths.
> Weather: Fairly stable with a chance of showers Sunday
> Water temp: Low 80s
> Water visibility/color: Clear
> Water level: 3 feet below full pool
> Fish in: 0 to 25 feet
> Fish phase: Summer, with the fall transition just getting under way
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, shaky-heads, topwaters, flukes, flipping/pitching, jigs, square-bill crankbaits
> Winning weight: 48 pounds (3 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2.5
> Biggest factors: Timing – getting on a good rotation of spotted bass schools will be critical
> Biggest decision: How much time to spend pursuing kicker largemouths
> Wildcard: Wind – there's not much of it in the forecast, but any decent breeze helps the bite
Here's a look at how Chatuge lays out, courtesy of Navionics:
Fall Feed-Up Coming?
Joe Thompson, a resident of Clayton, Ga. who recently completed his rookie year on the FLW Tour, fished Chatuge a lot while competing for the Young Harris College fishing team and now is a frequent participant in local events there. He said the bite might be set to improve as the transition toward autumn picks up steam.
"I really thought it was going to be tough, but I was out last week and they were chewing," he said. "I was out Saturday and had over 19 pounds, close to 20. They're starting to act like fall's coming."
He said Chatuge fishes a lot like Lake Lanier, its much larger and more well-known neighbor. Brush piles have been planted on every point in the lake and most of them will be visited by multiple anglers each day.
"Three-quarters of the bass population is spots. There's some good largemouth, but they're just skinny right now and they're loners. If you catch a 5- or 6-pounder from an area, there might be one more there, but that's probably it.
"Guys will burn their largemouth up on day 1, if they find them. You can be a lot more consistent if you go for spots."
Good Milk Run Needed
Thompson predicted that the main key to success will be having a series of offshore locales to run over and over. Timing will be critical.
"It's going to get crowded and the deal is going to be having a good rotation and hitting the places in the right order," he said. "You might catch one or two out of a school of 200 and then it's time to run to the next one. It only takes about 20 minutes for a school to settle down after somebody's been there.
Josh Bertrand has a chance to win the AOY, but he's vowed to leave the tournament if his wife goes into labor.
"Whoever understands and runs that pattern is going to have a huge advantage. Trying to camp on a place is probably going to be bad news. You might catch one 4-pounder, but then you're next five or six will be less than 2 pounds. Once they get excited it's hard to catch the good ones."
He said the spots will follow almost any bait to the surface, but they're done once they get a look at a boat.
"They're the most skittish fish I've seen anywhere in the country. They get a lot of tournament pressure and they're really boat-shy. Looking at them on the graph and dropping down and catching them will be almost non-existent.
"These fish are trained and I often go as far as cutting off my sonar and just using the GPS."
Following are practice notes for a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"If we were here sometime from March through May I'd bet this place would be phenomenal. Right now, these fish just tease you by blowing up on a point or something like that. I've definitely seen both quality spots and largemouths. I didn't catch them, but I think I'm in the right areas.
"I spent a couple of days eliminating water and I think I've figured out something that gives me confidence that I can catch some fish. Before that it was a toss-up, but now I'm feeling pretty good.
"An 18- to 20-pound bag is definitely possible with the big largemouth that are in here, but I don't know if anybody can do that each day."
"It's not the best time of year to be in this part of the country, but there definitely seems to be a good number of fish here and probably some decent ones. Trying to put together five of those good ones each day might be a challenge.
"There's not really a lot on the bank to fish – it seems like the water's already been pulled down 4 or 5 feet. You find an occasional piece of wood and there's some docks here and there, but that's about it.
"I feel like 12 pounds on any day would be good. I feel like I could catch that, but things would have to go well and my timing would have to be right."
"If you get around them when they're biting you can catch quite a few fish real quick, but not having a history with this place, I don't really know what quality is. I'm sure it's got some giant largemouth, but the spots seem to dominate by about 50 to 1.
"I've seen some 3-pounders, but I'm not sure those will be good enough. I probably need a top 10 to make (the Classic). My game plan going in will be the old cliché – go big or go home.
"I'll let the day play itself out. At some point I'm going to need a 4-pound-plus largemouth and there's a chance I could catch a 4-pound spot. I'm going to need them."
"I haven't caught anything real big, but I've been doing okay – enough to keep me going and at least make the Classic. I don't think I'm on the winning fish.
Roy Hawk will try to nail down the top rookie award and also claim his first Classic berth.
"I'll focus on spots for the most part, both shallow and deep. Fishing for the spots up shallow lends me the opportunity to catch a big largemouth, and I might catch one of those out deeper, too. If you can get one of those bigger bites on one or two of the days, it'll shoot you way up there.
"I'll just catch as much as I can and maybe about 10 pounds a day will be enough to survive."
"This place has been pretty stingy for me. You can tell it's a really good lake with a healthy population of fish, but unfortunately I think we're here at a bad time of year. September in the South, you know what you're dealing with. You can throw your bait in front of them all day long and it can be hard to get a bite.
"I've fished for both spots and largemouth and I might do a little bit of both in the tournament, but it'll be mostly spots. From what I've seen, 10 pounds a day should be okay, 12 will be really solid and 14 might put you in the top 3."
Mark Daniels Jr.
"You get off the bank and your graph will light up with fish, but they don't want to bite. They're so keyed on shad and they only want to bite on top. If you don't catch them when they're schooling, it can be pretty difficult.
"I caught one good one the first day of practice, a 4-pounder, but it's been dry since then. I've gotten a couple of largemouth bites, but not many. They do look to be pretty good fish, but I don't know if I can get them to go in the tournament or not. I'm definitely going to target the spots first."
Top 10 to Watch
With the above in mind and more, here are BassFan's recommendations for the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Casey Ashley – The former Classic champion has had a strong year and might finish it with a bang. He's superb on blueback herring lakes and a master at the spot-rotation game.
2. Jake Whitaker – He has more experience on the lake than anybody in the field, and that should play particularly big in the pursuit of kicker largemouths. The first-year competitor can sew up a Classic berth with a good showing and could also claim the Rookie of the Year title.
3. Aaron Martens – If not for a bomb at Lake Oahe in June, he'd be right in the hunt for his for AOY crown. He can catch deep spots as well as anybody and always seems to find the places that are holding the bigger ones.
4. Justin Lucas – His California upbringing provided him a lot of experience with spotted bass at venues such as Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville. He won't be out of his element at all.
5. Josh Bertrand – Lucas' only real competitor for the points title likely hasn't caught as many spots over the course of his lifetime as his good buddy has, but he's stud in deep, clear water and comes in red-hot.
6. Brent Ehrler – He's another California native with a knack for locating schools of quality spots. He'd need to bomb in order to fall out to the Classic cut, and that's extremely unlikely.
7. Gerald Swindle – At No. 40 in the points, he needs to move up a few places to make the Classic. His junk-fishing abilities should play real well this week.
8. Edwin Evers – He's fairly close to the Classic bubble (35th on the AOY list), so he doesn't have a lot of wiggle room at this one. His versatility should serve him well.
9. Roy Hawk – The ROY leader is another West Coast native with a ton of experience on deep, clear impoundments. He'll need to be on top of his game to hold off Whitaker, whom he leads by only 4 points.
10. Shinichi Fukae – At No. 48 in the points, he needs a huge finish along with stumbles by numerous anglers in front of him to make the Classic. He's capable to handling his part of the equation, as his deep finesse skills are top-notch.
Anglers will launch at 7:10 a.m. ET each day from Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds in Hiawassee. Weigh-ins will get under way at 3:45 p.m. at the same location.
> Thurs., Sept. 20 – Partly Cloudy - 85°/63°
- Wind: From the SSE at 4 mph
> Fri., Sept. 21 – Mostly Sunny - 84°/62°
- Wind: From the SSE at 5 mph
> Sun., Sept. 23 – P.M. Showers - 80°/62°
- Wind: From the SE at 3 mph