By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Bassmaster Elite Series anglers who had a difficult time catching big Florida largemouths from two feet of water in last week's season opener at the St. Johns River will get a chance to avenge themselves this week. The vast majority of the difference-making fish will come from much deeper water at Georgia's Lake Lanier and most of them will likely be a different species.
Lanier and the rivers that feed it (the Chattahoochee and Chestatee) are home to some hefty largemouths, but big spotted bass are the prime tournament quarry. Depthfinders will supplant shallow-water anchors as the most important pieces of equipment on the competitors' boats and there won't be a parade of 9-pound-plus fish coming to the scale.
The campaign's second event will play out on a body of water that's much further behind on the seasonal progression calendar than the St. Johns was. Most of Lanier's fish are still in their winter mode and many are hanging out at depths of 50 feet or more.
As always, there will be some anglers who'll pursue largemouths, and this week's weather may give them somewhat of an advantage. The sun, which predictably positions spots in lakes in which blueback herring are the primary forage, will make only infrequent appearances over the next four days, and that might make the big "Kentuckys" hard to catch. Plus, with the lake at full pool for the second consecutive winter, the largemouths have plenty of cover to select from in the shallow and mid-range depths.
Before getting deeper into the bite, here's the lowdown on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lanier
> Type of Water: Highland reservoir fed by the Chattahoochee and Chestatee rivers
> 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: Cool, cloudy and rainy; very little sun in the forecast.
> Water temperature: High 40s to low 50s
> Water visibility/color: Clear in the main lake, some stain in the backs of creeks and up the Chattahoochee River
> Water level: Full pool
> Fish in: 0 to 60 feet
> Fish phase: Winter
> Primary patterns: Dropshots, shaky-heads, jerkbaits, crankbaits under-spins, jigs (traditional and bladed), Carolina-rigs, big worms, spinnerbaits
> Winning weight: 70 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 35, 2 days): 30 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Lanier
> Biggest factors: Weather - the lack of sun could hinder the action on the deep spotted bass
> 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:
Rob Jordan, an FLW Tour pro who's a full-time guide on the lake, said the fishing at Lanier this winter has been good. Single-day local tournaments have been won with bags in the 17- to 21-pound range and the norm has been for such weights to be stacked at the top of the standings sheet.
"It's been a relatively mild winter; we've had a few cold snaps, but nothing too extreme," he said. "But no matter how cold or mild it's been, there's always a big population of fish at this time of year hanging around in timber in 40 to 60 feet. You'll see some guys fishing deep, but typically you have to go through more numbers that way.
"You'll also see guys fish shallower in the 10- to 20-foot range where there's fewer bites, but a better (weight per fish) average. I see that being a pretty big player."
He said he often goes after largemouths at this time of year, but they usually can't be relied upon to hold up for a four-day event. There will, however, be plenty of mixed bags for the duration of the tournament.
Jake Whitaker, the 2018 Elite Series Rookie of the Year, will look to bounce back from a lackluster showing at the St. Johns River.
"A guy might be able to start off with a big bag of largemouth and there might even be one in the low 20s brought in. The largemouths are typically up the river and with that water coming out of the mountains, with any rain it can get blown out overnight.
"It's a high-risk, high-reward thing, but you'll have guys exploring around for them to see what they can come up with."
Per normal, the biggest bags of spots will probably come from the lower part of the lake, where the day-to-day conditions are most stable. Anglers can play the seemingly endless boat docks and the thousands of human-placed brush piles with dropshots and other finesse-type offerings along with jerkbaits, cranbaits, under-spins and jigs.
"Crankbaits are always a killer in the pre-spawn anywhere in the Southeast. If conditions are right, you'll see a lot of that."
Following are some practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"From the time I've spent here, these fish really eat a lot better when the sun is shining, and we're not going to get a lot of that. Guys are still going to catch them, though.
"I've spent a lot of time out deep, re-fishing a lot of the stuff I fished last year when I was here with the FLW Tour, and I didn't find a thing. That really blew my mind. I'm going to be stuck with running the bank and hoping I can figure something out.
"I need to at least try to salvage the week. There's always some fish shallow this time of year and a lot of times the bigger ones are up there."
"It's been pretty good. I'm not catching a ton of fish but I'm getting some of the right quality. These spots are a lot like fishing for smallmouth back home (in Michigan) so I'm going to get after it and see if I can make it happen.
"These fish move so much because of the herring and there's multiple patterns going on, and a lot of it is about timing. I've caught some doing some of the same stuff each day whether we've had wind or sun or rain, so it seems the biggest thing is getting on a good rotation and being in the right place at the right time.
"I'm just going to hit as many high-percentage areas as possible. If you can get two or three nice ones a day, that can get you up around the 18- to 20-pound mark."
"I've done pretty decent so far, but I think how they're going to bite is going to be all about what the weather does. This is like all clear highland lakes – there are lull periods and other times when the fish really chew.
"I haven't made a cast for a largemouth yet – the size of the spots in this place is good and there's a lot of them. The water's cold and everything is setting up for spots.
"The fish in these herring lakes have a different way of relating to stuff. Getting off to a good early start will be big for me."
"I'm not getting many bites – maybe five to seven a day – but I think there's some quality to be caught. I thought they'd be grouped up more, but with the water at full pool, they seem to be kind of scattered. You can catch one in 40 feet and then one in 15, but it's hard to duplicate any of it.
"Guys are still going to catch them. I've learned some things over the years about how spots react to different weather and it's not what most people think.
"With anything over 15 pounds a day, I think you'll be sitting pretty. A guy might catch 18 one day and then follow it up with 13, but a 15- to 16 1/2-pound average will be pretty solid."
A Few to Keep an Eye On
With the above in mind and more, here are a few competitors who might fare well at Lanier this week.
> Steve Kennedy – He's been an Alabama resident for many years, but he was born in Georgia and always seems to fare well in tournaments held in his native state.
> Paul Mueller – He's shown in his two Classic appearances that he's adept at catching quality from Southern reservoirs in the late winter. Excels at using electronics.
> Jake Whitaker – The 2018 Rookie of the Year's home lake is Hartwell, which is similar to Lanier in a lot of ways. Look for him to rebound from his 50th-place showing at the St. Johns.
> Brian Snowden – It's been a while since the veteran has posted a high finish, but he'll have a shot at it on a venue that fishes a lot like his home lake (Table Rock).
Anglers will launch at 6:45 a.m. ET each day from Laurel Park in Gwinnett, Ga. Weigh-ins on Thursday and Friday will be at 3:10 p.m. at Laurel Park and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, Ga.
> Thurs., Feb. 14 – Mostly Cloudy - 63°/44°
- Wind: From the SSW at 7 mph
> Fri., Feb. 15 – P.M. Showers - 61°/54°
- Wind: From the SW at 7 mph
> Sat., Feb. 16 – A.M. Showers - 63°/51°
- Wind: From the W at 8 mph
> Sun., Feb. 17 – Rain - 61°/50°
- Wind: From the S at 7 mph