By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
A Bassmaster Elite Series event that was originally scheduled to be held last spring on a different venue will finally play out this week as the circuit concludes its regular season at picturesque Lake Tenkiller in northeastern Oklahoma.
The Sooner State stop on the schedule had been slated for May at Fort Gibson Lake, but severe flooding caused a postponement to a calendar slot set aside by B.A.S.S. for such an eventuality – the organization was forced to completely wipe out a derby at the Chesapeake Bay last year and was determined to avoid a repeat of that scenario. The venue switch occurred two weeks ago due to sustained high water and dam repairs at Fort Gibson – the two lakes are separated by 40 miles.
Tenkiller is home to all three species of black bass (largemouth, smallmouth and spotted) and is arguably the premier bronzeback fishery in the state. There are better times of the year to fish it than September, however, and it likely won't show off its potential this week.
Thirty or more anglers could lock up 2020 Classic berths in this event. Others will be battling to either get or remain inside the top 50 in the Angler of the Year points standings for one final swing at qualification later this month in the AOY Championship derby at Michigan's Lake St. Clair.
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Tenkiller
> Type of water: Highland impoundment on the Illinois River
> Surface acres: 12,900
> Primary structure/cover: Bluffs, rock, marinas, ledges, points, scattered docks
> Primary forage: Shad, crawfish
> Average depth: 51 feet
> Species: Largemouth, smallmouth, spotted bass
> Minimum length: 16 inches for smallmouth and largemouth, 12 inches for spots
> Reputation: A productive fishery with a lot of bass over 4 pounds, but big weights are difficult to repeat in multi-day events
> Weather: Partly cloudy and warm to start, followed by a cool-off that will bring showers and thunderstorms
> Water temp: Low to mid 80s
> Water visibility/color: Mostly clear with visibility ranging from a foot on the upper end to 4 feet near the dam
> Water level: Slightly above full pool
> Fish in: 1 to 35 feet
> Fish phase: Late summer
> Primary patterns: Topwaters, crankbaits, worms, jigs, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, various plastics
> Winning weight (4 days): 60 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 35 after 2 days): 22 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2.5 for Tenkiller
> Biggest factors: Weather – a little turbulence will help the bite
> Biggest decision: Which species to target and in which part of the lake
> Wildcard: Random big bites – they can change a competitor's outlook quickly
For a up-close look at Tenkiller, check out this contour map, courtesy of Navionics:
Weight Records won't Happen
Bass fishing in September is difficult throughout much of the country, particularly below the Mason-Dixon line. There are also a few factors that have nothing to do with geography that are conspiring against the competitors this week.
For one, the water level at Tenkiller has been dropping at a rapid rate – it's almost back to normal pool after being nearly a dozen feet over just a couple of weeks ago. Such instability has, combined with unseasonably warm weather, has prevented many of the bass from beginning their annual migration to the pockets in order to feed up for winter.
"It's been a pretty tough bite," said the legendary Jimmy Houston, who's owned a home on the lake for decades that served as his primary residence for most of that time. "The water's hotter than it should be and all those shad patterns that people get after are behind schedule. The bass aren't as close to the shad as they usually are."
Rookie Patrick Walters hopes that his junk-fishing abilities will serve him well this week.
Added MLF Bass Pro Tour angler Jason Christie, who lives in nearby Park Hill: "If I had to pick one month when it's the toughest to catch them consistently, this would be the month. There's just so many things going on.
"I'll be surprised if it takes over 60 pounds to win it. There will be some good weights and some big fish caught, but it's going to be real hard to do for four days in a row."
On the positive side, a weather change is coming on Friday – the high air temperature is expected to drop about 14 degrees and storms that should last throughout the weekend are predicted to arrive.
"In that clear water, with a little wind and some clouds, there'll be fish to be caught," Christie said.
Also, with the weather having been so high for so long, the fish haven't been worked over as hard as they would in a normal year. If conditions stabilize, they might decide to chomp.
In any case, anglers who finish near the top of the standings will most likely be forced to display some versatility.
"I don't think it'll be won with one bait or even at one depth," Christie said. "I think the bites are going to be pretty scattered out."
Notes from the Field
Following are some practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"It's been pretty terrible. I think it would be okay if we didn't have all the water going out and it wasn't September, but a lot of things are colliding to work against us right now. It seemed like the first day of practice wasn't too bad, but since then it's gotten worse. The water's fallen quite a bit over the last three days and anything shallow seems to be going away.
"I'm basically going fishing in the places that sucked the least. In all honesty, I'm going to try to catch a limit of spots and then spend the rest of the day trying for one or two big bites. One day I caught five spots that were over 16 inches, but that was just random.
"There's so much bait out there that I think the better first are just roaming and they're hard to pin down."
"The lake is absolutely loaded with fish – by next spring there should be 2-pounders out the wazoo. Right now you can catch all the 8- to 10-inchers you want. It's going to be an interesting event, for sure. It's not as easy as people might think to go out and catch five spots that are over 12 inches.
"There will be a lot of limits caught, but most of them will be mostly spots. I just haven't seen or heard of enough 4-pounders to think there will be any bags in the 19- or 20-pound range. There might be one or two in the high teens and a handful in the mid teens, but 11 or 12 pounds should be pretty solid.
"I haven't caught enough fish over 16 inches to have a lot of confidence. I'll go out and run two or three different patterns and hope to get a little lucky."
"We've had a combination of factors hurting us a little bit – the water's been falling a foot a day and it's been 95 degrees – but we do have a front coming and that's something to look forward to. The water level's getting down close to full pool, so hopefully they'll stop dropping it and when it cools down the bite will be a little better.
"If you can catch five that are 16 inches or better, you'll have the weight you're going to need. This place isn't very good, though, and we've been beating circles around it every day. To do well, you're probably going to have to run new water every day.
"I think a junk-fisherman can do pretty good in this one and that's what I really like to do, so I'm hoping for a good tournament."
"It's been a struggle – the 16-inch minimum for largemouth and smallmouth is going to make it tough. I've located some spotted bass and there's not a lot of weight to them, but I'll resort to them if I have to.
"Big bites have been hard to come by with the temperature up and the water level coming down. It's one of those things where you're going to have to keep an open mind. I feel like patterns that were good early in practice might go away.
"It's not going to take a whole lot of weight to do damage in this one. You need one good bite a day and if you get a couple of good ones you should be way up there."
"It's brutal. A couple of guys will catch some good fish, but it's going to be a grinder, for sure.
"I haven't seen any real big fish. I caught a keeper smallmouth (on Tuesday), but most of the rest have been smaller spots. I've made my mind up that I'm going to fish shallow for most of the day because I think that's my best opportunity to catch a big fish right now. I know there's some out deep, but I wasn't able to crack that puzzle.
"A couple of good bites can take a man a long way here and consistency is going to be the name of the game. I'm just going to bounce around and see how it goes."
A Few to Keep an Eye on
With the above in mind and more, here are a few anglers whom BassFan believes could fare well in this event.
> Scott Canterbury – The AOY leader is at his best in shallow water, but he's also quite versatile and should figure out a way to catch five decent ones each day.
> Chris Zaldain – With a 2nd, a 3rd and a 9th in the last three events, he's blazing hot. He also has the mindset to keep moving until he finds what he needs.
> Matt Arey – He was a stud at Beaver Lake in his FLW days and the present situation at Tenkiller seems pretty similar to what's normally found at that impoundment.
> Jamie Hartman – He's been on fire since the season's third event and he can certainly do enough different things to keep his roll going.
Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. CT each day from Chicken Creek Ramp in Cookson, Okla. Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will also be held at Chicken Creek before shifting on days 3 and 4 to Cherokee Casino in Tahlequah. All weigh-ins will begin at 4 p.m.
> Thurs., Sept. 19 – Partly Cloudy – 91°/66°
- Wind: From the ESE at 8 mph
> Fri., Sept. 20 – Showers – 77°/68°
- Wind: From the SE at 11 mph
> Sat., Sept. 21 – Scattered T-Storms – 82°/68°
- Wind: From the S at 10 mph
> Sun., Sept. 22 – Scattered T-Storms – 85°/65°
- Wind: From the SSW at 10 mph