By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The 50th edition of the Bassmaster Classic has one thing distinctively in common with the first one held in 1971 – nobody in the field has ever won the event before.
This year's edition at Alabama's Lake Guntersville will be the first to take place without many of the sport's most notable performers. Four-time Classic winner Kevin VanDam, two-time winner Jordan Lee, reigning champion Ott DeFoe and a host of other angling luminaries who are now fishing the MLF Bass Pro Tour won't be among those competing for the golden anniversary title. In their place is a large contingent of competitors – more than half of the 53-man field – who'll experience the event for the first time.
It'll be the third Classic to take place at Guntersville, the famed Tennessee River impoundment that continually kicks out big bags of green fish despite incredible angling pressure (both tournament and recreational). It first hosted the event in 1976, when Rick Clunn claimed the first of his four championships, and then again in 2014, when Randy Howell prevailed.
The lake could produce record numbers this week if the stormy weather leading up to the event and a big drop in air temperatures at the outset don't put the fish in a funk. Guntersville bass are less temperamental than their notoriously weather-sensitive cousins in Florida, however, and are not likely to go into full lock-jaw mode.
One record-setter is among this year's field – 2014 runner-up Paul Mueller, who competed as a B.A.S.S. Nation qualifier that year. The 32-03 sack he caught on day 2 remains the largest single-day haul in the history of the event. He has momentum on his side as well, having won the Bassmaster Elite Series season opener at the St. Johns River.
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Guntersville
> Type of water: Lowland reservoir fed by the Tennessee River
> Surface acres: Approximately 70,000
> Primary structure/cover: Grass (hydrilla, milfoil, eelgrass), causeways/bridges, creek channels, humps, riprap, boat docks, shell beds, laydowns
> Average depth: Roughly 15 feet
> Species: Largemouth, spotted bass
> Reputation: Big-bass factory that sustains itself despite an incredible amount of fishing pressure.
> Primary forage: Shad
> Weather: Mostly sunny on competition days, although a little on the chilly side
> Water temp: High 40s to low 50s
> Water visibility/color: Some stain in the backs of creeks, but generally clear
> Water level: Full pool
> Fish in: 2 to 20 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits (lipless and lipped), bladed jigs, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, conventional jigs
> Winning weight: 65 pounds (3 days)
> Cut weight (top 25 after 2 days): 32 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Guntersville
> Biggest factors: Big fish. This lake’s got ‘em and one (or more) per day will be a huge difference-maker.
> Wild card: The wind on day 1 – it's likely to eliminate some places that anglers were counting on.
Here's a good look at Guntersville (depth contours included), courtesy of the folks at Navionics:
Lake has Awakened
Alex Davis is a veteran FLW Pro Circuit competitor who guides at Guntersville when he's not away for a tournament. He said there's a tree in his father's front yard that hadn't produced it's white flower buds this year until this past weekend.
He said the tree's budding annually coincides with a big uptick in the pre-spawn bite on the lake.
"The lake hadn't been good for numbers and quality since last September," Davis said. "All the tournament weights since then had been very un-Guntersville-like. All winter people were winning with 16 or 17 pounds. There was one 20-pound bag, but they had smallmouth.
"The weather's been horrible and I've had to cancel so many trips. Rain, high water, wind ... it's been very weird. But (Sunday) we weighed all the big ones we caught and our best five would've gone 29-10."
He said that fish that spent the winter in the deep water of the river channel have made a major push toward the shallows. Tournament weights have taken a big jump and the top 5 in a team tournament on Sunday all had more than 20 pounds.
"You might hear (Classic competitors) crying the blues, but they go somewhere and catch one 4- or 5-pounder and then keep moving. They're going to be shocked by what's there when they really start sitting on them and working them over."
He said quality fish will come from water as shallow as 2 feet, but the key depth is likely to be 4 to 8 feet on the outside edge of the abundant grass. Square-bill crankbaits, medium-running plugs and vibrating jigs will be among the key offerings.
"Unless something drastic happens, I think you'll see somebody catch a 25-pound bag, then back it up with a 20 and then back that up with an 18 or something like that. Someone might bust 25 every day, but that's hard to do for 3 days.
Matt Herren will rely on his considerable experience at Lake Guntersville.
"If I was fishing, I'd be shooting for no less than 65 pounds. There's a 30-pound bag out there swimming around and anybody could catch it. The only people I'd say won't do well are the ones fishing with spinning gear; the real finessey guy will be in a world of hurt, but for everybody else it's fair game."
Wind could be a big factor on day 1, as it's predicted to blow at 17 mph out of the north/northwest.
"That could end up being good or bad," Davis said. "That's the best possible direction because it's not going straight up or down the lake. It might hinder a guy who's way offshore, but a guy who went way up the lake into Jones Cove or Mud Creek, all of a sudden he's protected."
Following are practice reports from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I've been riding the struggle bus, kind of. I had a better day (Wednesday), at least as far as catching fish. I think I had five keepers over the first 3 days and no big ones, but (Wednesday) I caught 10 or so. That has me feeling a little better.
"It's been tough fishing and I don't know if it's the water or the weather or the pressure. There were tons of people out on the weekend and I think these are pretty educated fish.
"I never found any of those one-cast little juice holes, but there's tons of fish in here. On Friday, people who didn't do well in practice will land on the right place and catch 25 pounds really quick. That keeps me optimistic – there are certainly a lot worse places I could be this week."
"I had one day where I caught some, but otherwise it's been really tough for me. It's not the same Guntersville that I've fished all my life, I guess because of the eel grass. I've got one area where I feel like I can get some bites and it's a big area.
"I don't think you're going to see a parade of 25-pound bags. I think a guy who can catch himself 20 pounds a day is going to be right there to win it. I could be wrong, but I just think it's too inconsistent right now."
"(Wednesday) was by far my best day and I think I had four or five bites. I've been struggling – I have not had a good practice. The biggest one I caught today was 3 1/2 pounds and the rest were just keepers.
"All the fish I've been catching are shallow, but I can't find the right size. Maybe it'll turn on Friday. I'm just going to go out and fish shallow with a Rat-L-Trap and a ChatterBait as my two main baits."
"It's as tough as I've ever seen it at Guntersville; I just never did figure much out and I'm going to end up running a bunch of history. I ran stuff (Wednesday) that I'd planned to fish on Friday and I'm not going to fish any of it now. I'm trying to figure out if I was fishing too shallow or too deep or whatever, but I didn't get enough bites to get clued in.
"The lake has great quality and numbers, but I just don't know what they're doing. You can catch a good fish, but the bites are so random that you can't get a pattern going. Sometimes you can grind it out and make it work at Guntersville and that's the way it's going to have to be for me."
"It's been pretty tough, to be honest. I've not found any concentrations of fish. I know they're out there somewhere and I know guys are probably on that day, but I don't have anywhere that I can pull up on and get several bites back to back. I'm just picking off one here and one there.
"I got a couple good bites – a 4-pounder and a 5 – on the first day of practice and I'll probably just start there. Maybe there's a wad of them there."
The field will launch at 7 a.m. CT each day from Civitan Park in Guntersville. Weigh-ins will take place at Legacy Arena, part of the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex in Birmingham. Doors open at 3 p.m. for credentialed B.A.S.S. Life and B.A.S.S. Nation members and 3:15 p.m. for the general public.
The Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo will also be held at the BJCC, from noon-7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.
> Fri., March 6 – Sunny - 53°/33°
- Wind: From the NNW at 17 mph
> Sat., March 7 – Sunny - 58°/36°
- Wind: From the NNE at 5 mph
> Sun., March 8 – Partly Cloudy - 61°/44°
- Wind: From the SSE at 8 mph