Browning knew he had to hit the Red River on Saturday despite heavy rain. (James Overstreet photo)
Stephen Browning said he was surprised at what he saw on a rainy Day Two of practice. But at least he saw something.
“There have been days where I sat in the room and watched it rain,” Browning said. “You think, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m not gonna learn anything.’ And then you think, ‘You better get your butt out there.’ I was the third boat on the water this morning where I put in.”
Browning said he didn’t learn much Saturday, spending a lot of his day riding and looking at places he’d scouted before the river went off-limits. He attributed tough conditions to the usual suspects: cold, fast and muddy water. But Browning, one of the Elite Series’ well-known river rats, also pointed at another culprit – fluctuating river levels.
“I honestly think it’s the same thing that happened on the Arkansas River,” Browning said. “They’ve really jacked with the water a bunch the last two weeks. The fish haven’t had a chance to figure out what they want to do.”
When the Elite Series stopped in Little Rock, Ark., last summer, heavy rain had swollen the river in the weeks leading up to the tournament. Although river flows had fallen to more desirable levels by tournament time, fish were hard to pattern because of the wildly fluctuating water levels. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved water through the system of locks and dams, it caused water to rise in some areas and fall in others, scattering fish everywhere.
(In that event, Denny Brauer won in a large slackwater harbor that wasn’t adversely affected by the fluctuating river levels.)
But even if there’s no more rain between the current storm system and Classic time, will the river stabilize fast enough to improve conditions?
“I think so,” Browning said. “I’ll look at the computer in the morning and check the river forecast.”
Water temperature also will need to climb out of the low 50s to help things along. Halfway through four days of practice, Browning said it’s doubtful anglers will rival the total weight put on the scales by the 2009 Classic field.
“It might take the same weight to win it,” he said. “But the overall weight – I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
With the river changing so much, Browning said he may take the approach of a gambler in one of the Red River casinos in Shreveport-Bossier City when deciding where to start the tournament.
“I may lock once, I may lock twice, and I may start in the pool where we take out,” Browning said. “I may roll a pair of dice three times for each pool and the high number determines where I start.”
David Walker spent the past two years working his way back for his seventh Classic appearance. (James Overstreet photo)
Like the rest of the Bassmaster Classic field, David Walker endured a cold, wet second practice day Saturday on the Red River. But compared to the rest of the field, the miserable conditions might have been just a little more tolerable for the Tennessee pro.
Walker is making his seventh Classic appearance, but it’s his first since 2006.
“The Classic is unlike anything else,” Walker said. “For me to be back here in the midst of that – it drives you to go out in the cold rain to practice.”
Walker said a driving rain woke him at 4 a.m. Saturday, but he waited until 8:30 a.m. to launch his boat for the second of four practice days. He described the day as “about eight hours of directional downpour.” With cold, muddy and swift water, the Red River wasn’t giving up many fish.
“Let’s just say I didn’t win the Classic today, that’s for sure,” Walker said.
But the conditions didn’t dampen his desire. After fishing in six of seven Classics from 2000 to 2006 – he missed only the 2003 championship – Walker left the Bassmaster circuit after the 2006 season. He made it back to the Elite Series by qualifying through the Bassmaster Opens in 2010 and then earned this year’s Classic berth with a victory in the Dixie Duel on Wheeler Lake last June.
To say he’s happy to be back and hungry for more success would be an epic understatement.
“I’ve got to do well in this,” he said. “There’s too much riding on this. I’ve got to give it my all. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to the Classic, and it took me two years worth of work to get back here, and all of that comes down to what I can get done this week.”
Walker has had his share of Classic near misses, finishing third in both 2001 (Louisiana Delta) and 2002 (Lay Lake, Ala.).
“I’ve been close enough to taste it,” Walker said. “I still think about the fish I lost on the Delta in ’01. I remember that fish like it was last weekend.”
Walker has attended Classics to fulfill sponsor obligations since his last appearance in 2006, and it left a bad taste in his mouth.
“It’s a miserable experience,” he said. “It’s like taking an alcoholic to a bar to watch people drink.”
Six years removed from his last experience as a Classic competitor – and with much more personal responsibilities than when he made his first Classic in 2000 – Walker is aiming to make this year’s championship more memorable than miserable.
“It’s a crucial tournament,” he said. “Things are a lot different now than they used to be. I have a wife, kids, and a mortgage. When it was just me, it was just a matter of making enough money to fish the next year. Now there are people depending on me.”
Don’t mistake Walker’s tone. It’s not desperation; it’s determination. And that could make him a force to be reckoned with on the Red River.
The real negative to having a rainy practice day is it cuts down on already limited practice time, Mark Tucker said. With much time spent idling through stump-filled backwaters, time is at a higher premium on the Red River.
“The biggest thing is the water being so dirty and just trying to maneuver,” Tucker said. “The water is dirty. You can’t see the stumps, the shallow water, you can’t remember all that stuff.”
Ken Cook’s analysis using BassGold.com date found that this Classic should be won in backwater, and getting back to check out them out can take valuable time.
“You can’t get around like you can in a lake. You’re not covering as much water as you’d like,” he said. “It takes time to get through them, so you can burn a day up in a hurry.”
Tucker said one has to take the allotted time, the three-day practice period that ends Sunday and Wednesday’s final practice, to check out as many places as they can then analyze which will be a winner. If anglers don’t get that accomplished, they will be sunk.
“You have to keep an eye on places that have potential. You get in a little bit of a hurry, you can go right by some fish,” the St. Louisian said. “You have to be calm and just take it minute by minute. You can’t rush around out there.”
Even if time inspecting a number of areas isn’t fruitful, and the rain prohibited the fish from biting, an angler has to have something to fall back on.
“If you don’t have a very good practice, you’re just going to have to go back and fish the best looking stuff,” he said. “You don’t have a whole lot of time to investigate stuff."
Watching it rain and rain and rain.
That was Gerald Swindle’s post Saturday morning. That rain has moved on, but … wait, it’s back.
Day Two of practice for the Classic greeted anglers with steady rain. The anglers posted as much.
From Timmy Horton: Good morning from the red river #bassmasterclassic. 100 mph rain suit day. #thankful for another day. God is good.
From Brandon Palaniuk: Day 2 of practice: Flash flood warnings & high winds! Things could get interesting!
They already are. Yesterday, Todd Faircloth reported that rain north Shreveport-Bossier City, which is hosting this week’s events, is key to how well the Red River will fish. That rain will flow south and affect the Classic fishery of Pools 5, 4, and 3.
In Shreveport, NOAA anticipated between 1.5 to 2 inches of total rain before the system gives way to sunny skies Sunday, when the high should get to around 60. The forecasts call for 1 to 1.5 inches from the Arkansas state line to Broken Bow, Okla., with it lowering north of there to under an inch.
So it won't be as bad as many had thought. The anglers just had to battle through a very damp day of practice. Many believe the Red River will stabilize by the first day of competition on Friday, as the forecast calls for highs in the 60s each day with sunny or partly cloudy skies. That should heat up the fishing.
On Weather.com, the next chance of rain in the area is the Monday after the Classic’s Sunday finale.
Todd Faircloth holds an Angelina River hawg.
Todd Faircloth was a week early for his tastes.
He recently caught an 8.5-pound largemouth out of the Angelina River near his home in Jasper, Texas. Such a fish could pay huge dividends if he had caught it during the Classic.
“Just fishing with my dad down there, just messing around,” he said. “We had been catching quite a few fish, but nothing like that. It’s by far the biggest fish I ever caught in the river.”
Faircloth was fine-tuning some new swim jigs he hopes to use on the Red River, and hopefully with a similar outcome.
“That’d be nice,” he said of the prospect of hauling such a fish to the CenturyLink Center stage. “It’d definitely be a difference-maker, a real game-changer.”
While he was surprised to catch such a hawg on Angelina, Faircloth added, “I’ve never caught one like that on the Red River, either.”
In December, Faircloth rode around a bit on the Red River, which is about 2 ½ hours from his home. His first day of practice Friday left a lot to be desired.
“It was a struggle for me. I didn’t find anything that really impressed me,” he said. “I think the river is going to stabilize a little. It’s been high and they’re pulling it down. The water color is a lot dirtier than ’09; it’s low 50s to mid 50s.”
He knows there’s a gully washer coming, but he hopes the rain coming tonight and Saturday falls only in the watershed’s southern portions.
“When it rains above (Shreveport), all that stuff comes down,” he said. “Hopefully, we won’t get a bunch of rain north of us. When we do, that’s when it gets ugly.”
Saturday is the second of three practice days, then the water is off limits until the final day of practice Wednesday. There is time for conditions to improve by the first competition day on Friday.
“It’s just not going to be a real good day to go fishing tomorrow,” he said. “Cold, cloudy, and rainy. This time of year, you like to have a little sunshine, especially in the afternoon.”
Practicing in the rain can be counterproductive, Faircloth said, especially if an angler goes through an area that has a lot of fish and they don’t bite.
“The problem is you could fish over some fish tomorrow,” he said. “I’m not going to sleep in. You never know, you could stumble on to something. I’m going to go out and try.”
A bona fide river rat, Ott DeFoe is being picked by some as a favorite in this Classic.
Although this is his first Bassmaster Classic appearance, Ott DeFoe has been mentioned by more than one Elite Series veteran as someone on the short list of anglers likely to win the 2012 Classic here on the Red River.
That's because the 26-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., native was quite impressive in winning the Toyota Tundra Rookie of the Year title on the Elite Series in 2011. He stood out for his level head in competition all year, but especially because of his success on river systems. This year's Classic on the Red River would apear to be right up his alley.
DeFoe sounded like his usual level-headed self after his first day of practice in the Shreveport-Bossier City area.
"It's a little bit colder and a little muddier than I was hoping for," DeFoe said. "I didn't have a smoking day by any means. From what I saw today, the (fishing conditions) should be decent by the time the tournament gets started."
This won't be a repeat of the low, clear-water bass fishing conditions of the 2009 Classic here. DeFoe has competed on the Red River twice before.
"It's in-between what I've seen here," he said. "It's not as high as I've seen it, and it's not as clear as I've seen it. There's only a handful of areas where you're going to find clear water.
"I spent a lot of time just looking around. I'm going to do that again (Saturday). After that, I'm going to start concentrating on the places I plan to fish (during the tournament.)"
DeFoe closed the 2011 Elite Series competition by winning the All-Star event on the Alabama River. Coupled with his year-long success on the Elite Series tour, when he finished fourth in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year point standings, DeFoe established himself as a rising star on the circuit.
He didn't sound like someone discouraged by what he saw Friday. He sounded like someone simply forming a game plan based on the conditions he found at the Red River. And that should make DeFoe someone to keep an eye on when the Classic begins next week.
Mark Tucker is making his eighth Classic appearance.
Mark Tucker found a nice area Friday, he just didn’t find the fish. The 49 anglers fishing this year’s Classic had their first day on the Red River since it went off-limits on Dec. 12.
Tucker, who qualified by winning an Open last year, said the recent cold snap and water drawdown made fishing trying.
“If the weather would have stayed nice, the river would have been good. It’s kind of off a bit,” he said. “The river is not too bad, it’s kind of muddy. They’re running a lot of water. They’re trying to get it ready for this big rain. It can affect the outcome of this event, so they’re letting a lot of water out of Pool 5 and Pool 4 and letting it run into Pool 3.”
Showers are forecast for the Shreveport-Bossier City area tonight with heavy rain Saturday. Rain totaling more than 2 inches is anticipated for the area south of the launch, and the Corps dropped water levels as much as five feet.
“We’re supposed to get some big time rain and I think they’re afraid the water could get up and affect things,” Tucker said. “They’re trying to keep it down and to keep it safe. In that regards, if they’re dropping the water, the fish don’t want to get up there very shallow.”
Tucker said normally the fish would be shallow at this time of year, and he found some spots he thought they would be Friday.
“I found some beautiful water today, 55 to 60 degrees, and very good clarity, but the fish aren’t there yet,” he said. “They just haven’t made a big move. It’s a little off yet.”
Temperatures are expected to rise next week in time for the competition days, and Tucker said that might do the trick.
“It’s supposed to warm up and that’s going to be huge. It’s one of them deals where you just have to play it day to day,” Tucker said. “It’s just that time of year with conditions changing daily. It’ going to be touch and go until we get to next Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.
“They could start coming by next week. It could be a tournament similar to last year where they didn’t catcht them well in practice and the fish came in the first couple days in the tournament.”
Bill Lowen is fishing in his fourth Bassmaster Classic. His second Classic was here on the Red River in 2009. After one day of practice, the differences between then and now are rather stark.
"The water is a lot dirtier, and the water is colder," said the North Bend, Ohio, resident. "The warmest water I found today was about 55 degrees. I want to say it was about 60 degrees during practice (in 2009)."
However, Lowen isn't discouraged about the present conditions in the Red River near Shreveport-Bossier City.
"It doesn't look like there are any more major weather (cold) fronts coming through here in the next 10 days," Lowen said. "I think fishing is going to do nothing but get better."
Lowen finished 23rd in 2009 with 36 pounds, 11 ounces.
Jamie Horton is a very competitive man. He’s a huge football fan (Roll Tide!), he attends at least 100 baseball games a year, and he’s fished 10 national tournaments (including the 2002 Bassmaster Classic).
“It’s not that I can’t handle ‘not winning,’” explained Horton. “It’s that I hate losing.”
He hasn’t had to do a whole lot of losing recently. The Centreville, Ala., angler was the overall winner at the 2011 B.A.S.S. Federation Nation Championship just three months ago, and he has accepted his invitation to compete in the 2012 Bassmaster Elite Series.
For Horton, though, he grades his tournament success less on how high his finish was and more on how well he feels like he performed. “If I gave it everything and did my best, I feel I’ve been successful. I’ve had a lot of tournaments where I’ve won but I’ve still been upset with my performance.”
Since the 2002 Classic, Horton says he’s matured as a fisherman. “I’ve gotten a lot of experience since then, and I know better how to handle pressure and what to expect.”
And he’s looking forward to the Red River, where he’s fished five tournaments before. “I know how to get in and out of places, and I know I’ve got to manage my time. The Red River fishes small,” Horton added. “I love it. It fishes like the Alabama River, where I grew up fishing. It’s got a lot of woods — a lot of good places for pitching and flipping — and it’s dirty water.”
This weekend, during unofficial practice, Horton is planning to hit seven or eight spots a day, and he hopes to settle on where he’ll spend the competition days by the time Sunday rolls around. On official practice day, Wednesday, Feb. 22, he plans to just brush up a little on his spots.
After the Classic, he won’t be going back to his day job as a project manager; he’ll be hitting the road for his first year as a professional fisherman. “This Classic is my opportunity to establish myself as a pro.”
Ryan Watkins, Andrew Upshaw and Carey Sobczak show off with their championship rings. (Kati Van Dunk photo)
Yeah, he’s a little bitter. Who wouldn’t be?
Ryan Watkins was five minutes away from a Classic berth. Andrew Upshaw caught his fish late in their showdown to beat his Stephen F. Austin teammate, the guy with whom he had won the College B.A.S.S. National Championship the day before.
The question wasn’t even fully posed, that their fates could easily be flipflopped, that Watkins might be fishing on the Red River this week, when he answered.
“I think about it all the time. Mostly it’s the fact he beat me by 11 ounces,” Watkins said. “The thing that gets me is he caught both his fish in the last five minutes. How unlucky can I get, and how lucky can he get?”
“I’m bitter -- who wouldn’t want to be fishing in the Bassmaster Classic.”
Bittersweet was how Upshaw described the scenario of having to beat his teammate and best friend for the berth. College B.A.S.S. saw how emotional that situation was, actual how torturous, and changed the final day format.
While Upshaw is practicing on the river today, the two received a sweet moment together yesterday as SFA recognized their accomplishment.. While the Bass Club is barely mentioned on the school’s website, the champs received some red-carpet treatment with school bigwigs.
“I didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it was,” Watkins said of a ceremony in the Spirit Lounge of the student center. “It was a really professional, a really nice spot. There was probably 50 people there, the cheerleaders, the president of university.”
With speeches from the president, the head of campus recreation and the student body president, Watkins and Upshaw, along with Casey Sobczak, part of SFA’s 2005 champion team, received resolutions, basically written congratulations, and flashy championship rings.
“It was by no means something that was supposed to be done,” Watkins said. “Having that ring is something we can take with us, show our grandchildren.
“I think the biggest thing wasn’t just an accomplishment for me and Andrew. Hopefully, we can kind of start a trend -- other schools will follow our team’s trend and recognize the sport more.”
While his old teammate will be competing, Watkins is going to Classic and other events to assist B.A.S.S. He is hoping to make the most of his opportunity.
“I’m going to start working with Bassmaster, travel to Elite Series events. The connections I can make, you can’t put a value on that,” Watkins said. “That’s going to be a major step for me. I’m going to see an entire different side of fishing I haven’t been able to see.”
Watkins said he won’t give up his Classic dream as he will fish the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open series, trying to become the fortunate angler who caught the winning bass in final minutes of an event to qualify for the Classic.
SFA awarded some sweet rings to its College B.A.S.S. National Champions. (Kati Van Dunk photo)