DECATUR, Ala. — There are predictions of some 20-pound, five-bass limits at the Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts. But the goal for the 107 Bassmaster Elite Series pros is an average of 15 pounds per day from Wheeler Lake.
"Based on what I'm catching now, if someone catches 14 or 15 pounds a day, every day, they can win this thing," said Mike McClelland, the Bella Vista, Ark., resident who currently leads the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race. "I know somebody will catch some big bags a day or two, and that will be the deciding factor. But I think 14 or 15 pounds a day will keep you in the hunt for the last day."
Timmy Horton of Muscle Shoals, Ala., is the prohibitive favorite among his fellow Elite Series pros. In four major bass fishing tournaments on Wheeler in recent history, Horton placed second twice and in the top five another time. That same number — 15 pounds — figured in his prediction as well.
"It's fishing different than any other time we've been here," Horton said. "I've never seen the lake with so little grass in it. That's changed it up.
"But it will still be pretty typical — 15 or 16 pounds a day to win."
Jeff Kriet agrees, saying a 60-pound total should do it, and 10 1/2 to 11 pounds a day will likely earn you a check for a top 50 finish after two days. Catching bass won't be the problem; catching big bass will.
"I think when you hook a 2-pounder, you're going to be careful with it," Kriet said. "I hope I don't have to weigh in a 2-pounder, but it's not a bad fish here. You could easily go out and catch five bass that weigh 7 or 8 pounds."
And that from an angler who weighed in a 6-pound, 2-ounce smallmouth bass the last time BASS held a tournament at Wheeler, in 2003. The lake does contain significant populations of all three black bass species: largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass.
This 68,000-acre lake formed by the Tennessee River is Alabama's second largest, trailing Lake Guntersville's 69,000 acres. Guntersville is located just upstream from Wheeler; both are part of the Tennessee Valley Authority system.
When the first day of this four-day event begins Thursday, most of the Elite Series pros will be fishing offshore structure, where post-spawn bass are holding. Kevin Short of Mayflower, Ark., predicts less gas will be burned during this tournament than any other on the Elite Series tour this year.
(The Southern Challenge, by the way, marks the seventh event in the 11-tournament schedule.)
"Ninety percent of the fish are in one percent of the water," Short said. "That's where everybody is going to be. I'm serious.
"You could take a pair of binoculars and walk out on this one little rock point ... I promise you would be able to see 70 or 80 of the 107 boats in this tournament."
Short was referring to an area known as Decatur Flats.
But the lake has presented a surprise this week: Recent heavy rains have raised the lake level and put a shallow water bite into play.
"That will be a factor," Horton said. "Wheeler has a lot of emergent vegetation, which they call water willows. They're out pretty good. It's just whether those fish will hold up over four days of pressure. They usually don't replenish much."
McClelland hopes that shallow bite might spread out the field a bit, rather than concentrating it on offshore structure as tightly as Short is predicting.
"It might be a factor," McClelland said. "There may be some fish caught shallow that wouldn't have been normally this time of year. It's going to open up some opportunities."
But McClelland isn't going to try to take advantage of them.
"Typically, this time of year, I'd never even bother the bank," he said. "And, honestly, I haven't this week."
McClelland and Horton are among those hoping that the high water will spur the TVA to start releasing water from Wheeler Dam, thus pulling water through the lake and creating current.
"I wish they'd drop it about a foot this week," Horton said. "But they're just letting it back up right now."
McClelland explained how that current flow through the lake would help make the bass easier to catch, saying, "Whenever you get a no-current situation on these lakes, the fish just really scatter. But when the current starts flowing, the bait gets all piled up in the eddies and behind stumps. It usually makes them a lot easier to catch."
The daily launch time is 7 a.m. ET at Ingalls Harbor, where the daily weigh-ins begin at 4 p.m. ET. After two days, the field will be cut to the top 50. The top 12 anglers after Saturday's weigh-in qualify to fish for Sunday's $100,000 first place check.