NEW ORLEANS, La. — John Crews predicted practice would be "rancid," Matt Herren called it "wasted" and Clark Reehm wasn't planning to leave his hotel Sunday.
It was an unusual official practice period by any stretch of the imagination.
Even Bill Lowen only used Sunday's daylight hours to test out a long run and see if he had enough fuel to make it without stopping for gas. "I made the run today to see if I could make it without getting fuel and to map out where the obstacles were," Lowen said. "If I don't find anything else Wednesday, it's going to be a long boat ride.
Here, I don't know if you have any choice." This February, a low tide combined with constant north winds for a time leading up to the practice has the Delta as low as it's been in recent memory. The Classic contenders discovered in practice what long runs combined with shallow water results in. A number of anglers found themselves stuck out in the marsh, run aground on shallow obstacles.
The worst of a long list of incidents was Edwin Evers, who was stuck for over six hours and even after freed, didn't get back into the ramp until after 10 p.m. "I know what a hurricane feels like … rain going sideways," Evers said of being pulled out by an airboat. Shallow water wasn't the only hazard for anglers traveling long distances.
Both David Watson and Gerald Swindle ran out of gas over the weekend. Watson limped into the Venice Marina near sunset after putting in two hours away in Bayou Segnette State Park.
Swindle even got $100 in gas while on the water and still ran out running the Intracoastal Waterway. His wife Le Ann brought as many two-gallon gas jugs as she could carry to the Bayou Segnette boat ramp and Scott Rook had to run them out to Swindle.
All these hazards tried to overshadow the fact that the fish were just not biting. Cold weather gripping the entire country leading up to practice had the water temperature at a frigid 41 degrees on Friday morning. "This is as hard as it gets — these fish are in shock," said Dave Wolak, after fishing Friday in cold, windy conditions. Warming weather as the weekend progressed pushed the water temperatures into the mid 50s, creating optimism that come tournament time, the Delta will be an entirely different fishery.
That optimism seemed to be how every angler survived the practice period. Almost every qualifier spoke about how the upcoming warming trend should have the fish flooding into areas and much more active. Warmth will be both a boon to the fishing and a challenge to the anglers. "They are just not eating right now," Keith Combs said. "It's just guesswork to put yourself in the right water since they aren't eating now."
The ultimate challenge this week will be the decision of where to fish come Friday morning. Choose correctly and the winning school of Delta bass could await. Choose poorly, and those few bites from practice could be gone as the fish moved with the warmth.
Fortunately, the anglers have one day of practice left, an abbreviated day Wednesday, that many felt would be key to their success. "Wednesday is important," Shaw Grigsby said. "Usually it is just a look-around day, but this year, it's going to be pretty serious." With high temperatures in the 70s and lows in the 50s all week, Wednesday will likely be a good indicator of tournament success.
Until then, anglers like Greg Vinson will just try to recover from what proved to be a mentally and physically taxing weekend. "I'm just going to get some rest," Vinson said. "I've been pushing it daylight to dark, trying to make the most of my practice. I need to be ready for Wednesday. That's when the fish are really going to tell me a lot."