The spawn is on, so Lake Norman bass fishing experts Shane Lineberger and Wayne Hauser are steeling themselves for a slugfest when the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open comes to town March 24-26.
Hauser would rather the big bass didn't appear on spawning beds during the competition days.
"If everyone can see them, there goes my local advantage," said Hauser, a Southern Open pro who lives in Mooresville, N.C., about five minutes from the lake. He's been fishing Norman as his home water for close to 20 years, and he knows the less obvious patterns that produce on North Carolina's largest freshwater fishery near Charlotte, host city to the tournament.
Lineberger said bass are already spawning in creeks up around one of Norman's "hot spots," two well-known areas where water temps are up year-round because of power-plant discharges of hot water. It's now a matter of more sunny days to get the prespawners into full gear elsewhere.
"The bite should really turn on," he added.
From Lincolnton, N.C., Lineberger is a Lake Norman native. He was raised on crappie — his father and he used to go out after slabsides from a johnboat. It wasn't until he was 16 that he sampled Norman's bass fishing when a cousin asked Lineberger to join him on a bass outing. That's all it took.
"I've been hooked ever since," said Lineberger, now 38 and fishing the Southern Open circuit. He'd like to become a full-time pro and give up his job in an auto manufacturing plant.
More specifically, he'd like to qualify for the Bassmaster Elite Series. Only the top five after the Southern Open's three 2011 events will get invitations to move up. Going into the Norman event, he's 23rd in the points standings. A strong finish at Norman would help push him to his goal.
Hauser, who already fishes for a living, also is hoping that the Norman contest will push that Elite Series door open a bit further for him. Right now, he's 34th in points.
Then, of course, there's the winner's package. An Open win now earns $10,000 and a Triton/Mercury bass boat rig valued at $45,000. And, for the first time this season, each Open event winner gets a berth in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic.
"The Classic berth is a big cookie, because if you make the Classic, it helps you with sponsorship opportunities," noted Hauser, who already claims as one of his sponsors the new BoatUS Angler Weigh-to-Win contingency program, which offers cash awards to top finishers who are subscribers to a towing insurance package.
Even though they know the lake, Hauser and Lineberger have made time to scout Norman recently. More than two weeks out, Hauser saw extremely clear water. Lake levels then were down about 3 feet, thanks to the lack of rain, and visibility was up.
"The water clarity near the dam was 5 to 6 feet, and up in the river, 2 to 3 feet. That's clearer than normal — it's usually 3 feet on the lower part of the lake, 8 to 12 inches up in the river," he said. "The clearer the water, the more you have to work to trick them."
But March 13-14, about 10 days out, hard rains muddied the picture. The incoming water swelled the lake almost back to full pool, said Lineberger, who fished the lake Monday, March 14.
"The lake came up 2 1/2 feet and got pretty dirty," he said. "The backs of all the creeks were dirty. But I think it will clear toward tournament time. The creeks clear up as fast as they dirty up."
With creeks filling up, "looking at them" would hinge on rain or, rather, the lack of it, at tournament time. Meanwhile, the spawning stage is linked to area weather. More specifically, Lineberger said, if the area's recent cold snaps repeat, the bass will retreat to deeper water.
But according to Lineberger, big fish on beds won't dictate the outcome of this Southern Open.
"I don't think you can win the tournament sight fishing alone," he said. "These fish get so much pressure on them that they get up on the bed, and then they're gone. They don't mess around. If you're going to rely on sight fishing every day, you have to have more than one area. The fish won't be on beds in the same spot for three days — that's just not going to happen here."
He predicts mixed bags of spotted bass and largemouth. And at 35 miles long with 520 miles of shoreline, Norman is big enough to spread out the Open field of close to 200 boats.
"There's plenty of water to go around," Lineberger said.
Hauser said recent one-day tournaments on Norman have been won with about 16 pounds.
"I wouldn't expect that in the Open," he said. "It's too hard to repeat 16 here every day. To win the Open, I'd say 12 to 14 pounds, on average, each day."
Facts about the March 24-26 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open
2011 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Title Sponsor: Bass Pro Shops
2011 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Official Sponsors: Toyota, Bass Pro Shops, Berkley, Evan Williams Bourbon, Mercury, Skeeter Boats, Triton Boats, Yamaha
2011 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Supporting Sponsors: Humminbird, Luck "E" Strike, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats