MUSKOGEE, Okla. — Due to the flood waters that engulfed Oklahoma City impacting the fast-rising Arkansas River, the AutoZone Sooner Run was moved 16 miles north to Fort Gibson Lake beginning on Wednesday's final day of practice.
"What precipitated the change was the river conditions," Tournament Director Trip Weldon said. "The flow of the river and the debris were the main factors."
On Wednesday, the Corp of Engineers said 78,000 cubic feet of water per second flowed in the Arkansas River and by Friday it was expected to increase to 100,000 cubic feet, causing a small watercraft warning.
"We got a lot of calls from lead anglers who said that these were the worst conditions they'd ever seen," Weldon said. "I know the guys put in a lot of effort and they were catching fish. Not everybody is happy with it and we understand that, but ultimately they all agreed it was still the right decision."
The change in venue was fine with Wagoner, Oklahoma's Tommy Biffle, who has fished Fort Gibson Lake for over 40 years.
"It was probably a good idea," said Biffle, whose last win came at the 2009 Evan Williams Burbon Dixie Duel. "There is a lot of trash and logs you can see and I've hit some of the one's you don't see in the river. It was a good call, but a lot of the others don't like it, because they are going to be fishing my home lake. It's better fishing than the river."
Biffle added that the water level at Fort Gibson was low due to dam construction, which is expected to make the tournament more of a structure-fishing event.
"There are a lot of ways you can catch fish on the lake and usually it would be up a little bit in the bushes and willow trees, but there is some work going on at the dam and that's why the water is low," Biffle said. "It's going to be a structure deal and too, there a lot of different ways to catch fish, because of the good river system in it. There will be some good fishing this week."
Another local angler, Terry Butcher, who finished third last week on Kentucky Lake, agreed with Biffle about the fishing on Fort Gibson.
"I think with the river conditions it's something we have to do," Butcher said. "Personally, I kind of like it. I'd much rather catch them over there, but we'll see what happens. On this lake, you can do just about whatever you want to do — fish shallow or fish out."
Fellow Oklahoman Bradley Hallman from Norman, was not in favor of the venue move after two days of practicing on the Arkansas River, but he realized it was the right decision, because of the rising water level.
"I was running 70 miles an hour and never saw a tree or a log and I was pretty hot about it when I got a text about the change," Hallman said. "Then when I got up here and came across the river bridge, it's definitely blown out. There's really nothing we can do about it. I'd rather be toughing it out with the trees, but it is what it is."
Hallman thinks that Fort Gibson is a promising lake for bigger fish, especially since virtually the entire field is inexperienced on this particular venue.
"There's a lot of exciting things that can happen with nobody getting information and going in blind," Hallman said. "I like that aspect of it, but I guess what I was really looking forward to was fishing on the river. Gibson definitely has got the fish and I thought I knew that lake. It's lower than normal and after practicing for one day I guess I haven't spent as much time there as I thought I had."
Arizona native, Mark Tyler, who now lives in Oklahoma, was disappointed that the tournament was moved from the Arkansas River.
"I was horribly disappointed," he said. "I had 100 days of preparation for this event and I had considered it my home waters. I had been excited for this event for a long time and I didn't think conditions warranted a change of venue. I certainly lost a big advantage that I had, but so did everybody else. I have to stay optimistic and go out working hard, but I'll be totally blind."
Competition starts Thursday with the Toyota take-off from the Sequoyah Bay Marina on Fort Gibson at 7:30 a.m. ET.