BRANSON, Mo. — It seems that the Bassmaster Elite Series anglers have quickly adopted a tradition of the Ozark hill country, where "stretchin' the blanket" (telling a whopper) is as common as the tough terrain.
It's like the old saying goes: "Take three drinks of that water (in the Ozarks), and you'll never tell the truth again."
As the anglers gathered at Big Cedar Lodge for their pre-tournament meeting Wednesday, Ott DeFoe asked, "How many crawfish are there in a lake when you can catch one on a crankbait?"
During practice for the A.R.E. Truck Caps Bassmaster Elite Series Tournament at Table Rock Lake, DeFoe did just that – caught a crawfish on a Storm Wiggle Wart crankbait.
"It was a lobster," DeFoe said. "It was probably six inches long, from its pincers to its tail. I was dragging a crankbait across a point, and it felt like I'd hooked a leaf or something.
"Bradley Roy did the same thing."
DeFoe had a photo to prove that he, in this case, was telling the truth.
Dennis Tietje was able to top that story. He decided he was going to check out the crankbait bite this week.
"On my second cast, I set the hook, got one," Tietje said.
But as he was reeling the bass to the boat, Tietje saw his lure in one place and the bass hooked on a jerkbait in another place.
"I'd hooked a line that had a fish on it," he said. "I hand-lined that fish to the boat, just so I could get the lure. I figured it might bring me some luck during the tournament."
Tietje brought a three-pound bass to the boat, released it and kept the lure. Then he noticed some weight on the other end of the line. So he hand-over-hand brought it to the boat. Attached to the other end was a nice rod-and-baitcaster combo. It seems this bass had snatched the lure, line, rod and reel from an unfortunate angler's hands.
So, you see, that old saying about this hill country isn't too far off base: "All the lies you hear about the Ozark are true." Never have more fitting words been uttered for a bass fishing derby.
"This should be a fun tournament," said Shaw Grigsby.
Fun and a bit tough. Water surface temperatures have crept into the mid-50s during this first week in April, and the bass are still in pre-spawn mode, at a time of year when they'd usually be spawning.
"The water is definitely cold," said Mike McClelland of nearby Bella Vista, Ark. He's fished the White River chain of lakes, which include Table Rock, Beaver and Bull Shoals, for many years.
"We've had a late spawn at times in the past," McClelland said. "But this year they are way, way, way behind."
So here are five things to watch when the four-day tournament begins Thursday.
1. Weather – Strong thunderstorms are expected in the area beginning Wednesday night and stretching into Thursday morning. The forecast calls for cold nights, with temperatures dipping into the 30s, after the front moves through.
"If we got two days of sunshine and temperatures in the 70s, it would be amazing," Grigsby said. "These fish want to spawn so bad, I don't think a couple of cool nights is going to affect them."
But the rush to shallow spawning beds probably won't happen this week.
"It's definitely warming," said Skeet Reese. "(Tuesday) I found some water that was 58 degrees. Earlier in the week, it was 49 to 51 (degrees). But it will be all pre-spawn for the tournament. Fish will be caught from one foot to 40-feet deep."
Fishing a suspending jerkbait, another Ozark tradition, will be a primary bass-catching method. Crankbaits, like Storm Wiggle Warts, another White River chain of lakes spring tradition, should also be strong this week.
2. The Rush Up The River Arms — Table Rock is a big highland reservoir, covering 43,100 acres. But the stained water in areas like Long Creek and the upper White River will attract many of the 108 pros in this event.
"My guess is that 75 percent of the field will be in those two areas," Reese said.
Stained water adds some consistency to bass fishing in the Ozarks.
"This is the only Ozark lake where I haven't won," said Rick Clunn, who lives in nearby in Ava, Mo. "I've won at Beaver and Bull Shoals. But I won there when it was unusually muddy. It's so rare for these lakes to get that way. It's hard to catch them four days in a row in clear water. Catching big fish is really random when the water is clear. It's easier to be consistent when the water is off-colored."
Clunn isn't the only angler aware of that, hence the likely rush to stained areas.
"The main lake is really clear by my standards," said Tietje, a Louisiana native. "The backs of the creeks are what they call muddy here. We call it pretty good water. This is a big place, but certain areas will have a number of boats."
Added Tietje, in reference to the last Elite Series event on the St. Johns River, where almost half the field gathered in one Lake George spawning flat, "It won't be as bad as Florida."
3. The Weights of Five-Bass Bags — While largemouth bass will dominate at Table Rock, there are also significant spotted bass and smallmouth populations in the lake. All three species have a 15-inch minimum length limit.
"There will be a lot of 12- to 14-pound bags," Clunn said. "We might see a few 20-pound bags. That's why a big fish or two is such a big key here. It's just hard to do that four days in a row.
"Smallmouth bass will definitely play a role. There are quite a few 3-pounders in this lake, and some 4s and 5s. There are a lot of 15-inch spots too. You'll see some 3- and 4-pound spots weighed-in."
Reese thinks an average of 14 pounds a day will put you in the top 12 who'll fish on Sunday for the championship.
"I'd bet money that will have you fishing on Sunday," he said.
Said McClelland, "I don't think anybody can repeat an 18- to 20-pound bag two or three days in a row."
4. Brian Snowden — Snowden moved to this area in 1995 from Taft, Calif., near Bakersfield. He made the move to fulfill his goal of becoming a professional bass fisherman.
Snowden transferred from Fresno State to what was then called Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State) in Springfield, where he completed a biology degree in fisheries management.
"There was only one Bass Pro Shop at that time," Snowden said. "Now there are about 70. I worked there part-time while I was in school and full-time four or five years after I graduated."
The five-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier has fulfilled his dream of being a professional angler. And he's the man with the most experience on Table Rock.
"I fish here a lot, and I guide here," Snowden said.
He thinks it will take 16 to 17 pounds a day to win this event.
5. More Tall Tales — Practice has produced some good stories already, so the four-day tournament is guaranteed to add some new chapters. It's an Ozark tradition.