LA CROSSE, Wis. — Because he grew up on the Arkansas River, pro angler Billy McCaghren is considered one of the Bassmaster Elite Series’ “river rats.” The term doesn’t imply he’s a bad guy, only that he knows and loves to fish rivers.
That goes double for the Mississippi River fishery for the Thursday through Sunday Bassmaster Elite Series competition out of La Crosse’s Veterans Freedom Park, the Mississippi River Rumble.
After all, the Mississippi is the river on which McCaghren came very close to winning an Elite event in his rookie year. He led on the third day, but ended in third place behind winner Kevin Short — another river rat from Arkansas. That was the 2009 Mississippi River Rumble out of Fort Madison, Iowa, the event that helped McCaghren go on to win the Rookie of the Year title.
There’s one more reason McCaghren is raring to rumble again on the Mississippi.
“I’m ready to fish shallow water,” he said. “In the past three Elite tournaments, the fish have been deep. I’ve never competed on this part of the Mississippi, but I feel I understand it much more than I do those deep lakes.”
McCaghren, who still lives just a few minutes from the Arkansas River in Mayflower, Ark., was one of 99 professional anglers who arrived in La Crosse in time for the official Monday through Wednesday practice period. They’ll begin the competition Thursday morning at 6:15 a.m. Takeoff will be out of Veterans Freedom Park in La Crosse. The pros will return to the park each day through Sunday to weigh their catches beginning at 3:15 p.m.
The 2012 Rumble’s first prize is $100,000 and an instant entry in the 2013 Bassmaster Classic. The pros also will be out to earn points, which count toward a postseason entry and qualification for the 2013 Classic.
The pros also will fight for ground in the season-long Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race. Brent Chapman of Lake Quivira, Kan., leads going into the Rumble. But David Walker of Sevierville, Tenn., trails Chapman by just 15 points. Several other red-hot pros aren’t far behind, so the Rumble’s stakes are high.
Water levels on the stretch of the Mississippi within tournament boundaries are expected to dictate the pros’ patterns. But McCaghren already knew that fact before he scouted all three pools — Nos. 7, 8 and 9 — before the official off-limits period began a month ago.
“Regardless of high or low or in between, what you want in a river situation is stable water,” he said. “They can drop it so fast. That’s what happened to me (in the 2009 event) between the third and fourth days. I was fishing extremely shallow water, and my fish moved when the level dropped overnight. The beauty of that for Kevin (Short) was he had a place with deeper water.”
The quality of the Mississippi fishery out of La Crosse is so high that the Elite field should have a wide choice of spots, he said.
“There are a lot of lakes and tons of aquatic vegetation,” he said. “There’s so much backwater, a guy will be able to do anything he wants to if we hit it (the water level) right.”
The tournament waters stretch 66 miles, measured roughly from Dam 6 near Trempealeau, Wis., south to Dam 9 near Lynxville, Wis. The boundaries encompass three pools, 7-9. The takeoff point at La Crosse is within Pool 8.
McCaghren said that because the water levels didn’t appear to be drastically different from pool to pool, locking through should not eat up too much competition time and thus could be a feasible game plan. And the bite in all three pools looked promising when he scouted them, he added.
How many pounds will be needed to make it to the final-day Top 12 and a chance at the Classic berth and $100,000 first prize? He’s heard “dock talk” estimates of 16 to 18 pounds a day.
“It’s usually more than what everyone is saying,” he said. “But from what I’ve seen, the weights will be close, and it will come down to ounces.”
Fans are invited to watch the event at Veterans Freedom Park. Weigh-ins will begin at 3:15 p.m. CT. The no-admission Bassmaster Elite Series Family Festival will be open on Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. A free shuttle service to and from the park will be provided. The stops are identified on a map in the event’s program.
All Bassmaster fan activities are free and open to the public.
Bassmaster.com will provide extensive daily coverage, such as daily live video of the weigh-ins, real-time leaderboards, photo galleries, BASSCam videos, results and standings. Saturday and Sunday, the Bassmaster Elite Series War Room will present updates from BASSTrakk, a catch reporting system relayed from the water, plus in-depth interviews and analysis. Hooked Up! segments will be presented Saturday and Sunday. Access is free to all Bassmaster.com pages and features.
The local host is the La Crosse Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.