EVANS, Ga. — It's a wonder how a few weeks makes all the difference. When the Elite Series takes off on Clarks Hill Lake Thursday, two weeks later than in years past, the fishing promises to be more challenging than ever before.
Like many of the anglers present at registration, Shaw Grigsby had a tough practice, struggling to locate any concentration of quality fish. Small fish seem to be all over the bank and out deep, but big fish are hard to come by.
"What we're looking at is a post-spawn transition and it's just a screwy time of year," Grigsby said. "The lake is not nearly what it was last time. There is very little schooling action. Somebody may get on a spot where they come up and blast 'em one day, but I don't think it will be consistent."
In past visits to Clarks Hill, the lake level has been significantly lower, as much as 17 feet down, but last year's heavy rains filled the lake back up.
"The water came back up, so there is a lot of stuff in the water now," Grigsby said. "There just seems to be little fish up on the bank though. When it was good fishing here, it took 11 pounds a day to make a check. This time it might take considerably less."
Regardless of the water level, the biggest factor on Clarks Hill remains the blueback herring migration. Anglers agreed that the majority of the blueback spawn seems to be over, which means the next move is suspending over deep water.
Casey Ashley has a lot of experience on this body of water and thinks the cold winter has affected the scattering of the herring population.
"It got warm here really quick," Ashley said. "It was cold, cold, cold and then suddenly it was 80 degrees. The water temperature jumped so fast, the herring spawned before the bass did, so they have nothing to relate to when they pull off the bank."
Normally after spawning the bass would gorge on the blueback herring that were up shallow themselves and anglers would have a relatively easy time picking them off with topwater and swimbaits. With the herring spawn drying up, the bass scatter and become much more difficult to find.
In previous years, the schooling action, especially early in the morning, has been key to success on Clarks Hill, but this year, even that bite is hard to come by. Chris Lane led going into the final day in 2007 by catching schooling fish, but agreed that this year will be different.
"The fact that there is a lot more water has spread the fish out," Lane said. "You still can find schooling fish, but instead of 30 to 40 fish, you only get 3 or 4."
Lane predicted that 15 pounds a day would be strong contention for victory. Pete Ponds, who finished third in '07, agreed with Lane, saying 58 pounds would be good for the win, while a mere 18 pounds over the first two days would put an angler in check range.
Ponds also pointed out that the weights will be better if cloudy weather moves in.
"Overcast, windy conditions are prime for this lake," Ponds said. "Friday, if we get some weather, you could see the weights go up. But overall, it will still be a lot tougher than in the past."
Friday and Saturday, the weather forecasts are for slight chances of an isolated thunderstorm, which should extend the early morning bite. On Thursday's Day One, however, the first few hours are critical.
J. Todd Tucker knows with the pelagic nature of the blueback herring, capitalizing on an early bite will be important in this event.
"Once the blueback herring leave the bank, [the bass] suspend and are very hard to catch," Tucker said. "There is a two-hour window in the morning and after that it gets really tough. What few fish you can catch are really shallow and they just won't commit to the bait when the sun gets up."
After the sun rises, anglers have to move off the bank and it becomes a deep-water strategy for the rest of the day. At that point, Tucker sees local anglers dominating because of their better knowledge of the offshore structure on Clarks Hill.
"You're going to see locals like Jason Quinn, Jason Williamson and Casey Ashley do well," Tucker said. "When it's tough like this, the locals have a huge advantage because they know the deeper structure."
Just how much of an advantage that proves to be will be decided as Day One of competition gets underway Thursday, with the Toyota take-off at 6:10 a.m. ET at the Wildwood Park and the weigh-in beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN3.