Lake Erie, site of the 2008 Empire Chase, might be more accurately described as a freshwater ocean as opposed to a lake. It's 241 miles long, 57 miles wide and has a surface area of more than 9,900 square miles.
It's also considered one of the best smallmouth fisheries in North America. Catches of 100 brown bass a day are common, and a 5-pounder will hardly turn heads at the dock. It's a favorite among the Elite Series anglers.
"It's different this year," says Edwin Evers, winner of the 2007 Empire Chase. "The fish seem to be running about a half-pound smaller, and they're more scattered. It's going to be tougher to find the ones you need to win, or at least that's the way it's shaping up for me after two days of practice.
"I think it's still a smallmouth tournament, though. There'll be some largemouths brought to the scales, but I'd say the winners will mostly weigh smallmouths."
Evers won last year's tournament with 65 pounds, 7 ounces. That's an average of just over 4 pounds, 6 ounces per fish. A reduction of a half pound would drastically reduce the weights this year. Did we hear this Oklahoma angler right?
"I didn't say that all the fish were that small," he laughs, sounding as if he's hedging his bets a little. "In fact, I think the winning weight will be heavier this year. I'm just saying that the average is smaller — for me. I'd think overall it'll take about 34 pounds to make the Top 50 cut for Saturday and about 50 pounds to fish the Top 12 on Sunday.
"And, my guess is that it'll take 18 pounds, 12 ounces a day to win this thing. That's 75 pounds. I know that's 10 pounds heavier than last year, but that's the way I see it. These guys are good. Somebody will whack them; they always do."
His big bass prediction is 6 pounds, 4 ounces. "I think there'll be some big smallies caught this week, but I don't expect to see any real giants."
If he's right about the weights, approximately half the field will average 3 pounds, 6 ounces per fish on Thursday and Friday. That average will only drop slightly for the 50 anglers who fish Saturday. And, the winner will average 3 pounds, 12 ounces per bass. Those are tight figures that'll make for close weights. This could be a horse race.
Much of Evers' prediction is based on current lake conditions. The water temperature is 75 degrees, more or less, and is holding steady throughout the lake. And the wind has been manageable, although Evers reports it was beginning to pick up early Wednesday morning.
"I don't think the weather will have much of an impact other than it's good and expected to stay that way. I'd say the weather will actually help us. But — and this is a big but — the wind can start blowing here in a matter of minutes. When that happens, a lot of the lake isn't fishable. That can change everything, and there's no way to predict it. You just go with what you've got at the time."
Stable weather makes for stable fishing, too. According to Evers the fish are being caught between 26 and 40 feet deep on tubes and drop shot rigs. "I think it's pretty standard Lake Erie stuff. I don't expect to see any surprises this week as far as patterns and baits are concerned.
"I will say, however, that the key to winning this week will be finding schools of bass. I haven't done that in practice, but somebody will and they'll most likely be the one who wins it. I really don't think looking for singles and trying to target big fish will do you any good."
When it comes to anglers worth watching this week, Evers predicts that he'll do well and so will Kevin VanDam. "I think we both understand the fishery and know something about how to fish it. This should be a good tournament for both of us. But, keep in mind this is bass fishing — anything can happen, and usually does."
Beyond that Evers says we should keep a close eye on Terry Butcher. "He finished fourth here last year so he knows what's going on. And, this type of fishing suits him. I'd say he's a guy to watch. He could just jump up and win this thing."