DECATUR, Ala. — From the top of the field to the bottom, shell beds of freshwater mussels in Lake Wheeler will go a long way in determining which Elite Series pro walks away with a $100,000 payday at the conclusion of today's championship round at the Southern Challenge.
Take second place angler Jeremy Starks, for instance, who is fishing the apparent shell bed of all shell beds.
All week long, the West Virginia pro has been carefully fishing — and guarding — a shell bed spot that has produced good bass for him every day of this week's tournament with minimal effort.
In fact, the spot is apparently so good that he has run the risk of saving the sweet spot of his near-legendary shell bed for today's final round.
"That shell bed up there is really good and there isn't really anyone close (to me consistently)," Starks said. "Everyone thinks I'm fishing the channel edge, but I'm not. What I want is to go in there on the final day and (whack them)."
Whether or not Starks' "save the best for last" strategy pays off today and results in a come from behind win over third round leader Kevin VanDam remains to be seen.
But what is clear is that for an angler to have success on this particular Tennessee River impoundment this week, finding and knowing how to fish a shell bed has been of utmost importance.
"They hold tons of fish, just tons of fish," agreed Shaw Grigsby, entering today's final round in 11th place.
"There are different varieties of them and what they'll do is that they'll gang up on a particular flat or point and there are all of these clams down there.
"You drag your bait across them and you can (literally) feel them."
The Florida BASS angling great says the size of shell beds can vary from a small strip to beds of several acres.
The key to tapping into the nutrient rich aquatic life that surrounds these beds — which attract crustaceans, baitfish, and thus largemouth bass — is to find them first.
"Finding them is the hard thing," Shaw admitted. "With electronics, Lowrance has this new broadband that will really let you determine hard and soft bottoms so that you can tell that now (you've) got a really hard bottom and if you zoom in, you can probably see some of the little contour changes.
"Now will that be contour or will it be a shell bed, you don't know until you get to fishing (the area) and then every now and then you'll hook one.
"What they'll do is while you're dragging a bait, they'll grab your line," Grigsby explained. "If I'm reeling in shells, I'm in a shell bed."
Aside from electronics and actually landing a mussel, Grigsby said that using one's eyes on scouting or practice missions can be a key — some shell beds are well known by local anglers and are often the targets of consistent fishing activity.
Elite Series rookie Corey Waldrop admits that while finding a shell bed on Wheeler can be easy — there are usually boats around such a spot — he prefers to find smaller, more isolated beds that are receiving little if any attention.
"While some of the smaller shell beds are where you see the majority of the boats, (I'm looking) there for the ones that are smaller, the (really) little ones around," he said before blasting off to compete in his first career "Elite 12" final round.
Sometimes, especially in areas of subtle contours, shell beds can go unnoticed despite offering a bonanza of angling opportunity.
"There doesn't have to be any contour change because I found a spot yesterday where I caught three over 4 1/2 in a row and left it (and) no one has hit it all week," Waldrop said. "There's obviously no contour change (there), all it is is a concentration of shells out there in the middle of the flats."
What do you fish such areas with?
Grigsby likes to use Carolina rigs, lipless crankbaits, and Texas rigged worms. Waldrop prefers a shallow crankbait or a 10" plastic worm in plum. And Arizona pro John Murray, who entered today's final round in fifth place, likes a 1/2 oz. green pumpkin football head jig or a plum Power Worm.
How do you fish such baits in and around a shell bed?
Well, that's part of the beauty of fishing a shell bed — a number of presentations will produce.
"When they're there, they bite it," Murray said. "It doesn't matter how you're working it, they'll hit on the fall, fast and slow."
That helps explain the almost insane catches of 100 or more bass that some anglers have reported this week.
And unlike other bite patterns, you can also consistently keep working a shell bed according to Waldrop.
"If I don't catch anything for a while, I'll pick up a worm or a crankbait and stick with the area because these fish are there on the shell beds," he said. "You can catch a ton of fish off one area, leave it for five minutes, and come back and it will be on fire again."
Are there sweet spots on a shell bed?
Starks is counting on that being the case as he invades such a spot today for the first time all week, hoping to ride five big bites to an Elite Series title and $100,000 winner's check.
Grigsby admits while there are exceptions, generally speaking, the shell bed itself is the sweet spot you are looking for.
"You fish all around there," he said. "Sometimes you may have something sweet on it but generally on a shell bed it's all over it, it's like (there's) nothing different unless you have a little bit of a drop-off."
However, he does warn that such an endeavor does have one potentially negative caveat.
"You can nick your line," Grigsby said. "Every one of those things, they have little razor blade edges."
Motto? Check you line for nicks and abrasions often, retying as necessary.
What's the bottom line on Wheeler's fabulous shell bed fishing this week? Such areas big and small have produced the lion's share of bass action during this week's tourney.
And odds are, a shell bed or two will go a long way in determining which of 12 final round anglers walks off the weigh-in stage this afternoon with a bulging wallet and a huge grin on their face.
"I know (they're) good," Waldrop said.
Rookie or not, he'll get little argument there.