DECATUR, Ala. — Like the atmosphere of an NFL training camp or Major League Baseball's spring training, optimism is the rule as Wheeler Lake hosts the season-opening Alabama CITGO Bassmaster Southern Open presented by Busch Beer beginning Thursday.
As with other sports, opening day of the three-event Southern Division season finds all 200 pros with a clean slate fueling ambitious goals. At stake is a $50,000 top prize and valuable points to the inaugural CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship in December. That event will send the top finishers to the coveted CITGO Bassmaster Classic next summer.
Formally known as Joe Wheeler Reservoir, the 67,000-acre impoundment of the Tennessee River located in northern Alabama is home to quality populations of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. The second largest lake in Alabama, Wheeler has hosted five BASS events, including the 1974 Classic won by Tommy Martin.
"At one time, this lake was as good as any lake in the country," said Tim Horton, 2000 BASS Angler of the Year and a former guide on Wheeler. "I think Wheeler is on its way back.
"We didn't have as much milfoil as we did the last four or five years as we did in the '90s. The (largemouth bass) virus hit here in '97, also. But I think it's starting to come back a little bit. We're having a lot of 3-pounders showing up this year. We just don't have as many 7-pounders as we used to."
By all accounts, the fishing should be competitive as the pros make their first casts into the Southern Division season.
"I think the fishing is going to be pretty decent," Horton said. "The (local tournament) stringers all summer have been taking 15 to 18 pounds to win. I think it's going to be a pretty good tournament.
"It's not our best time of year, but if we get some cool temperatures it will be a little better. The fish have already started moving to the backs of the creeks and stuff like that — the typical fall migration. And if it gets cooler the fishing should be a little better because they will start feeding more."
"I think we are going to see some good fish of all three varieties come to the scales," added Troy Jens, an Open competitor and guide on the reservoir. "Largemouth, spots and smallmouth are all active and catchable during this time period. The water level should stay low, near normal pool, and that is favorable for some good fall fishing."
Both Horton and Jens advise that largemouths will be the ticket to doing well in the three-day tournament.
"I expect the bigger bags of largemouth to come out of the grass, and many of those will probably come on topwater if the weather doesn't mess up the shallow open water areas," Jens said. "Specifically soft jerkbaits and buzzbaits.
"The weather can get nasty in late September, and it is always a factor on Wheeler, so we will have to see what Mother Nature has in store. Pitching jigs and plastics in shallow grass and around stumps is always a winning pattern in September on Wheeler. Down river there will be some schooling bass, and some good bags will come off of points, ledges and creek mouths with small crankbaits and Texas-rigged plastics."
Horton predicts that the winning weight will be around 45 pounds.
"It to take around 10-pounds a day to make the (top-50) cut if wind and rain conditions don't get out of control," Jens added. "The weights have been much better all year on Wheeler, so if conditions stay right it could take 16 to 18 pounds a day to win. There are still some 20-pound bags (being caught in) local team tournaments."
Daily weigh-ins will begin at 2:45 p.m. at Riverwalk Marina and are free to the public.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass-fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.