Sound decision making will be at a premium next week on north Alabama's Pickwick and Wilson lakes. For starters, there are two lakes available to the Elite Series anglers competing in the Alabama Charge out of Florence, Ala.
To further complicate things, the lakes are home to all three species of Micropterus: the largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Earning the trophy -- along with $100,000 and a berth in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic -- will require a string of good decisions, and a few good bites.
Add in fluctuating water levels and you've got a multiple-choice test no angler is thrilled about taking.
Wilson is roughly half the size of Pickwick (30,175 surface acres vs. 15,930), but it weighs in big time for big smallies. Wilson lays claim to producing the third largest-ever smallmouth, a 10-pound, 8-ounce slob, caught near the Wheeler Dam tailwater by Owen F. Smith on October 8, 1950.
Wilson still regularly produces 4- and 5-pound smallies, one or two of which will be key come the tournament. However, don't expect most anglers to focus on the smaller of two.
Pickwick will more than likely be where most pros fish. Not only because it's larger, but because of its massive resident fish population.
Alton Jones, who after two Elite events lead the Bassmaster Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year standings, also points to Pickwick's hydrilla beds that have transformed it into one of the best fisheries in the U.S.
Jones, who caught only 23-13 last year on Pickwick to finish 78th, prefers to not fish in a crowd, so look for him to be where most anglers aren't.
"The fact that lots of guys will fish Pickwick may make Wilson better," he says. "But, Pickwick is larger and can handle the pressure more easily."
Jones says that the event will be in the heat of the spawn, but the tailrace -- which supported many of the Top 12 anglers in 2010 -- will still be a popular spot. He also believes that the top of the field will be targeting either largemouth or smallmouth bass.
Elite pro Tim Horton calls Muscle Shoals, Ala., home and has fished Pickwick and Wilson lakes for years. He too failed to make the cut last year, when the event was held almost three weeks later in April. Horton finished 53rd in the event won by Kevin Short, who finished with 75-1 for a five-pounder victory over Cliff Pace.
Contrary to Jones, Horton doesn't think the grass will be tall enough to make a difference this year. It usually becomes a factor late in May. Horton said he expects 12-13 pounds per day will make the Top 50 cut, while the upper 70-pound-range will take the trophy.
The final variable will be the volatile water level. If the area experiences lots of rain, flow will increase (which makes for better fishing), but Alabama Power may drop the lake level. Adjusting to this factor -- as well as the others -- will be vital in the winner's success.
"There's lots to look for and be aware of," Horton says. "If it's at full pool, they may draw it back down to winter pool, we'll just have to see."