This week's Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel on Alabama's Wheeler Lake should be fun. Recent rain brought the river up but did not muddy it; and while bass are still in the prespawn stage, fair weather and warming temperatures have been predicted and should start pushing bass shallow. That's what the pros have found in the previous two Elite events on Amistad and Dardanelle, and both produced very close finishes, even though Dardanelle had to be shortened by one day.
Few bass fishermen know Wheeler and the Tennessee River system better than Bill Huntley, CEO of T-H Marine Supplies in nearby Huntsville, and when I spoke with Bill on Monday, he thought it would be an excellent tournament. A lot of fish should be caught, few deeper than 7 or 8 feet, and that really opens the door for the entire Elite field.
Mark Menendez won Dardanelle by flipping a Strike King tube, and that's a tactic that could win again, although Huntley and I both think jigs would be a better choice on Wheeler. There is some hydrilla but not nearly as much as during last June's Elite tournament, so more fish will probably come from stump flats and shallow coves. Crankbaiters should enjoy working the channel edge, too.
Few will forget the dominant pattern here last summer — crawling soft plastics through isolated mussel shell beds — and undoubtedly many will try to make that technique work again. I think it could. In June the pros were catching postspawn bass on the shell beds, and this week they could be catching prespawners on those very same beds.
Another factor that separates Wheeler — and makes it a favorite of many Elite pros — is the simple fact there are a lot of bass here. Even during last June's 90-degree days, the pros were bringing in 20-pound catches, and tournament winner Jeremy Starks hoisted 78-10 on the scales over the four days.
Hopefully, we'll see something like that again, and here's who might do it:
Terry Scroggins — Big Show finished third here last year, after catching more bass during the event than anyone else. They just weren't big enough. The Florida pro loves to fish soft plastics, and he's overdue for an Elite win.
Paul Elias — If it's a cranking tournament, Paul can be a factor. Last year during practice he found a huge school of bass but someone else also found them and beat him to them the first day, so he never was able to capitalize on it. Remember, he won at Falcon by cranking, so he sure hasn't lost his touch.
Kevin VanDam — Kevin told me last year how much he loves the Tennessee River lakes (he lost the Elite tournament here last year by 8 ounces), and he told me earlier this year how much we wants another Angler of the Year title. He's had two excellent tournaments thus far, and given the conditions he'll find at Wheeler, there's no reason he shouldn't have another one.
Alton Jones — Alton told me during last week's weather-cancelled day not only how much he wants to win AOY this season, but also how much that desire motivates him. Like KVD, he's fishing very well right now and the prespawn/spawn conditions suit his style perfectly.
Skeet Reese — In case you haven't noticed, the Classic champ has not slowed down a bit after his Red River win. If anything, he's fishing harder than I've seen him fish since his 2007 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year season. Besides, he was 14th here last June, so he knows how to fish Wheeler.
Todd Faircloth — Todd finished 6th here last year, and his 7-13 lunker claimed big bass honors, so he, too, knows how and where to fish Wheeler. In fact, he was the pro who found the same fish Elias did and beat him to the spot the first day. His first two events have not mirrored last season's results, and I look for him to get back on track.
Of course, with fish coming into shallow water on a lake most of the pros have fished often, hardly anyone can be considered a long shot here. In fact, tournament watchers may also want to pay attention to Elite rookies Matt Herren and Greg Vinson, each of whom who has a real chance here. They're both from Alabama, both had Top 10s on Dardanelle, and both actually have years of tournament experience.