When this year's Bassmaster Classic officially begins just after daybreak on February 19, the collective adrenalin rush of the 51 competitors will probably be enough to push over some of the pine trees surrounding Lay Lake. In the years I have been fortunate enough to attend the Classic, this one has already generated more excitement than any I remember in a long time.
One reason may be because many in the field are returning to familiar water; this is the fourth Classic on Lay in the past 14 years. Another reason is that the lake is in very good condition overall, with more shallow vegetation than in years past. That means the fishing should be better.
I think the pros are also excited because everyone I've spoken to believes it will take multiple patterns and lures as well as a mixed catch of largemouths and spotted bass to win, and that evens the playing field a lot. The water will be cold, so flipping jigs will be popular, but so will jerkbaits and lipless crankbaits. There's grass, rocks, current, undercut banks, boat docks and channels — enough targets and choices to keep everyone busy.
Mike McClelland told me he wouldn't be surprised if it took 60 pounds to win, weather permitting, and Gary Klein said he felt the winner would likely need at least one 20-pound day and another of around 18. Several weeks ago, Boyd Duckett, the 2007 winner with 48-10, told me Lay can easily turn out 16 pounds a day, but I agree with Klein in thinking that unless the weather really turns brutal, the winner is probably going to need at least one 20-pound day.
Some of the pros are hoping the weather turns really cold, because — while it will slow the largemouth action — it could speed up the spotted bass. Think back to the 2007 Classic here when the weather turned cold. On the first day Randy Howell boated 19 pounds of spots in just two hours.
Howell also needed water movement to make that catch, however, and he faded quickly the next two days when Alabama Power stopped generating and the water stood still. Real success on the Coosa nearly always depends on water flow. Jay Yelas won in 2002 fishing in the Logan Martin Dam tailrace, so getting off to a fast start (Friday) will be important, as will having a Plan B for calm water conditions.
These are just some of the elements that will make this Classic a memorable one. Picking a winner is more difficult because eight pros live in Alabama and have a lot of time on the lake, and one of them, of course, won here. Nonetheless, here are several contestants who definitely should be considered as potentially high finishers:
Aaron Martens — One of the Alabama gang, Martens has finished second in the Classic three times, including here in 2002. This will be his 11th Classic, and he already has a Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and six victories, so he's more than capable of winning the Big Show.
Skeet Reese — No one this year can win his second Classic in succession, except Reese, and after narrowly losing the 2009 Angler of the Year title, winning a second Classic would be sweet, indeed. Skeet won under very challenging conditions on the Red River, so if things turn really bad on Lay, his determination could carry him through once more.
Gary Klein — This will be Klein's 28th Classic, and he sounds very calm about the possibility of winning. He's fishing as strong as ever, and he knows how to establish both deep and shallow patterns, which will probably be needed. In pre-practice, he had nearly 24 pounds in two magical hours.
Matt Herren — Herren has been fishing Lay Lake since he was a youngster, and if conditions turn really tough, as they very well might, then it would be hard to bet against this veteran. He's going to be a threat, anyway, especially if he has a strong mental game and doesn't get the home lake jinx.
Boyd Duckett — Duckett remembers the tremendous outpouring of home state fan support when he won here in 2002, and he admits he wants to feel that thrill again. He's put in his practice time, and his strategy of catching several spotted bass and then upgrading with two or three heavier largemouths that worked in 2007 could work for him again.
Mike Iaconelli — The New Jersey pro has developed into a threat to win any event he enters, and after coming so close to winning last year's Classic, he's tired of letting the big ones slip away. Iaconelli is better than most when it comes to finesse fishing with power, too, which could turn into a distinct advantage here.
Mike McClelland — If it turns into a jerkbait bite or a jig bite, McClelland should hold his own. He told me he felt very confident about the lake and hoped the weather turned absolutely terrible, which would mean jerkbaits and jigs could be the best lures to use.
Others I will watch include Kevin VanDam (who requires watching everywhere all the time because he's so strong mentally and wants to win every event) and Bryan Schmidt, the Federation Nation Central Division winner who as a rookie in last year's Classic (he won the Central Division to qualify then, too) finished sixth.
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