"If" — that's a key word right now for the 51 Bassmaster Classic competitors as they arrive at Alabama's Lay Lake to begin their practice Friday, Feb. 12, for the Feb. 19-21 world championship.
Their "ifs" are attached to the possible weather scenarios for central Alabama. Anglers will have to figure out what the cold weather — including a chance for snow — will do to their game plans for the practice session that continues through Sunday. They'll get one more day of practice Wednesday, Feb. 17.
The weather's impact on the three game days, Feb. 19-21, means even bigger "ifs".
"If the water warms up, then my Classic strategy will be …" (fill in the blank, but anglers likely will indicate something to do with warming shallows, grass and largemouth bass). Or, "If this cold continues, then I will …" (a sentence most likely completed with something to do with targeting main river spotted bass).
The 2010 Classic will mark the fifth consecutive year the annual competition has been in February and in a Southern location. Depending on the weather, the competition could play out much like it did in 2007, also on Lay Lake; but the weather — and water — could warm up enough to turn on the lunker largemouth bite, a crucial part of Boyd Duckett's strategy in winning the 2007 Classic.
Alabama Power Co., owner and operator of Coosa River impoundments and dams, does not post official water temperatures of Coosa lakes. But Lay Lake's water temperature lately has been in the 40s, according to longtime Coosa River lakes guide Reed Montgomery of Alabaster, Ala.
"We had real cold weather in early January," he said. "The water got down into the upper 30s on all the Coosa lakes. I fish all of them, and have for 30 years, and I don't remember water ever that cold on Lay Lake. It's slow to warm. And the upper part of the lake's got a lot of current coming through it from recent rains, so it's also pretty muddy.
"Cold, muddy water — that's tough fishing conditions, especially water in the low to mid-40s."
Crucial to success on Lay Lake, Montgomery said, is an in-depth understanding of the 47-mile-long, 12,000-acre impoundment's split personality: The northern portion of the lake is riverine, the wider lower part splays out into the impoundment's larger sloughs.
"Especially in the lower lake, where you see creeks, flats and little pockets, you'll see that warm faster than the mid to upper lake, which is more like a river," Montgomery said. "Flowing river water doesn't warm nearly as fast as still backwaters. Largemouth get active in shallow water, back around the grass and in flats in water 50 degrees or more, but spots are usually active in any kind of weather and water — sun, or rain, or warm or cold."
Montgomery noted that a wave of cold air hit Alabama in 2007 before the Classic competition days.
"They had a tough, tough practice, but then a warming trend began, and everybody did catch fish," he said.
This could happen again, but the air would have to undergo a blazingly fast warmup.
"Anything can happen, but remember, (lake water) is slow to warm when temperatures have been so low for so long," Montgomery said. "We need some of those 60- and 70-degree days we see coming through here in February every once in a while."
The long-range weather forecast for Birmingham, Ala., just north of Lay Lake, doesn't look promising in that direction.
TheWeatherChannel.com predicts snow Friday, Feb. 12. Snow is unusual, but not unheard of, in central Alabama. The complete 10-day outlook (through Feb. 20) includes highs in the mid-50s and sunshine. Lows are listed from around freezing to high 30s.