BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With the 40th Bassmaster Classic only days away, it may be tough to top the previous three Lay Lake championships that produced stirring moments for anglers and fans.
Two of those Classics were late-summer tournaments, in 1996 and 2002. That was before the switch to the late winter — or early spring, if you prefer — championship that kicks off the Bassmaster Elite Series season.
The most recent, in 2007, was held during the same timeframe but with far better weather and water conditions than the field will find this time.
Lay Lake coughed up 48 pounds, 10 ounces over three days to 2007 winner Boyd Duckett, a smidge more than the 45-13 Jay Yelas caught five years earlier in late July. When George Cochran won his second Classic back in 1996, it was during the first weekend of Alabama's typically-brutal August heat and a meager 31-14 pounds cinched the deal.
This year? Who knows exactly how the consistently frigid temperatures will affect the lake, fish and anglers. But one thing is certain; Lay Lake will provide a test and the history is there to show it.
1996, Cochran wins shallow
Betting men would have expected a deep-water bite to provide the winning catch and George Cochran of Arkansas figured as much, too.
But he banked on his experiences from 10 years earlier when he won his first Classic title, on the challenging Ohio River in Louisville. There, Cochran stayed close to the launch ramp downtown while everyone else ran more than 30 miles either way. He picked apart shallow weeds with a spinnerbait for the win.
Cochran replayed that gameplan, somewhat, in 1996 by heading shallow once again. But this time it was in the back of a small, secluded creek that opened to a shallow pond. The slough was anywhere from 8 inches to about 3 feet deep in the narrow creek winding through it, and he had plenty of targets in the form of stumps and scattered, sparse vegetation.
To get there, Cochran had to blast through a narrow channel on plane. Former Birmingham News outdoor writer Mike Bolton recounted the harrowing ride on practice day when Cochran turned off the main river, yelled "Hold on!" and blasted through a gap in the shoreline.
"I was hanging on for dear life wondering if he was crazy," Bolton said. "I've been on Lay many times and never even noticed that spot, much less tried to go in there. He never let off the gas until we got to the back, and then it opened up to a beautiful little pocket where he started catching fish. I figured he might just have a good chance to win."
Cochran's gamble paid off, for he caught a limit each day that totaled 31-14 by primarily picking apart the slough with a Strike King spinnerbait and ring-tail worm. Runner-up Davy Hite was a pound behind but failed to catch two bass for a three-day limit, which proved to be the difference.
2002, Yelas goes wire-to-wire
Some might call it boring to see the same guy lead a three-day tournament, but Texan-transplant Jay Yelas didn't mind a bit.
Yelas, who now lives in his home state of Oregon, capped a stellar run in the second Lay Lake Classic with a wire-to-wire showing. He caught 18 pounds, 9 ounces, on the first day and finished with 45-13, a dominating performance that was six pounds better than runner-up Aaron Martens.
It was only the fourth time a Classic angler had led all three days of the tournament, putting Yelas in a rare category with Bo Dowden (1980), Stanley Mitchell ('81) and Rick Clunn ('84). Yelas also had the big bass each day, including two 6-pounders, that helped solidify his run to the title.
Yelas had confidence in his 200-yard stretch of shoreline just downstream from the Logan Martin Dam despite finding only striped bass congregating there during the pre-tournament practice a month earlier. But on the single Classic practice two days before the tournament, he returned and caught a 3- and 4-pound largemouth that lifted his spirits.
The area was too shallow unless Alabama Power was generating water through its hydroelectric dams, and then it surged to about 3 feet deep over the shoreline. That was the key to turn on the bass feeding on shad moving upstream to get to the oxygenated water coursing through the turbine discharges.
"I can't remember the last time a guy won a big bass tournament fishing a tailrace," Yelas told Bassmaster writer Tim Tucker."
"It's a steep undercut bank with overhanging trees," he said. "The key to the pattern was the fish were only on shade. They weren't on wood or anything like that. They were on shade. When the sun was out, most of the bank would be sunny. But every 20 feet or so, there was an overhanging sycamore tree or willow tree."
"I would pitch a jig up under the shade, but the current was so strong that it would just wash the jig downstream. So I would pitch it up there and just let it wash downstream, while reeling enough to keep up with the slack and letting it bounce on the bottom."
The final day produced only 10-11 when the dam generation schedule came late in the day. Despite losing half the day waiting — gambling, maybe — on the discharge, Yelas patiently waited and then sealed the win.
2007, Duckett splashes on the scene
Boyd Duckett wasn't on many radar screen of favorites for the third Lay Lake Classic, with many observers looking to Russ Lane of nearby Prattville as the best Alabamian with a shot to win.
Both were Classic rookies despite years of tournament competition. But the roles were reversed in the end when Duckett, of Demopolis, claimed the championship to become the first angler to win the tournament being held in his home state.
In fact, Duckett had never attended a Classic, even to watch or visit the outdoors show. He always said the first one he wanted to go only when he was competing and then he would be there to win ... not to watch.
His plan played out with similarity to Yelas's win five years earlier. Duckett busted a five-fish limit weighing nearly 20 pounds on the first day and rode that — along with two giant largemouths — to a catch of 48 pounds, 10 ounces, and the Classic crown.
Among his big bass was an 8-pounder, caught in shallow water, which helped him take an early lead and serve notice he wasn't going away.
Duckett worked a lipless crankbait and jigs along vegetation in Cedar Creek, picking off bass moving up to get ready for the spring spawn. Patience and persistence were his keys.
Following a successful run in the 2006 Bassmaster Opens that put him in the Classic, Duckett went on a tear during the 2007 season following his championship win. He finished in the Top 10 six times, won $865,000 and won the Bassmaster Legends "Major" tournament.
Duckett has now qualified for his fourth straight Classic. He led after the first day of the 2009 tournament on the Red River out of Shreveport, La., with a catch of more than 20 pounds, and will be looking to get another early start this year.