BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When the Classic contenders reach Lay Lake for practice, they will have a major decision to make: focus on fishing the main lake or run up the river.
In 2007, Boyd Duckett stayed in the "lake," boating a few key largemouth to barely edge out Skeet Reese, who ran up the river for big spotted bass.
"There's three areas of the lake to fish," Duckett said. "Up river is pretty much spot fishing, the mid-lake area, where I was, has a lot of flats and then down lake has steeper drops."
Duckett predicted that warming weather will make the water from mid-lake down the most productive for largemouth, but if it stays cold, the tournament is up in the air.
"I don't think anybody can tell you what's going to happen," Duckett said. "I very seldom fish down here when the water's below 50 degrees and we've had it in the 30s. The fish could be a month behind; it could be a pure spot tournament. Who knows?"
For the 51 qualifiers, Lay Lake offers 48 miles and 12,000 acres of fishable waters, roughly half of which is the narrower "river" section. According to Elite Series pro Greg Vinson, the river was the more productive area last time the Classic came to town, but this trip could see the lake dominate.
"Right now there is a huge amount of current and the water is dirty," said Vinson, who didn't qualify for this year's Classic but considers Lay familiar water. "I think there are still fish to be caught up the river, but it could be a gamble this year. If you can get back into the creeks and protected bays on the lake, the water conditions will be better."
For the anglers who choose to run up the river, Vinson would key in on current breaks at the mouth of creeks and channel swings. If an angler can find an isolated spot, that will be huge come tournament time.
"One X-factor will be the Wilsonville Steam Plant, which discharges warm water and could be good if the water temperatures are cold," Vinson said. "The warmer water will have the baitfish and bass concentrated there and it will be a matter of finding the sweet spot and then getting there first."
Local expert Chris Rutland has fished Lay Lake since he was 10 years old and worries that the river could be too high and muddy for anglers to fish effectively. When all three turbines and the floodgates are opened on Logan Martin, like they have been, the water can rise into the trees and make fishing a real chore.
"Last week it was way up in the trees, probably 7 to 9 feet high," Rutland said. "There will definitely be current come tournament time, they just have to hope that the water is not too fast and too high out of the banks. That's when it will be tough up there."
Rutland also described the water clarity up there as "Red River" muddy, with clouds of mud making it almost impossible to get a bite. The conditions might clear, but for now, that leaves the lake as a more viable option with plenty of water for the competitors to spread out.
Because of the weather, Rutland thinks the fish will be very scattered on the lake, rather than grouped up in one area.
"I don't think anyone will find a solitary school of fish in one particular area that they will be able to catch fish from every day," Rutland said. "They will be in small wolfpacks of two to three fish and the rest will be solos, especially the largemouth. They don't ever school up."
Anglers can catch fish off docks and brush on the main lake part of Lay Lake, but the most effective pattern for big fish in February has been fishing grass.
"There are better largemouth down the lake, where the dominant patterns are throwing a lipless crankbait and flipping the grass," Vinson said. "But more guys will know to look for that this year since they know Duckett caught a good number of fish there."
The tournament is launching out of Beeswax, in the mid-lake area, a popular location to fish, and there are plenty of creeks from there south to the dam for competitors to explore. The big question mark for anglers fishing the main lake is whether or not the water temperatures will warm up enough for the largemouth to bite.
"In Alabama this time of year, all it will take is two to three days of stable weather to turn the largemouth bite on," Vinson said.
Right now, cold temperatures have the fish locked down. Forecasts call for up to 2 inches of snow on Friday, the first day of the practice, but temperatures are expected to rise into the 50s for the tournament.
Only time will tell if that warmth will ignite the largemouth or be too little too late.