STOCKTON, Calif. — As 93 Elite pros idled away from the Weber Point Events Center in downtown Stockton to start the TroKar Duel in the Delta Thursday morning, the winds of change were blowing.
Or, rather, NOT blowing.
After three wind-blasted, grind-it-out practice days that featured everything from morning frost to 35-mile-per-hour winds, dawn broke clear and quiet this morning in northern California, the leading edge of a 24-hour forecast that calls for 63-degree highs, clear, sunny skies, and a not even a puff of wind.
It's a welcome change that the field hopes will shake loose the Delta's recalcitrant largemouth. Although fishing has been scratchy, enough big fish have been caught -- including a 14-pound fish caught by Guy Eaker on the first day of practice -- to keep the field's attention focused on the quality of the Florida-strain largemouth tucked into the Delta's sloughs and back bays.
"If it warms up enough, I think it could get nasty … good nasty," Delta veteran Dean Rojas said.
Now it's up to the field to decipher what exactly "nasty" means.
Cold, colder, coldest: With below-average water temperatures hovering in the low 50s at launch and pushing only to the mid-50s during practice, the Delta's largemouth are still on the cusp of moving up to spawn.
"It's dropped 4 degrees since we got here, and these Florida-strain fish don't like that cold," Mark Davis said as he prepared to launch. "The nights are still darn cold around here. When I left this morning to come in, it was 35 degrees. It's going to have to warm up pretty good for these fish to bite."
The prevailing school of thought is that the water temps and unsettled weather have spread fish away from the banks onto deeper outside weed edges -- 9 to 15 feet in most places -- but with morning sunshine soaking into exposed wood, rocks and heavy vegetation on the outgoing and low slack tides for the first 3 to 3 ½ hours of the fishing day, the field will likely have a better chance of fishing on pockets of slightly warmer water created by the ambient heat of that structure as the tide overtakes it.
"Half the reason they're not biting is because of the water temperature," Aaron Martens, the 2007 Delta winner, confirmed before take-off. "The grass gets a lot of heat, though, and (last night) felt 10 degrees warmer than it's been all week. Hopefully the water is 56, 57 at least.
"It's still one of those high-pressure feelings where it still doesn't feel right for the fish to bite well, but I'm thinking it might be pretty good in the afternoon."
Dirty, dirtier, dirtiest: The Delta's waters were already stained because of heavy rains the week before the tournament, but the clarity took another hit during the wind-blown three days of practice.
"Yeah, (the wind) tore it up pretty good," Davis said. "It's going to be harder to find cleaner water now, so a guy's going to have to cover a lot of water today and go back to places where he found some good water in practice."
Fortunately, the Delta is loaded with small hidey-holes which weren't likely as affected by the wind. Locating one subtle divot or break on the side of a protected bank -- especially if it holds the right kind of cover and water that's 2 to 3 degrees warmer -- might make a dramatic difference in the Day One leader board.
The same gnarly conditions that challenged the field early in the week will have killed and dislodged vegetation throughout the Delta, giving big fish fewer places to hide. And with a rising tide and high water combining with warmer weather the last half of the day, flipping or punching through matted cover could produce some of the biggest fish of the day.
"You're one cast away from a personal best, no matter where you are out here," Arkansas pro Stephen Browning said. "There are very few places you can go catch fish this big, so you just have to keep fishing 'em."