GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Last year, four anglers joined the Century Club after catching 100 pounds or more from Lake Guntersville. This year, don't expect any.
It's not that fishing will be bad when the Synergy Southern Challenge begins Thursday, but the numerous 4-pound class fish that were widespread a year ago seem to be much harder to track down.
For a comparison, last year Mark Menendez estimated he caught 500 keepers over the course of the tournament, with half of those being over 4 pounds. This year is a different story.
"It's not like it was last year," Menendez said. "It's good as Guntersville always is and you can find groups of fish, but I have yet to crack the code on any big fish."
The conditions seem to be similar to last year, with large rains hitting the Alabama area before the tournament creating a lot of current and turning the fish on, but that's not the case said Menendez.
"We have a flux of stained water coming down right now from rains and they have the current on, but nothing like they did last year — that's why they were grouped up so good," Menendez said.
The perfect storm of conditions hit Guntersville last year and made for one of the best tournaments on one of the best lakes in the country.
"They had a monstrous rain storm above here last year and they had to push the water through here," Menendez said. "On Wednesday, they opened up the spigots and it ripped the current at 2 to 3 times the velocity. The fish were coming off the bank and they hit that current and stopped. You would find 100s of fish grouped up in predictable areas."
Menendez estimated that on the second day of competition last year, he probably boated 175 fish, all on the same cast. Without moving the boat, he caught fish after fish after fish. His 96-pound, 1-ounce total over the four-day tournament was enough for sixth place. This year, he doesn't expect any bags to top the century mark.
"You can expect a good tournament," Menendez said. " I don't know that we'll break 100, but it wouldn't surprise me if 85 to 90 won the tournament."
Greg Vinson, a rookie when he fished that tournament on Guntersville last year, agreed with Menendez, citing increased pressure on an already pressured lake as part of the reason.
"I'm going to guess that somebody could win with 23 pounds a day, but I think you will see the overall weights fall," Vinson said. "Since we blew it out so well last year, there is a lot more fishing pressure this year. Over the past year, we've had I don't know how many extra boats out here. It's great for the economy but tougher on the fishing."
Another factor contributing to slower fishing could have been the colder winter. That has held back the bass, the grass and the shad spawn.
"We've had plenty of warm days recently, but we had such a brutal winter that the water temperatures, especially when you get deeper than 10 feet, are lower than normal," Vinson said. "Guntersville was iced over this winter and that seems to have set things back about two weeks behind schedule. With the cold and heavy rains, the grass is a little bit thinner from what I can tell from this time last year."
Being two weeks behind has held the shad spawn back too. The shad were a key ingredient in the perfect storm from 2009, when it took over 20 pounds a day just to get a check.
"I've seen a little bit (of the shad spawn) but not like last year," Vinson said. "I expect to see the bite get stronger as the tournament goes on. We have had the water warming up a lot in the last few days, so the conditions are starting to get right. A lot of guys will try to get them real quick — the bite has been tough after the first couple of hours. The decisions we make in the first hours could play a big part in where we end up at the end of the day."
As to where 20 pounds a day will get an angler this year, Vinson said he would be very happy to reach that mark. Last year, he finished 35th with 63 pounds, 2 ounces, a weight that should be good for a whole lot more this year.
"If I could catch 20 pounds a day, I would be really happy," Vinson said. "Last year, there were several of us that laid off our fish the first day because we were catching them, and it turned out that everyone caught them even better. You just never know with this lake."
Competitors will find out just how good Guntersville will be as Day One of the Synergy Southern Challenge gets underway Thursday, with the weigh-in at the Lake Guntersville State Park at 4:30 p.m. ET.
The final day of competition at Pickwick wrapped up Sunday with an early weigh-in at 12:30 p.m. ET due to severe weather moving into the Florence area. The tournament staff and competitors were very fortunate for two reasons.
First, most of the rain fell north of Pickwick in Tennessee and since the Tennessee River flows backwards, south to north, that influx of rain didn't hit Pickwick as hard.
Second, the worst of the rain fell Sunday afternoon rather than earlier in the tournament. Florence got less than half an inch, but down the road in Decatur, they were hammered by nearly 2 inches and the flow through the system increased dramatically.
The subsequent rise in river level occurred Monday morning and by that afternoon, the boat launch and area where the weigh-in was conducted was closed due to road flooding (check out the picture). That day, the river rose 4 to 5 feet, and had it happened sooner, would have created some additional problems for tournament officials.