MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When 99 percent of the water you're looking at seems to be the perfect place to harbor bass, and there are miles of river to fish, how do you decide where to focus your efforts?
That's the dilemma confronting the 12 anglers competing here on the Alabama River during Toyota Tundra Championship Week. And to varying degrees of success, all will have found their own answers by the time the 2009 Bassmaster Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year is crowned Friday evening in the Montgomery Convention Center.
The winding Alabama River constitutes some of the best fishing water that the state has to offer, with every sort of structure and cover that bass anglers dream about. The problem is that there's 80 miles of it, and the features likely to attract and hold bass are strung out far and wide. In a two-day tournament such as this, where "milk runs" are the order of the day, settling on the right combination of locale, presentation and lure is no easy decision to reach.
"Developing a milk run with six or eight spots where you know or are reasonably sure you can catch quality bass is a lot tougher on a river than it is on a lake," Kentucky pro Mark Menendez said. "A lake milk run probably is going to involve a course where the spots are fairly close together and you just keep making the circuit until it plays out.
"In a river, the spots you want to check are likely to be spread out over miles," he continues. "Depending on how far apart the areas that figure into the pattern are, you might not get to fish the same place more than once or twice in a day, so it really can be tough to maximize your fishing time."
Rule No. 1 in developing and mining a river milk run, Menendez said, is that a fisherman must go to his very best spot first, and then fish the other stops in descending order as he can get to them. "I've seen a lot of guys crash and burn in tournaments because they thought they could save spots, only to find out that somebody else just as good as them located the fish too, and caught them."
Rule No. 2, according to Texas fisherman Todd Faircloth, is that you pay close attention to all the elements that constitute a good fishing hole before you start hunting other spots that seem to be identical.
"Just because you find bass on, say, the downriver point of a creek mouth, doesn't mean that there will be bass on every downriver point of every creek mouth around," Faircloth said. "You've got to focus on the details where you first catch bass. How deep is the water? How's the color? What is the current doing there? What kind of cover? Baitfish? What kind of bottom contour? What type?
"There are a lot of reasons why bass will be in one place that seems identical to another place where there just aren't any," Faircloth said. "Sometimes you can't be sure why that is; sometimes you can't see everything that's going on. You can fish miles of good-looking bank and just catch bass in one or two spots. Maybe you can figure it out, but sometimes that's just the way it is."
The ideal scenario for a river milk run is essentially the same as that for an impoundment: repeatability. At Lake Jordan a few days ago, fishing docks in mid-depth water with brown jigs and pearl-white tubebaits was a winning pattern for Mike Iaconelli. Fishing isolated wood cover near the mouths of coves and pockets was another solid secondary pattern for Faircloth and others.
"There are only so many places that will have all the right ingredients for a milk run and we've got so much water to fish that it's going to give some of us headaches trying to decide whether we should concentrate on one part of the river or the other, or look around," Menendez said. "If you went downriver Tuesday and found some good spots, and then go upriver Wednesday and find some good spots, you've got to make up your mind which way you're going Thursday when the tournament begins.
"And even then you'll be second-guessing yourself. I would rather just stick to one direction or the other and live with it."
Establishing a milk run is time-consuming, but what exacerbates the difficulty factor is that anything the anglers found Tuesday on the Alabama River might not be applicable on Wednesday, much less in the two competition days. That's because Lake Jordan will be drawn down several feet so that Bouldin Dam, the hydroelectric-generating facility, can be inspected. Tuesday morning, there was a barely discernible current in the Alabama River, but it quickened in the afternoon.
The Jordan drawdown will mean higher water and stronger current, however. So the conditions that governed the fishing during the first day of practice are changing. The fishing should be good during the two-day tournament, but the milk runs being laid out now might be altered later in the week. Still, there is something to be salvaged from even a blown pattern.
"Locate bass; that's the big deal," Faircloth said. "Once you've found them, you usually can figure out a way to catch them. They might relocate a little if something changes about the current, but they're probably not going far and they can be caught when you present the right lure for the circumstances."
Which brings up Rule Number Three in fishing a river milk run: keep your lures wet.