WETUMPKA, Ala. — Kelly Jordon's boat is going nowhere fast.
Though he has the Skeeter up on plane, the tight 'S' curves and figure eights the boat is cutting don't take it very far. The Texas angler circles left and then right, the Skeeter handling the fast tracking as if it's on a rail.
"The trouble with this lake is that there are so many good-looking humps and ledges, but not all of them have any fish on them," complains Jordon as he stares at his sonar screen and studies the structure that it's revealing. "Still, you've got to check them all, or at least the ones you run over that look like they ought to be holding some bass."
Jordon makes one last pass over the ledge, and then heads for the next point, hoping that there might be something more substantial there. If not, it will be the latest in a long line of good-looking structures devoid of fish, or at least any fish that want what Jordon is offering.
Though many of the dozen fishermen entered in the Toyota Championship Week here are grumbling about the "mystery lake" that Lake Jordan represents, it would be difficult to pick a better place to test the skills of the best 12 professional anglers in the land. Saturday and Sunday, after two practice days, they'll go at it in earnest.
None of the 12 has ever fished the lake before, and all are starting from square one. What intensifies the challenge is that there are no good contour maps of this Coosa River impoundment. Like Jordon, the contestants are having to play it by ear, check all the cubby holes they run over, and rely on their ability to use and interpret to full advantage what their electronics are telling them.
Catching bass isn't the difficult part here; finding them is. Lake Jordan is a 6,800-acre haystack, and there are no road signs pointing the way to the best fishing holes.
"Sonar is HUGE in this tournament," says Jordon, who's switching back and forth between his Humminbird's side-imaging screen and the down-scan feature. "Fish finders and good maps are always important, but there aren't any good maps for this lake, so we've had to do a lot of looking and checking. Most of the guys have spent half the practice just running over spots and seeing if there's anything on them."
If an angler could peer over the edge of the Jordan Dam into the Coosa River below, he would have a better understanding of the problem that confronts these strangers on a strange lake. The Coosa River basin is sandwiched between rolling high banks, for the most part, and, occasionally, rock bluffs.
Here and there, smaller creeks and drainages meet the river. Big boulders are strewn randomly along the run from the dam to about eight miles downstream.
The "old river" above the dam is like that, too, although the boulders are now silted over for the most part and rest in 40 feet or more of water. Still, there are thousands of places for spotted bass to suspend, and such treasure troves are difficult to locate without some sort of topography references.
"Navionics makes some excellent map chips, but it doesn't have anything on Lake Jordan," says Cliff Pace, who's running a Lowrance unit and hunting fish as diligently as the rest of the field. "A good map, whether it's on a screen on your console or on paper, makes a fisherman who's never been on a lake the equal to the guy who lives on that lake. You study a map and you go check things. On Jordan, if I'm not watching the sonar all the time, I wouldn't know a spot is there."
The fishermen don't know exactly what they're looking for. The best structure is the structure that has bass around it, whether it's a steep ledge or a subtle drop-off, a transition area from rock to sand bottom, or a long submerged point with a sharp turn in it. It all has to be investigated.
"This is interesting," Jordon says as the boat glides down the bank about 50 yards offshore. "This is some kind of drain that comes off the bank and goes out to deeper water. It's kind of built up on both sides, and ought to hold fish, but it hasn't so far. I've checked it twice and never got a bump. You have to check anything that looks this good, though. You have to check it more than once. Sometimes fish come and go."
In a sense, the 12 anglers in this, the grand finale in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, are all watching their sonars and hoping for a magic carpet to the same sort of sweet spot that Florida's Bobby Lane found on Kentucky Lake in the Tennessee Triumph a few tournaments ago. Lane located an offshore spot in practice that was paved with largemouths, and he boated almost 100 pounds of bass from the same small area.
"One possibly beautiful thing about not having good maps of this lake [Jordan], is that your fish finder might show you a place that everybody else hasn't already beaten to death," says Pace.
"Otherwise, you're going to pick up a fish here, and another there, and just hope you get a good limit by the end of the day. It's nice to have a spot where you KNOW you're going to get at least some good kickers."
Despite spending two days of practice searching for such a Shangri-la, Kelly Jordon doesn't find what he's looking for. Most of the bass he's boated came from the same sort of areas everybody else is fishing, but his practice fish amount to a good stringer. If the big suspended spotted bass for which Lake Jordan is famous continue to elude the field, then bank-runners will have to suffice.
In the meantime, everybody is still watching their sonars.