HENDERSONVILLE, Tenn. — Growing up on the Tennessee River, Steve Daniel had only one rule. "When they don't move the water," he said, "I don't fish the river."
By "river," Daniel was referring to the main river channel. The decision of whether to fish shallow or deep has been a vexing one to some of the 106 Bassmaster Elite Series pros fishing the Tennessee Triumph presented by Longhorn.
Daniel, at least, could convince himself to stay shallow, despite the conventions about fishing deep water in summertime. Late June in the South is typically hot enough to drive a bass to cool, dark depths. But he caught a limit weighing 11 pounds, 3 ounces (good for a tie at 22nd place) on 15 keepers — all in shallow water — as he targeted creek channels.
"It's all an odds game," he said. "They're going where the bait is."
Anglers interviewed at the docks before launch on Old Hickory Lake seemed to want to go deep for their fish, but most, like Day One leader Kevin Wirth, found their best fish in shallower water.
Still, there was hardly a consensus on whether deep or shallow fishing was more productive.
Marty Stone (second place, 16-5) went deep; though he didn't get more than three keepers on any practice day, he caught a Day One limit — all offshore — including a 5-9 on a spot where he sat for an hour in practice and in the tournament before getting a bite.
"What are the odds," he said, "of being that patient?"
On a day when anglers were beating themselves up for a quality bite, Stone brought three to the scales heavier than 3 pounds.
"I love to fish shallow more than anybody," he said. "But I don't believe you can be competitive here for four days in shallow water."
Skeet Reese (third after Day One with 15-9), figured fishing ledges would be crucial to winning, and decided he wouldn't be able to win the tournament fishing shallow, despite his natural preference to power-fish shallow water. By 12:30 on Day One, he had only a couple of dinky keepers and was afraid for his tournament life before the bite finally came through.
One thing hurting the deep bite is a lack of a current in the river. With the Mississippi River basin largely flooded, Daniel said, there's going to be very little current drawn through the dams on this system for weeks. Without a current to bunch them against structure, the deep fish are spread out.
"The outside bite's not glorious for catching keepers," Reese said. "You really have to hunt for some obscure deals that no one else has found."
By contrast, Davy Hite (15th place, 12-4) abandoned the deep pattern and headed for the banks after dredging up nothing but undersized bass on Day One.
"Deep doesn't always mean bigger fish," he said. The idea that deep fish are tournament-changers, he said, is outdated in the era of precision electronics that illuminate deeper schools for everyone to pressure. "Those fish get fished as hard as the shallow ones," he said.
Other anglers didn't fare as well ditching the deep bite. Brent Chapman (35th, 10-2) couldn't get bit deep in practice, and by the third day of that futility, went ahead and gave in to the shallow patterns. "It's a lot easier when it's one thing or the other," he said.
Charlie Hartley couldn't get the deep bite, and went shallow to target docks, logs, milfoil and willow grass. Still, he wound up in just 93rd with 3-8 after Day One.
Fishing out on the flats or in the channel, "you're out there in what seems like the desert," he said. "My downfall is that I want the bite. If I'm not getting it, then I'll do the wrong thing to get my fix."