LAKE GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — Lake Guntersville is hard on the hands.
If you don't believe it, look at the palms and fingers of Mark Burgess; he has tape strategically wrapped over the places that saw the worst wear and tear Thursday in the opening round of the Southern Challenge. Mark Davis has more nicks, cuts and abrasions on his hands than a veterinarian in a cat clinic.
It was easy to tell what kind of bite a pro was on by checking his hands after the opening round; the more ground up they were, the better. Friday morning nobody was complaining about sore hands as they waited for the 6 o'clock takeoff, just showing off various scrapes and scratches as if they were badges of honor: a 6-pounder here, a 5-pounder there.
Such is fishing at Lake Guntersville this week. Davis, trying to bid an awful slump goodbye, says he caught more than 200 bass during the opening round. Terry Scroggins caught between 90 and 100 fish; he lost count. The very collected Alton Jones boated exactly 53 bass during the first three hours before he put up his tackle, lowered the Power Poles on the stern of his boat, and guarded his fishing hole for the rest of the day ("If I'd had a deck of cards, we would have played gin rummy all afternoon," he said). The only fishermen who didn't catch a lot of bass were the ones who, for various reasons that included banking good spots for later, didn't want to.
Come what may for the rest of the week, Thursday's fishing already has stamped Guntersville as a lake among other legendary impoundments such as Seminole and Eufaula, Falcon and Kentucky, that will be remembered for awesome catches and career-boosting results.
It's not that skill doesn't count, and various strategies aren't in play. As Jones' sentry duty suggests, the contestants are guarding their spots, either physically or figuratively. Boyd Duckett hammered one spot Thursday, just because there were other contestants in the neighborhood, and he saw no point in saving it for later. Other places are being saved, however.
"Depending on what happens today, I might go to where I think might be my best spot on Saturday. But I'd rather save it for Sunday," said the 2007 Classic champion before Friday's takeoff. "The final round is go-for-broke and I would rather not have to do that in the 50-round. The perfect scenario for me is to make it to the round of 12 without messing with what I believe will be my best spot to catch some bigger fish."
Is there such a place at Lake Guntersville this week, a spot out on the flats or in the back of a quiet cove where post-spawn lunkers are stacked up? If there is, it's hard to imagine. Davis noted that during the last practice day he caught three 12-inchers on three consecutive casts, then caught a 10-pounder, and then resumed catching 1-pounders on successive casts. Mark Tucker said he lost three bass that collectively would have weighed more than 20 pounds while fishing an area where other bass ranged between 2 and 4 pounds.
"The bass haven't segregated into their size classes very much yet. The bigger bass are mingling with the smaller fish and they're all just mixed up and mean right now, after they've spawned," the Missouri pro observed.
Tournament Director Trip Weldon ruled that the Southern Challenge would begin an hour earlier each morning, but it didn't matter. Two years ago, when the shad spawn was taking place, the best fishing came at sunrise. This year, depending on who's doing the talking, it's 8 o'clock, or 11, or 2:30 p.m.
"I think this year they're biting better in the afternoon," said Jimmy Mize, who boated about 20 pounds of bass in the first hour of fishing in that Southern Challenge of 2007. "I don't know why that is, but this year, if I could, I'd go out in the last flight every day."
Oklahoma pro Vince Fulks, who was one of the several fishermen who caught more than 100 bass on Thursday, said early morning was definitely the right time this year. "I caught fish all day, but the very best action was around 7 o'clock in the morning," he said.
In other words, time doesn't matter. Muddy water is inconsequential, current is of trivial concern, place is insignificant, lures are unimportant. Magic is happening at Lake Guntersville this week, and that's all that matters.