LAKE GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — "The only thing that could stop you from catching a bass here is if the lake freezes over."
Mark Tucker's assessment of the fishing at storied Lake Guntersville this week no doubt summarizes the opinions of most of the anglers gathered for the Southern Challenge. To listen to them tell it after three days of practice, bass are hungry and ready to grab just about anything that swims by.
"Everybody's on fish," says Tucker, who's fourth in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings heading into the Mother's Day weekend event. "And they're catching them every which way, on a bunch of different baits. So we're going to have fun fishing this week."
There is a fly in the ointment, however. Torrential rains have fallen in northern Alabama for the past few days, including almost 3 inches Tuesday night, and the effects of all the extra water and runoff have some fishermen troubled. To Kevin VanDam, it's all about location, location, location.
"All this rain is definitely going to mess up some of the guys who are fishing anywhere there's current," says VanDam, who won the last Southern Challenge here (in 2007) and who won the Blue Ridge Brawl a couple of weeks ago on Virginia's Smith Mountain Lake. "I think a lot of guys are going to have to change locations and fish other areas that they hadn't really planned on.
"The muddy water didn't start showing up out in the main river until Wednesday, but by Thursday morning the main lake is going to be rolling. That's where the bass want to be; that's where they'll be, but the conditions are unstable and it might be tougher to catch a good limit than some people think."
VanDam isn't the only party pooper who believes that Guntersville might throw contestants a curve in this, the midway tournament in the 2009 Elite Series. Skeet Reese, who currently trails VanDam in the Angler of the Year race by less than 100 points, also doubts that fishing will be as good in competition as it was during the past few days.
"I was loving it in practice, like everybody else. But now I'm a little concerned," says the defending Bassmaster Classic champion. "This was shaping up to be a real whackfest, but if the water doesn't clear up fast, it's going to eliminate about half the fishable water and concentrate people into a few areas."
Gary Klein said it will take at least 17 pounds a day to make the top 50 cut, and as much as 28 pounds a day on average to win the $100,000 grand prize. Rick Morris said that between 15 and 20 anglers will have more than 20 pounds each per day and "it's very likely that somebody will have a 30-pound-plus bag."
Largemouths are the main course in Lake Guntersville, and that's bound to push up the average weight of the winning stringer. Though VanDam won the Blue Ridge Brawl with 61 pounds, 13 ounces, some pros estimate that it will take between 80 and 100 pounds to win at Guntersville.
"I had a great practice," says Edwin Evers, one of the middle-of the-pack guys who's trying to move up to within striking distance of a Classic invitation. "The fish are pre-spawn, spawn, post-spawn, in spring patterns, in summer patterns — you name it. We've just been killing them."
In the 2007 Southern Challenge here, which VanDam won, 977 bass were brought to the scales and their average weight was 3 pounds. At Smith Mountain, the average bass weighed slightly less than 2 1/2 pounds. And Lake Wheeler, the next Tennessee River impoundment downriver from Guntersville, produced 1,229 bass during the three-day Dixie Duel in early April that averaged 2 1/3 pounds apiece.
It's assured that Southern Challenge anglers will take advantage of at least two fishing patterns: spawn and post-spawn. Though the peak of the bedding season is past, beds are still being located, or at least they were before the recent thunderstorms muddied the backwaters in creeks and coves. Post-spawn bass are stacking up in the abundant milfoil flats where river current is positioning them adjacent to ledges and breaks.
"This kind of tournament scares me to death," said Shaw Grigsby of Florida. "I would rather have it tough than have everybody catching bass. You don't know what it's going to take to get to the top when it's a slugfest like this tournament is shaping up to be."
At the Blue Ridge Brawl, Aaron Martens' 6-pound, 7-ounce bass was the biggest fish of the event. Tucker thinks that sort of weight won't even win a daily prize here.
"There are going to be 8-pound bass brought in every day," the Missouri pro said. "Guntersville produces 10- and 12-pound bass on a fairly consistent basis, so it's up for grabs. A fish or two like that will really put you up in the standings fast."
Tournament weigh-ins will be held at Lake Guntersville State Park. Thursday's first-round weigh-in begins at 4 p.m.