"I couldn't believe it when I first realized what I was seeing, or more accurately what I wasn't seeing," says Tim Horton, 10-time Bassmaster Classic qualifier and Muscle Shoals, Ala., resident while discussing his practice on Wheeler Lake.
"I've been fishing this lake for 20 years, and this is the first time I ever fished Decatur Flats and didn't find grass. It's unbelievable. There's no grass at all there, not a blade that I could find. It's going to make a huge difference in how the lake fishes and the weights that are brought to the scales."
Horton points out that in most tournaments the grass on the flats plays an important role in the final result. It draws shad which in turn draws bass. The very best anglers are able to make subtle adjustments to their patterns based on what they find in the grass — subtle adjustments that make not so subtle adjustments to their final weights.
And, to make matters worse, the water is heavily stained from high winds, bad weather and fluctuating water levels. That means the bass that are on the beds will be largely invisible to anglers wanting to sight-fish.
Regardless of all that, however, Horton believes the bite will be a basic prespawn bite, no matter if anglers target largemouth or smallmouth. Jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jigs fished along traditional prespawn routes and staging areas will account for the majority of the bass caught.
Still, he's concerned about the effect of the lack of grass on the Decatur Flats.
"This is no small thing. Before I saw the flats and realized how barren they were, I'd have guessed it'd take at least 70 pounds to win this thing. But, with the flats barren, I'm dropping that down to no more than 65. It's really going to hurt.
"And, I'd say that 22 to 24 pounds will make the Top 50 cut, with 45 pounds putting you in the Top 12 on Sunday morning. Again, that's below what I would have thought before I knew the grass was gone. But I don't think it'll have much of an effect on the big bass weight. I'd say she'll still tip the scales at around 7 1/2 pounds."
Horton's weights are based on four days of fishing, something he's not so sure will happen.
"They're predicting severe storms and high winds on Thursday. If that happens I'd say we might be playing cards the first day rather than fishing. I've spent many days on Wheeler, and believe me when I say it's not a lake you want to be on when the wind's up. It's flat out dangerous. I don't care how much boating experience you have or how good you think you are."
Based on his knowledge of the lake, his practice and his experience with the Elite Series field Horton disagrees with those who are pointing to Skeet Reese and Kevin VanDam as the probable winners. Instead, he likes Marty Stone and Kevin Wirth.
"They both have good records here. I don't see anything happening to change that. Power fishing matters on Wheeler, but so does experience and past performance. These guys know how to fish the lake. You can't discount that.
"Keep in mind, however, that we're fishing 67,000 acres of water with over 1,000 miles of shoreline. And it's spring. Add to that the wide variety of structure and cover available — river and creek channels, drops, flats, points, shallow water, deep water, wood, rock — and you have the makings of an upset. It's possible for any one of us to whack them and go home with the big check."