DECATUR, Ala. — The weather held the trump card in the opening round of the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel on Alabama's Lake Wheeler, though anglers were hopeful that they could dodge the thunderstorms predicted for Thursday evening.
Under sullen skies roiling with dark grey clouds, the fishermen and their observers eased out of Decatur's Ingalls Harbor after having been cautioned by Tournament Director Trip Weldon not to take chances when running in the open lake. Weldon suspended the rule that forbids contestants to use their cell phones, and told them to call headquarters if any emergencies arose.
Weldon also said the weigh-in at Ingall's that starts at 5 p.m. ET would proceed as speedily as possible to beat the stormy weather.
Most of the anglers aren't so concerned about the prospect of torrential rains as they are the building southeast wind being sucked toward the approaching front. The forecast called for 30 mph winds by the time the full brunt of the storm hits at about 7 p.m. ET.
Most of the pros laid travel plans similar to that of Mike Wurm of Arkansas, one of a handful of anglers who had a promising practice round. Wurm said he planned to target his most distant spots first and then work back toward the boat basin by afternoon with a respectable limit.
The forecast calls for a 70 percent chance of rain on Thursday, with Friday's weather clearing by afternoon and temperatures ranging between 38 and 61 degrees. By Saturday, a high in the low 70s is predicted. Sunday's weather during the final round of 12 calls for the likelihood of more thunderstorms.
The lake's water temperature is bumping 60 degrees, and though there's not a steady parade of bass heading shoreward, the fish are most assuredly moving in that direction. The missing ingredient that guarantees eye-popping stringers at Wheeler in the spring is the huge rafts of milfoil and hydrilla that customarily mark the staging areas for big female bass moving up from the depths. These lunker waiting rooms are gone for now, though nobody is sure whether an unusually harsh winter or weed-spraying efforts are the chief cause.
As if reading from the same script, the majority of the anglers said their practice round amounted to lots of small bass sandwiched around a few decent keepers, and there was no consistency as far as what they caught bass on, or where they caught them.
Pete Ponds of Madison, Miss., was an exception. He said his practice round "went pretty well" and he expected the opening round to produce several good catches because of the approaching front.
"I caught some nice fish in practice. If they stay put in this wind, I'll do alright," Ponds said. "The wind is going to blow in on me, but I really expect the bass to be turned on, and not just for me. I found a little pattern and I caught fish up to 7 pounds. I expect there are more fishermen who had practices like mine than are letting on."
By the looks of the fishing rigs strapped down in the bows of most boats, the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel figures to be a junk fisherman's paradise. Rods were wearing everything from Senkos to Fat Raps, from big spinnerbaits to lizards.
Tim Horton of Muscle Shoals said that bass are moving toward the shallows in anticipation of the spawn, but that the larger females aren't ganging up in their usual locales. That poses a considerable problem, because the aggressive 1- to 2-pound bank runners that contestants loaded up on during practice have to be supplemented with a few good kickers for an angler to have a chance.
Still, as veteran pro Zell Rowland observed while tying lures to his fishing rigs in the pre-dawn darkness of Thursday morning, there's not much doubt that some contestants will find such pots of gold as Ponds apparently discovered.
"It doesn't matter how bad the fishing is supposed to be, somebody will get on the right spot and then it's 'looky here what I found.' Somebody will get on some good fish. I hope I'm one of them."
Daily weigh-ins will take place at Ingalls Harbor off Market Street in Decatur beginning at 5 p.m. ET.