KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – There was some confusion over a valet ticket at 5:15 this morning in front of the Knoxville Downtown Marriott.
“Are you leaving for good?” the innocent employee – apparently not a fishing fan – asked Jeff Gustafson.
“No, I’m staying a little while more,” Gussy replied.
He hope that the two schools of smallmouths he’s targeting will hang around a while more, too. He expects that they’ll head to the bank “any day now” to conduct their spawning ritual, but he’d much rather they delay the move until at least Monday. The biggest change we’ve seen overnight is the weather. Yesterday, he caught his tournament-leading 18 pounds 8 ounces under breezy but otherwise Chamber of Commerce conditions. Overnight, heavy storms blew through in the early morning hours. Gustafson said that by the time he’d gone through the media carwash, worked on tackle in the boatyard, returned to the hotel for a bite to eat and gone to bed, it was 10:30 and he was wiped out. Nothing was going to rouse him until the alarm went off.
“My wife told me she could hear it for a while,” he said.
His friend Seth Feider, likewise waiting for his truck, hadn’t been so lucky. “It sounded like there was a little hail in it,” he said. “I think there may be a lot of stuff in the water today when we’re out running. But Jeff seems pretty confident, not nervous at all. Having a hammer hole helps.”
Yes, having a hammer hole helps. While several anglers welcomed the influx of some color to their skinny water bite areas, shallow water bass are notoriously more fickle than their deeper-living brethren. Under stable conditions, you might expect Gustafson’s fish to be the most reliable, but in the springtime anything can happen.
Here’s what I saw and heard at a soggy-but-getting-better blastoff:
Weather – As James Overstreet and I left the hotel at 5:30, there was a steady rain coming down. By the time we got a few blocks away, it had turned into a full sideways-flying frog strangler. Five minutes later, as we passed the intersection of Peyton Manning Pass and Phillip Fulmer Way, the street signs were rocking. Still, the fans showed up in droves, many of them in dime store ponchos, or no rain gear at all, and shorts. “We’ve got to be here, they don’t,” Overstreet said in mock amazement. When blast-off commenced at 7:30, things had calmed down and the rain had ceased. It wasn’t quite a parting of the clouds, birds chirping and the singing of angels, but it was far better for running and gunning than what it had been just a few minutes earlier.
Long Distance Fans – I’ve given plenty of love to the Australian and Canadian fans already this week, but the Japanese fans were the OG overseas fanatics, and there are quite a few of them who’ve made the jump across the pond to see Kenta Kimura and Taku Ito compete. One of them is noted lure designer Hideki Maeda. He was out early today. Why? “There are two Japanese guys competing this week and I need to cheer them on. I came all the way here so I wasn’t going to stay and watch from the hotel. I could stay in Japan and do that.”
Safety First – The brutal storms that passed through Knoxville overnight at least raised the specter of a tournament day delay – or, in the worst of circumstances, canceling a day of competition. “Safety is paramount,” said Elite Tournament director Lisa Talmadge. “We don’t want to cancel a day, but if we have to, we have to.” She and the rest of the directors, including Chris Bowes and Hank Weldon, were up super-early to assess the path of the precipitation and wind. “We talked about it and felt pretty good that it would be a go.”
How Sweet it Is – During the years when he was all-but-untouchable in competition, Kevin VanDam often credited his wife Sherry’s cookies with being the secret sauce that made him so good. I know how great they are, as I stole one from Overstreet during the 2012 Classic and he’s yet to forgive me. But they may not be the only dessert in town. Gustafson visited Carl Jocumsen in Australia during the offseason and developed a taste for that country’s Tim Tams “biscuits” (aka, cookies). Carl’s Australian Army brought him some this week and they seem to be working. As with his fish, he had to be sure to save enough for three days.
Learning on the Fly – Keith Poche is one of the anglers who’s hoping that the rains and wind add some stain to his best areas, but not too much. “The better the color, the better the bite,” he said. “I don’t want that chocolate milk type stain, but the fish I’m catching are super-shallow, and when it’s real clear that get very spooky. I need a happy medium.” Due to other tournament obligations, Poche did not take full advantage of the available practice time for this event. He said that yesterday “he went blind up the river and just started looking. I picked up a few clues as the day went on.”
Word of the Day from Brandon Card – “Gullywasher” – actually, I’m not sure if that’s one word or two, but you get the point.