In his mind, Greg Hackney believes Fort Loudoun and Tellico Lakes are really good fisheries. His practice for the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic at Knoxville presented by Toyota revealed as much.
Hackney saw plenty of big largemouth in the three-day warm-up period to feel confident about his chances of beating Jeff Gustafson’s all smallmouth pattern. In practice, the Gonzales, La., pro said he saw five bass that would have pushed the 30-pound mark.
But by mid-morning on Day 1, Hackney found himself in the back of a creek fishing a spillway for smallmouth bass attempting to just survive the day and hopefully just advance to the final day.
“It was like Christmas,” he remarked on stage. “I opened my present, and it was something I didn’t want. So I have to wait until next year and hope I open something I really wanted.”
Hackney’s event highlights how volatile the fishery was for the 55 anglers competing in this year’s Classic. With this event being several weeks later than the 2021 Elite Series tournament, expectations were high, and the feeling was Fort Loudoun and Tellico would show their true potential.
Instead, keeper bites were not easy to come by, and true lunkers, other than the 18-inch and over smallmouth the winner Gustafson locked in on, were a rare sight this time around. Unlike in 2021 when Steve Kennedy brought 20 pounds, 14 ounces to the scales on Day 3, no angler came particularly close to touching a daily total of 20 pounds or better.
It left Hackney scratching his head after he crossed the stage on Championship Sunday.
“This lake is really good, which makes it so disappointing,” Hackney said. “I thought we were going to catch them. Coming into the first day of the tournament, I thought there would be three bags in that 18 to 20-plus range, and 25th would have 14 pounds. I was blown away that everyone was affected by this as much as I was.
“As good as fishing was when it was cold, I didn’t know what we were going to catch in the tournament,” he added. “I thought there was an outside chance I would end up catching them on a buzzbait before the tournament was over. Most of the time hindsight is 20/20, but this one has me scratching my head. And it doesn’t help that no one else caught the largemouth. I can’t even learn from anybody.”
Coming into the event, Hackney thought the largemouth would be in a different phase than the 2021 Elite Series event, a tournament where he finished seventh. It turned out that they were doing the exact same thing in practice.
Practice was cold and wet, eerily similar to that Elite, but that cold weather did not stick around and neither did the big bass. By Day 1, temperatures were back in the mid 70s and the lake warmed.
“These fish really did something different,” Hackney said. “This lake has a lot of 4- to 6-pound largemouth in it that didn’t show up this week. I didn’t think a guy could win with all largemouth, and I had a backup smallmouth deal going and thought if I could catch two of them with the quality of largemouth I’m catching, I could have a chance.
“I knew Gussy would be down there, and I thought I could beat that because he couldn’t catch as big a bag as I could,” he continued. “If everything lines up, the largemouth are the biggest bass in the lake. But I lost them during the off days and never found them.”
Every day he spent three hours trying to relocate his quality largemouth, before moving to that spillway to catch smallmouth. While initially a backup plan, those smallmouth saved his tournament and carried him to a 10th-place showing.
For many of the anglers who ended up in the top 10 who were wanting to catch largemouth, a lot of the struggles had to do with the weather warming back up so quickly.
“We had a crazy weather swing,” Drew Benton said. “We went from below freezing temps at the start of practice to wearing shorts on Day 3. When you have that big of a change that fast, it is a recipe for disaster.”
Current also played a big role in the mind of eighth-place finisher Brandon Cobb.
“I expected it to be better than 2021, but not necessarily weight wise,” Brandon Cobb said. “I thought we would catch a lot of fish. I thought we would see a lot of 9- or 10-pound limits. That’s the way practice was. I think the reason it was tougher this time was because of the current. We had essentially no current this time, and then the little bit of current we had, we had a 20 mph wind blowing against that.”
Hackney also realized it is just simply difficult to repeat performances from day to day. The bass don’t reload like they do in other fisheries in the same system.
“An area won’t duplicate day after day. It is more of a pattern when you get it going and you end up fishing the whole lake,” he said. “(I thought) I had fish realistically from takeoff to the Fort Loudoun dam. But I just never (ended up) catching the largemouth, and what largemouth I did catch, I caught them fishing for smallmouth.”
Even his smallmouth moved around. Heavy thunderstorms blew through Saturday morning before takeoff, changing the way the water was moving over the spillway and creating new current seams.
For College Classic Bracket champion Louis Monetti, the bass did the exact opposite of what he thought they would.
“It was bizarre. I couldn’t make any sense of it. I was fishing creek arms in Tellico, and on Wednesday they were way in the backs,” the UNC Charlotte product said. “The first day of the warming trend, I caught them about midway back, and then on Day 2 I caught them at the mouth. And it only got warmer. The water went up, and it got muddy. I thought maybe the mud pushed them out of the backs, but (Day 3) the mud settled and they still weren’t back there. I saw 62 degree water, and they weren’t there.”
Not only did they move, the size he found in practice totally vanished.
“You can talk to my Marshall in practice,” he said. “I was getting bit. Honestly, in the tournament, I caught 12 fish a day. In practice, I didn’t swing much, but when I did it was 2 pounds or better. So I really expected that if I caught five fish, they were going to go 12 or 15 pounds. I was sure of that. The lack of size, I really don’t know what happened.”