‘Tator Salad: How Classic crowds affect the anglers

Do you think you can walk on water?

If you want to test the principle and come out on top, I suggest that you visit the Guntersville area in late February. They’ve got this little fish derby going on, and I suspect that the boats are going to be packed so tight that you’ll be able to walk from the launch ramp to any competitor’s fishing spot without even getting a toe wet. The submerged trolling motors alone will be enough to raise the water level at least a foot from the dam to the upper end of the river. Archimedes, eat your heart out.

Guntersville’s riches are no secret. Even if the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Diet Mountain Dew and GoPro wasn’t scheduled to take place there, you could’ve expected it to be crowded with anglers on any reasonably nice February weekend. Perhaps no lake in the country gets pounded as hard as the Big G does in the spring and still continues to pump out one big bag after another.

Head there on a random Tuesday in February or March, and there will be a line at the boat ramp.

Head there during Classic week this year and you’re going to have the smell of burning two-stroke oil forever implanted in your brain.

This one, more than any other Classic in recent memory, is likely to feature the “12th man,” as they say in football, in a leading role. Someone who was on the fish to win our sport’s biggest championship is going to come up short because he didn’t fully factor in the spectator boats. I don’t want to delve too far into the legal/ethical aspects of spectating, but here are a few things I think all reasonable fishing fans can stipulate:

  1. The tournament takes place on a public body of water and anglers and fishing fans have every right to be out there on the practice and competition days.
  2. Most spectators are respectful but there’s always a handful who take particular pride in seeing whether they can “beat the Elites.”
  3. We recognize that accounting for boat traffic is part of any sound tournament strategy, but we wish that it wasn’t.

Over the years, the top competitors have learned that they have to account for their spectator galleries – in choosing fishing locations, in determining how to approach them, and in considering when and where to move. The examples of this working to perfection are few: When Denny Brauer won at High Rock Lake in 1998, he credited his decision to choose a stretch of shallow water that would be protected from boat wakes. The examples where anglers succumbed to the traffic are far greater in number.

It’s a classic Catch 22: You want to be respected enough to generate a crowd, but once that crowd appears you wish they’d go away.

As James Overstreet said to me last year, “I don’t know how KVD or Ike ever catches a fish.” He didn’t say “win a tournament” – it was “catches a fish.” If you’ve ever watched either of them during a Classic, or even some Elite events, you’ll understand why. They are constantly surrounded. Sometimes when I’m fishing a cove and not catching much, I’ll blame it on a guy mowing his grass nearby or knocking nails into some new dock planks, or maybe those kids jet-skiing a few hundred yards away. It’s a convenient excuse, but when the top guns fish on popular waterways, they’re catching fish from the middle of 50 weedeaters and nail guns and circling jet skis – not to mention, as at Grand Lake last year, a barking dog or two.

Mike Iaconelli seems to thrive on the energy. While I’m sure he’d rather not have 500 depthfinders pinging away and an equal number of boats blocking his entrance to and egress from his chosen fishing spots (let alone a noisy dog), when he catches a bass and the crowd goes wild, he seems to feed off of them. Others with less experience, like Cliff Pace, seem to struggle to learn how to maximize their fans’ value and minimize their impact. Then again, Pace overcame such obstacles to win the 2013 Classic on Grand Lake while Ike finished fourth – there’s not always a one-to-one correlation between your ability to deal with the ‘tators and your final result.

At that Grand Lake Classic, the spectator galleries for anglers like Pace, Ike, KVD and Jason Christie were some of the largest I’ve seen and they were often aggressive in staying on their chosen angler. At one point, as Ike headed uplake and Christie zoomed downlake, their groups intersected in maelstrom of fiberglass and roostertails. I’m surprised no one was hurt. In fact, it was so chaotic that if we’d had a flux capacitor on board and hit the whirlpools just right, there’s a chance I’d now be able to tell you the winner of the 2025 Classic. That was in sub-freezing weather. If we get a 50-degree day this year in Alabama, the craziness is going to be exponentially more significant.

One of the oldest clichés in tournament angling is that your goal should be to “control as many controllable variables as possible.” At the Classic, spectators sit somewhere on the continuum between completely controllable and absolute wild card. On the one hand, no angler can stop them from being on the water, crowding his space, or even fishing right next to him. On the other hand – particularly at this Classic – you know they’re going to be there so anyone who’s leading on Day Three and then surprised when the armada emerges just didn’t do his homework.

If you didn’t know it already, now you’ve been warned.

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