Pandemic paying off for Card

Brandon Card now lives in Salisbury, N.C., but he was living in Knoxville last year. He had just finished ninth in the Bassmaster Classic on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville on March 8 when the Elite Series took a long pause in the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Card didn’t have anything else to do, so he spent a lot of time fishing his home waters, which just happen to be the site of this tournament.

“I fished Fort Loudoun a lot in March and April last year during the shutdown,” said the 34-year-old Card, who is in his 10th season on the Elite Series. “I wish this tournament was in March. I know where they’re going to be then, but they’re not there yet.”

Well, maybe some of them are there now. Card has a limit, which includes a 5-pound, 10-ounce big bass of the day so far. His unofficial BassTrakk second-place total is 13-10 at 10:30 a.m.

“I’m going to have confidence in my areas this week,” Card said Wednesday. “I know where they’re going to be moving to in the areas I fished last March and April. With a couple of days of warmer weather, I’m hoping it will pay off."

Gussy draws large crowd

I am sure that Jeff "Gussy" Gustafson had no idea at blast off this morning that he would be leading first thing with 16 pounds, 13 ounces.  He has drawn a large crowd, especially for the first day and this early in the morning. After speaking to one of the locals, I asked how did the crowd find Gustafson so fast this morning. He replied, "We were watching LIVE and because of the landmarks we knew exactly where he was."

Gustafson fills 'a tall order' early

The story of this tournament, or at least a big chapter in it, has been written by Jeff Gustafson in the first three hours of this four-day event. As Brandon Lester noted Wednesday, it would be “a tall order” to catch a five-bass limit of smallmouth bass here because of the 18-minimum length limit. And making it a double-tough task was fishing conditions overall, where catching five keepers - period - 14-inch largemouth or spotted bass - seemed like a tall order.

However, Gustafson has done it early. He’s got a limit of 3-pound smallmouth bass estimated to weigh a total of almost 17 pounds. He’s catching them deep. The Bassmaster LIVE camera showed Gustafson fizzing the swim bladder of a smallmouth as he put it in his livewell.

Gustafson’s work for the day is done, not that he’s going to quit fishing. But he did say, “I think we’re going to get out of here."

Never has so little meant so much

If you thought these guys were overstating how tough practice had been this week, the proof came in the reactions so far this morning over some rather small but keeper bass.

“I’m not going to zero now,” shouted Bryan New, the Elite Series rookie who won this season’s opener on the St. Johns River, after measuring a 14 1/2-inch largemouth. “As tough as it has been, that a pretty good start. If I don’t catch another one today, I don’t feel like I’m out of it.”

Brandon Lester had a similar reaction to a 1 1/2-pounder caught at 8:30, saying, “He ain’t a big one, but he sure does make me feel better.”

It has undoubtedly been a tough three days of practice prior to this tournament.

Schultz off to a solid start

Veteran pro Bernie Schultz got his season off to a solid start with a 40th-place finish at the St. Johns River in his home state of Florida two weeks ago. In vastly different weather, Schultz is off to a solid start today on the Tennessee River. He landed the big bass of the first 90 minutes today with this 3-pound, 4-ounce largemouth at 8:27 a.m.

Crews with a nice keeper

After speaking to several of the pros on my drive to Knoxville yesterday, I really wasn’t expecting a whole lot from this lake. The first guy we found this morning was John Crews. He has already put a nice keeper in the boat for Day 1. He is throwing a suspending SPRO jerkbait and working it extremely slow around.

Catching up with Prince

It’s a chilly and breezy start to Day 1 of the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite Series at the Tennessee River.

We have caught up with Cliff Prince in Sinking Creek where he is fishing some docks and rock banks with a spinnerbait.

Several other boats are in this creek as well, including Brandon Lester, Caleb Sumrall and Hunter Shryock.

Prince, who is coming off a seventh-place finish at the St. John’s River has yet to land a bass and has said practice was pretty tough for him.

Benton has company

The 2016 Rookie of the Year Drew Benton is concentrating on his game plan at the start of  Day 1 of the Guranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at Tennessee River.

Benton is on his first spot of the day, working his pattern with no bites yet. He now has a local fishing in the same pocket he is in.

Zaldain taking two-pronged approach

There were only two 20-pound, five-bass limits caught in the 2019 Bassmaster Classic held on the Tennessee River in mid-March. Chris Zaldain weighed the heaviest — 21 pounds, 12 ounces. That bag on Day 2 rocketed him from 28th place into third, less than 2 pounds out of the lead. It was Zaldain’s other two days in that Classic which showed just how tough the Tennessee River can be this time of year — four bass, 9-0 on Day 1 and two bass, 3-4 on Day 3.

Zaldain thinks this place is fishing even tougher now, earlier in the year with colder water temperatures.

“Weight-wise, I don’t even want to guess what it’s going to take to win this,” Zaldain said after practice Wednesday. “Five (bass) a day is going to be good.”

Zaldain said he is going to take a two-pronged approach to this fishery: 1) smallmouth bass the first half of the day, 2) largemouth bass the second half.

“I’m going for those 18-inch smallmouth first,” he said. “The smallmouth are in swift current, and they’re not as affected by the cold water. Then I’m going for largemouth in the warmer, muddier water. I think the rain (in the forecast for later in the tournament) will help them bite better.

“I have some history here. There’s a 20-pound bag swimming here. When it happens, it happens fast."

Lester thinks it will 'fish small'

The boundaries for this tournament, which include a section of the Tennessee River near Knoxville, plus Tellico and Fort Loudoun lakes, are wide. But the 100 anglers competing in the Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite are probably going to be concentrated in a small area, or as the anglers say, “It’s going to fish small.”

“I think this tournament will fish pretty small,” said Brandon Lester, the Tennessee native who finished sixth in the Bassmaster Classic here in 2019. “I’m a little concerned about that. The only other time we were here was the Classic. It fished small then, in a 52-boat field. Everything went down at the bottom end of Loudoun.”

And that’s where the center of activity is predicted to be this year. Matt Herren likens it to a game of musical chairs, where anglers are rotating through the same areas repeatedly throughout the day.

“It’s all about timing,” Herren said. “Do you pull up at the right time, in the right place.”

Lester thinks Tellico Lake’s clear water and big smallmouth bass, which have to be big to be a legal catch of 18 inches, have a chance to be a surprise element this week.

“Tellico is the X factor, if somebody can figure that out,” Lester said. “I took a look at it. But that water is so clear, I just don’t like it. Smallmouth are definitely going to play a roll in this tournament. If we could keep 15-inch smallmouth, they'd play a huge roll. But the chances of catching five 18-inch smallmouth, that’s a tall order.”