Bottom-heavy leaderboard

If you are a tournament fan—or charged with covering an event like me—the first place your eyes lock in on the leaderboard is at the top.

It’s still very early in the game but another not so pretty scene on the leaderboard is happening from the bottom up. According to BASSTrakk, here’s what I mean, by the ugly numbers.

20: Anglers without a keeper in the boat
17: Just one lonely bass in the livewell for this group
20: Number of anglers with two keepers in the boat

From my conversations with the anglers yesterday, what’s panning out on Cherokee Lake is of no surprise. Ott DeFoe, David Walker and Skylar Hamilton, all pre-tournament favorites, said the same thing. What are normally wintertime patterns that concentrate the fish in deeper water are not happening on a large scale. Winter has been unusually warm here.

“We haven’t had a cold enough winter, until today, to really lock the fish into those patterns,” noted Hamilton.

Of course, that’s all subject to change but the weather forecast is going the opposite direction from setting things up for a winter bite. A gradual warming trend begins tomorrow. Friday’s high temperature is expected to reach 54 degrees, and the temperature jumps by 13 degrees on Sunday.

What the average angler stands to learn from this crazy shift in the weather is going to be a treat. And the lessons learned will be delivered by the sport’s top pros.

Jordon on the board

Kelly Jordon with his first keeper but it's a good one.

Photo by Bassmaster Marshal Matthew Greschak 

How deep is deep at Cherokee?

David Walker noted yesterday that there would be a deep bite this week at Cherokee Lake, adding, "But it's not Douglas (Lake) deep - 45 to 50 feet. It will probably be more like 30."

David Mullins was standing beside Walker, and he was asked about the same topic. Mullins allowed a slight grin and said, "I'd say more like 45 here."

But here's the thing about Cherokee, according to those two pros who know the lake well: You can do whatever suits you and catch bass.

"It's not a very big lake, but it's like two different bodies of water," Walker said. "From the Morristown bridge up, it's river fishing. From there down, it's lake fishing. A guy can fish what suits his strengths. He doesn't get pushed into doing something he doesn't want to do. Bill Lowen is going to find a creek that suits his style, and David Mullins is going to school us all on deep fishing."

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Smallmouth weather

On tournament eve the high temperature neared 70 degrees. Look at any photo on the Bassmaster Blog and you’ll see a different story today. Snow flurries fell on Cherokee Lake during the morning takeoff. The current temperature is 34 degrees with a windchill of 27 degrees.

Check out the BassCam videos and you’ll find a mixed theory of reasons why the weather does, or does not, affect the fishing.

I discovered it really depends on whom you ask. Seth Feider just laughed when I asked him about extreme weather. He’s from Minnesota, enjoys ice fishing, and loves catching smallmouth in the nastiest of weather. For him, this kind of weather is a way of life.

Others, like Fred Roumbanis, used a more strategic approach to this extreme weather (depending on where you are from, Seth Feider).

“I think it stimulates a bite because it’s a front,” said Roumbanis. “It’s not unlike when you have a front with rain instead of snow—same effect.”

Roumbanis didn’t even bother tying on baits last night, knowing change was coming. Instead, he opted to fish the conditions and let the weather—and bass—tell him what to throw at them.

As a native Tennessean, I can say with all certainty that weather like this does indeed stimulate the smallmouth bite, and especially during winter. Check out the steady stream of pics from the Bassmaster Blog for the evidence. Wind is the key contributor. Another is cloudy skies. The clouds provide cover and concealment in the low light conditions for what they do best. That, of course, is look for crawfish. Finding their favorite food source is easier with wind-driven current like we are seeing on Cherokee.

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Lowen with a 4-pounder

Now this is the kind that he's looking for. 

Photo by Bassmaster Marshal Jesse New 

Big or small?

Yesterday afternoon and this morning I recorded a dozen videos posing the following question.

Is Cherokee Lake fishing big or small?

The reasoning is simple. Cherokee is 28,780 acres, and while that’s plenty of fishing space for 110 boats, it does shrink in size during the winter drawdown. As in about 20 feet.

“In wintertime on highland lakes like this you can easily visualize where the best areas are,” noted Alton Jones Sr.

Translated, that means the lower water exposes the bottom contours even more than at any time. Channel swings are easier to find. Main lake points show themselves even farther out into the lake.

Jones believes the lake is fishing small for those reasons.

“The fish are really spread out, and they have so many options,” he added.

Jones told me the lesson to be learned is covering vast stretches of the water column.

“You can’t leave any depth zone out, really, because with fish scattered like they are here you might find them from zero to 10 feet or somewhere down in deeper depths.”

Part of that is due to the unusually warm winter underway in east Tennessee.

“They aren’t in typical winter patterns that keep them concentrated in deeper water.”

That’s what Ott DeFoe told me yesterday. Most of the fish might be scattered, but some concentrations are being found by the leaders, obviously.

“The key for me is finding little concentrations of fish,” said Mark Menendez, currently second according to BASSTrakk.

“It takes a lot of work, but you go through a dry spell and then find a small area that holds more than one or two,” he said.

So far so good for Menendez. He said the lake is fishing big, at least for him.

Robinson rockets to the lead

Marty Robinson caught a kicker weighing 4-6 amidst a five-fish flurry just past 9:30, and it has vaulted him into the lead with 16-6, unofficially. That's the first 4-pounder I've noticed in the fish-catches recorded today, and it's an example of how important 4-pounders will be this week at Cherokee Lake.

For example, four 3-pounders and a 4-6 equals 16-6. That's right where David Walker and David Mullins predicted the winning total would be at the end of this four-day event--an average of 16 pounds and change per day.

Is Wiggins leading?

Jesse Wiggins isn't currently showing up on BASSTrakk with a fish catch, but that's apparently due to a technical difficulty. As you'll notice in the blog, there's a marshal photo of a nice smallmouth that Wiggins reportedly released, meaning of course that he's got five bigger bass in his livewell.

There's a trail of Tweets this morning that shows Wiggins with a five-bass limit weighing 14-5. It wouldn't be surprising if that were so. The Elite Series rookie from Cullman, Ala., started 2017 by winning the Southern Open on Florida's Harris Chain of Lakes on Jan. 21. He's hot!

Jones with No. 3

Alton Jones Jr. catches his third fish of the day, a 1 pound, 4 ounce smallmouth. Still fishing the same spot.

Photo by Bassmaster Marshal Brian Jordan