FORT WORTH, Texas — Last year when Hank Cherry won the Bassmaster Classic he weighed 29 pounds, 3 ounces, on Day 1 and never fell out of first place on the way to a wire-to-wire win on Alabama’s Lake Guntersville.
The last time the Classic was held in Texas, on Lake Conroe in 2017, Jordan Lee was in 37th place on Day 1 and 15th place on Day 2 before weighing a five-bass limit of 27-4 on the final day to capture the Classic crown.
Those two scenarios are the outliers. Rarely does one angler lead all three days of the Classic. And never had an angler come back from 37th place on Day 1 or 15th place on Day 2 to win the Classic until Lee did it.
Those extremes and everything in between are possible at Lake Ray Roberts when the 51st Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk begins Friday. The combination of the Classic being moved from March to June, the lake being 4 feet above normal pool and the big bass potential of Lake Ray Roberts has made futile any attempt to predict what will happen over the three days of this tournament. Oh, yeah, there’s also the fickle nature of the bass here, where catching them one way one day doesn’t guarantee anything the next.
“I’ve already seen that happen,” said Chris Zaldain, who caught a best-five weighing 33 1/2 pounds one day in March, then caught only one bass under similar weather conditions the next day. “Springtime, summer, fall, it doesn’t matter. That’s how this place is. I think it’s because the population of bass is just not like Lake Fork or Rayburn or Toledo Bend. It’s a big fish place, but there aren’t very many of them.
“A guy could be in 25th or 30th place after Day 1 and be in contention on Sunday.”
All the anglers in this 54-man field who planned to fish “normal” June conditions in Texas – on offshore structure – have had to re-think and re-rig since they began pre-practice last Friday.
“All my rods were rigged to fish deep,” said Drew Benton of Blakely, Ga., who is fishing his fourth Classic. “I knew the area had gotten a lot of rainfall, but I didn’t realize the lake was this high until I crossed the dam for our first day of pre-practice. When I looked down the bank and saw all the (flooded) bushes, I decided I was going to focus on that the first day. By 9 o’clock I’d had 15 bites, so I’ve put all my eggs in that basket. I think everybody else is going to be doing the same thing.”
Brock Mosley of Collinsville, Miss., competed in many tournaments on the Mississippi River before qualifying for the Elite Series. “It might be 20 feet high when we got there, so this is something I’m comfortable doing,” he said. “I feel good about it.”
Mosley said he caught an 8-pounder during pre-practice and knows of at least one Classic competitor who caught a 10-pounder-plus.
“Believe it or not, there are still fish trying to spawn,” he said. “I saw some fish that still had their eggs, and I’ve seen a lot of fry. I’ve gotten bit in less than a foot of water. I think it’s going to fish better than guys are saying. It could still only take 17 or 18 pounds a day to win it, but I could also see it taking 22 or 23 pounds a day. It could go either way.”
Lake Ray Roberts at normal pool level covers 29,000 surface acres. That’s not a big lake by Bassmaster Classic standards. But it is so much bigger than that now. An extra 4 feet of water spreads wide in this relatively flat country. As a result, there are plenty of bushes to flip without an angler feeling like two or three others have done the same thing on the same piece of cover earlier.
However, there are a few anglers who are going to try to separate themselves from the field by doing something different. Brandon Palaniuk is one of those. This is Palaniuk’s 10th Bassmaster Classic. He knows it’s a win-or-go-home scenario. The cliché is that no one remembers who finishes second at the Bassmaster Classic. Palaniuk finished second in the 2013 Classic at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake.
“I have one flipping stick rigged up,” he said. “I plan on flipping some, when I come to it. But I have spent four days of practice looking for something else. It’s the Classic. That’s how you win. It’s very hard to win doing the same thing as everyone else is doing. You’re putting too much into chance or luck. I want to do something different that gives me more opportunity to catch fish the other anglers aren’t targeting.
“I spent four days looking for it. I haven’t really found it. But I will continue to look for it so I’m not doing the same thing as everybody else.
“When you come to the Classic, you swing. This isn’t a regular season game. This is a home run derby.”