DANDRIDGE, Tenn. — Anywhere else the story line to follow at a given bass tournament are the mental strategies and lure patterns of the top contenders. An exception is Douglas Lake, site of the 2018 season finale Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Eastern Open underway through Saturday.
Aluminum, not fishhooks, is the reasons why. For the second consecutive year the top anglers in contention to win the tournament are fishing from lightweight, shallow-draft aluminum bass boats.
Competing from an aluminum boat in east Tennessee lakes like Douglas is more necessity than optional during this time of year. The cooler, swiftly flowing waters of the upper reaches of these lakes supports a thriving population of smallmouth and largemouth. If you can get there, that is.
Gaining access to the fishable water is the challenge. In the Nolichucky and French Broad rivers, for example, the boundary line for safely running a fiberglass boat ends miles before the best fishing begins. And when it does, an angler has unlimited access to miles of unpressured fishing. The bass are active, stay health and have plenty of bait.
Those areas are also filled with boat-sized boulders lining the narrow river channels—some not more than a boat beam in width. Add a strong current and you have everything required for chewing up a fiberglass bass rig.
Third-place angler Patrick Walters is fishing from a Tracker Grizzly 1754 SC. John Cox, in 12th place after Thursday, is fishing from a Crestliner PT 20.
The Friday weigh-in will be a major indicator about how Championship Saturday shakes out for the aluminum contenders. Unlike last year, the lake is in play as a producer of the winning catch. The odds are low considering DeFoe’s place in the standings but still possible.
The Thursday leader, Jeff Lugar, is intentionally avoiding the river due to the heavy angler pressure. DeFoe even acknowledged tournament pressure in the rivers made his fish skittish and reluctant to bite. Craig Chambers, in second place, is fishing the river early and then spending the remainder of his day in the lower lake.
It’s no surprise that Bobby Lane, in fourth place and leading the Eastern Opens point standings, is fishing the river. His bite is best in late afternoon, following the strategy of Chambers among others who hammer the river early, then leave by midday. Lane did that too after catching 16 pounds, 14 ounces, leaving his fish biting with the hopes more will be there today.
“The boat pressure keeps it muddy because we are all running and gunning,” said Lane. “Add the current to the mix and it takes it a while to settle down and clear up.”
More than likely, Lane is flipping and pitching baits along the shoreline laydowns and rockpiles.
Here is where the dynamics of all the above take a turn. The Tennessee Valley Authority annual fall drawdown of Douglas Lake is well underway. For the past week now the lake level has fallen 1 foot per day, with the same plan for today and Saturday.
As I write this, my colleague Ronnie Moore messaged that access to the rivers where they split is the now boundary line for the fiberglass boats. On Thursday, and during practice, those boundary lines extended farther up both rivers.
As the water falls, access to the historical tournament winning fishing areas continues to diminish. For everyone except those who are running the aluminum rigs.
Will the lake produce the winning catch? Or will it come from the river? You can bet that on Championship Saturday, with only 12 boats, some risks will be taken. Fewer boats means less fishing pressure in the river, and that could tempt some of the finalists in glass boats to push the limits of their access. Going for broke might be the only option.