Bassmaster Elite Series TroKar Battle on the Bayou

MANY, La. -- The calm before the wind: Thursday morning, the Elite field idled out into Toledo Bend's boat lane, where the morning wind was nothing more than a kiss on the cheek.

The 2- to 3-mph breeze was a gift, albeit a short-lived one. The morning calm helped those who planned to sight-fish, and was a boon to everyone running the boat lane, the safe place right now to throttle up on The Bend, thanks to extremely low water.

The forecast for Thursday afternoon and Friday was for the wind to kick up. By the weekend, the wind could blow 10 to 20 mph all day, with gusts of 25 to 30. That's a potential game-changer for the Elite field, competing through Sunday for $100,000 and a coveted berth in the 2012 Bassmaster Classic, also in Louisiana, but on the Red River out of Shreveport-Bossier City.

Tietje's home-water advantage could slip away: Dennis Tietje now lives in Roanoke, La., but he grew up around Toledo Bend Reservoir and has spent many a weekend on the lake since 1987.

"I've spent a lot of time on this lake," he said at the docks Thursday morning, waiting for the signal to start.

So he's a got a strong home-water advantage for the Elite event, right? Not with the low-water conditions he's seeing this week on Toledo, he said.

"It would be a home-court advantage if the water was high," he said. "Low water makes things visible, and if an angler doesn't know the lake, he tends to fish the most visible patterns. Low water evens the field a lot."

Still, Tietje's vast knowledge of the lake may help him out.

"I've got a few things up my sleeve nobody knows about."

Adaptation to Toledo's water level will be the key this week, he said. The anglers who find spots holding post-spawn bass will do well, he predicted, although the bass are in all stages of the spawn right now, and low water could be prolonging the spawn.

"It held some fish out from the beds," he noted.

Toledo is large enough that the 99 anglers will be able to spread out, Tietje said. He doesn't expect the "community hole" factor -- water staked out and shared among many anglers -- to come into play as much as it has in the previous Elite events of the season.

Clunn's No. 1 on Toledo: The very first tournament Rick Clunn ever fished was on Toledo Bend in 1969, when he lived in Texas.

That's a lot of tournaments ago. Counting only Bassmaster pro-level events, the April 14-17 TroKar Battle on the Bayou is Clunn's 368th competition. That number includes the four Bassmaster Classics he's won, plus the events in which he earned his other 10 titles.

Clunn's first tournament was not as a pro, but as a member of a bass club in Pasadena, Texas, which he joined in late 1968 to get in on the club's January 1969 tournament. Clunn didn't own a fishing boat, much less a bass boat. He said he competed in a runabout with an 80hp engine and a 10hp kicker motor, but no trolling motor.

"I learned quickly. I went home and bought a bass boat," said Clunn.

Clunn said a few years later, in January 1971, he claimed his first win on Toledo, out of Six Mile Creek.

Toledo Bend was a newly impounded lake back then, and it looked very different than it does now, Clunn described. Tall trees still stuck up out of the water, and there was little or no visibility across the water except where the trees had been cut or had not been growing.

With Toledo's water 5 to 7 feet below normal, the stumps of those same trees are visible during the TroKar Battle on the Bayou, attesting to the recollections of Clunn and of locals who were around when the lake started to fill up.

"Most people don't have any idea what the lake used to look like. Just put 20 or 30 feet above the stumps you see now, with the leaves still clinging to the branches," Clunn said.

Now living in Ava, Mo., and owner of the 1988 Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year title in addition to his four Classic crowns, Clunn was eager to compete once again on Toledo Bend, and he expects the sight bite to be a factor.

"Unfortunately so," he said. "The wind coming tomorrow will put a hurt on the sight fishing, and I hope it does. I'm not a sight fisherman. Most of the fish are post-spawn, but there are a lot of them on the beds."

A different animal, and thank you for the boat lanes: Like many in the Elite field, Denny Brauer has competed several times on Toledo Bend.

"It's a different animal this time," he said. "I don't think any of us have fished it with conditions quite like they are now, with the lake being so low."

He said he was grateful for the safety factor of the well-marked north-south boat lane. It allows the anglers to run faster because they're more confident they won't hit a barely submerged stump.

"I've never seen the boat lanes marked this well, it's easier to get around," praised Brauer.

Why's the lake so low? According to the Sabine River Authority, Toledo Bend was drawn down from 172 feet to 165.1 feet for dam repair in September 2010.

"However, due to insufficient inflow and precipitation, the reservoir level has not risen above 165.1 feet m.s.l.," stated an advisory on the website of the Sabine River Authority of Texas.

Toledo guide goes way back with B.A.S.S.: Maurice Jackson of Zwolle, La., a guide on Toledo Bend, is working with the Bassmaster Elite Series crew this week as a media boat driver for photographers.

Jackson's ties to B.A.S.S. go back to the early 1980s, and to the biggest tournament of all: the Bassmaster Classic. At age 37, he earned his way into the 1982 field through pro-level invitationals.

His best memories of the 1982 Classic on the Alabama River are of meeting other pros.

"All the anglers I'd idolized all my life were there," he said. "Rick Clunn, Harold Allen, Denny Brauer, Tommy Martin, Roland Martin — everybody was there."

Jackson continued to fish Bassmaster events until 2002, but he never turned full-time pro.

"Everybody wants to, but reality happened — kids, family, responsibilities, my job as a house-builder," Jackson said.

He now guides full-time on Toledo Bend. To many anglers, that's a dream job in itself.

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