Classic: 5 things to watch in practice

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Diet Mountain Dew and GoPro begins on Friday. But Wednesday's practice day will provide some clues about who is likely to win this year's three-day event on Lake Guntersville. Here are five things to watch on Wednesday, the last day these anglers will have on the water before Day One of the tournament Friday:

1. Water Temperature — The lake is warming after being covered with ice about a week ago. That should have Guntersville's bass moving shallow in waves at some point. Wednesday's practice day and the Thursday off-day are forecast to be the warmest this week, bumping or surpassing 70 degrees. Tournament days are forecast to be near or above the 60-degree mark.

"I saw some water as warm as 52 degrees on Sunday," said Jordan Lee, the Carhartt College Bassmaster Series qualifier from Auburn, Ala., who has extensive experience on Guntersville. "There are too many fish in this lake for them not to be moving shallow. It's been too cold, and it's getting too warm for something drastic not to happen. One day they're not there. The next day there will be hundreds of them."

That's why you'll hear a lot of talk about timing this week. Dean Rojas is glad he's got a high boat number – 43 – for Friday's take-off. It's not just day-to-day, it's hour-by-hour that the bass will start to move shallow.

"The later the better," said the 42-year-old Rojas, who is fishing his 12th Classic. "There are going to be some pockets that warm four or five degrees during the day, if they've got direct sunshine on them. The sun needs to come out. That's key."

2. Big Bass — Lake Guntersville has so many big bass in it that anyone who hopes to contend for the title must focus on big fish, not just numbers. Combined with the fact that jerkbaits and lipless crankbaits are going to be key weapons this week, it means you're going to see some big bass caught during practice Wednesday. You can't very well bend the hook points down on those baits and fish them effectively. Plus you need to see the quality of the fish that are biting. So, unlike other events, where simply bites are key, here it's all about big bites.

"I think it's going to take over 75 pounds, realistically, to win this event," said Rojas.

With a five bass daily limit, that's an average of 25 pounds per day.

"You're going to see guys catch 30 pounds one day and 17 or 20 the next," Rojas said. "In practice, you've got to figure out what size fish are there. Three-pounders aren't going to cut it. You need 5-pounders."

3. The Grass — The unusually cold winter has caused a die-off of aquatic vegetation in Lake Guntersville, which is known for its fish-holding grass.

"It's like gold," said one angler of the importance of the aquatic vegetation. If there's grass, it's usually holding bass.

If it's truly a gold mine during the tournament, that's likely to cause some crowding in the 55-man field. But with so little grass in the lake, it's just as likely that what little aquatic vegetation is left in the lake won't be a factor. And that's one more reason you'll hear many anglers talking about "timing" and "decisions."

"This lake changes so much," said Lee, who estimates he's fished 30 or 40 tournaments here over his 22 years. "You've really got to be on your game. This lake isn't like Smith Lake or lakes like Hartwell and Lanier, which don't change that much. I'm going to fish places during the tournament where I didn't get bit in practice.

"I don't think it will 'fish small.' I think there will be guys scattered from one end of the lake to the other."

4. Unexpected Confidence — Wednesday will decide who enters the event with an extra confidence boost. writer/editor Steve Bowman is covering his 26th Classic. He won't ever forget hopping in Bryan Kerchal's pickup truck to visit with him after the last practice day before the 1994 Classic at North Carolina's High Rock Lake. Kerchal had finished dead last the year before at Alabama's Logan Martin.

"I think I've got a shot," Kerchal told Bowman that day in '94.

Did he ever. The late Kerchal, who died in a plane crash later that year, beat the rest of the field, becoming the only B.A.S.S. Nation qualifier to win the Bassmaster Classic.

"Somewhere in this field, a dark-horse will emerge that will be a factor in this year's tournament," Bowman said. "It happens every year."

All these anglers are very, very good. None need much of an advantage to be competitive with the Kevin VanDams, Skeet Reeses and Mike Iaconellis of the bass fishing world. It's Wednesday's practice session when a big bass catch here or there might provide a clue for an unlikely contender. And especially if the fish are moving shallow, that's all it will take — one key clue or two — to be in the thick of things on Sunday.

5. The Intangibles — You'll hear frequent mentions of the word "focus" this week, and Wednesday will determine who will and won't be able to maintain it. There are plenty of distractions at a Bassmaster Classic. A big crowd of observer boats on the water is probably the most significant one. Birmingham is known for having as many bass fishing fans per capita as any state in the U.S. Wednesday will provide a hint of what's to come during the tournament. Some of these anglers, specifically Kevin VanDam, who deals with an armada following him at almost every event, know how to handle fishing in a crowd better than others.

The 90-minute drive from Birmingham to Guntersville increases the likelihood of other distractions, like fender-benders and traffic jams. It doesn't take much of the unexpected to throw a man off his game.

Last year's Classic champion, Cliff Pace, planned to take the daily stress off by having his father-in-law drive his truck-and-boat trailer from Grand Lake to the Tulsa weigh-in site every day. It worked like a charm.

"I'd get in the passenger seat of the pickup and sleep all the way back to Tulsa," Pace said.

That daily routine left Pace as refreshed for Sunday's finale as he was when the tournament began. 

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