Day 1 through a filtered lens

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Steve Bowman

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – This is my 10th Bassmaster Classic on the water for B.A.S.S., and I’ve learned not to put too much stock into early leaders and early patterns. Of course, the old cliché tells us that you can’t win the Classic on Day One, but you can surely prevent yourself from winning. Typically, the weather gods and spectator traffic change things enough over the course of the three days that winning is both a game of survival and adaptation.

After spending Day One on the water with photographer Andy Crawford, mostly within a few miles of the Ft. Loudoun Dam, I feel that I’m qualified to make some predictions about what to look for going forward. I haven’t seen all of the playing field, or all of the anglers, but I’m starting to get my bearings along with the competitors.

We watched a dozen or so anglers fish, never saw a spinning rod in action, and viewed multiple fish catches of varying calibers.

Included among the anglers we watched were: Roy Hawk, who is off to a solid start; Kevin VanDam, the greatest angler of all time; 2009 Classic winner Skeet Reese; and Brandon Lester, who may not be a true local, but who catches fish everywhere and has a home state crowd cheering him on.

My overall takeaway? It’s not going to be a specific lure or a specific spot that pays off. Someone is going to have to run a pattern, and dial in the timing masterfully as well.

These guys have all read the textbook backwards and forward. They’ve reviewed the footnotes, checked the sources. Nothing that has gone before them has escaped their notice. And that could be a problem for some of them. With the exception of Zaldain, they were all fishing the same basic families of lures and the same types of places. We’d watch one angler fish a particular pocket or point, and when we came back an hour later someone else would be there. ON our way back to the ramp a third angler inhabited the same space. As tour-level fisheries go, this is not a huge playing field, even for just 52 competitors. It has all sorts of obvious fish-holding cover and structure, but much of the “juice” is so obvious that it’s going to get pounded.

For someone to win, they will have to be in those key spots at the perfect times, or they’ll have to have something slightly more subtle to lean on when things get tough. That’s what makes Ott DeFoe so dangerous – he’ll know eddies and sweet spots and historic stretches that’ll keep producing even after the fishery tightens up. It also helps someone like a VanDam or Iaconelli, anglers who focus on where the fish are going rather than where they’ve been.

We watched Roy Hawk land a 5-pound class bass in a spot he hadn’t fished before, but merely marked on his GPS because it looked good – and he claimed that he had a lot more of those spots to explore. Later, we saw him cull on a bank that had all sorts of textbook current breaks, but the catch came on the most featureless part of the stretch. Would an angler who was just making surgical strikes have missed those bites?

We also saw two solid catches – by Hawk and Chris Zaldain – come right at the boat. By this point in the week, all of the competitors have been run through a gauntlet of social and media obligations. The ones who are able to keep their minds on fishing and their execution clean will thrive, but for obvious reasons this is a Classic of historic proportions, so even the most centered and grounded veterans may be affected by emotions and fatigue. Furthermore, this event is three days, not four, so the margins for error are remarkably slim. Furthermore, there are few, if any, 8- to 10-pound bass here. Five- to 7-pounders are worth their weight in gold. A few of those bites will go a long way, and it’s harder to put it out of reach.

When the textbook becomes so normalized and ingrained that everyone can recite it from memory, sometimes it pays to throw it away, or at least disregard the less relevant parts. On Sunday, Fort Loudoun and Tellico will still be the same lakes. The fish won’t have changed their essential character. But the underwater playing field will have been affected just enough to make sure that nothing is a foregone conclusion. This one could easily be won or lost in the last hour.