Elite season begins with a big bang in Bainbridge

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Could be J Todd Tucker is the most pumped pro in the 108-man Bassmaster Elite Series field.

He has good reason to be: The Moultrie, Ga., angler’s home water is Lake Seminole, the fishery for the first Elite Series event of the season, the Dick Cepek Tires Bassmaster Elite Series at Lake Seminole presented by Hardee’s.

The 2014 season kickoff will take place March 13-16 out of Bainbridge, Ga. The pros are vying for a first-place prize of $100,000 and an automatic berth in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic. All pros are fishing to earn points that count toward the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year award and Classic qualification.

Tucker is focused on all those prizes, but he, of course, also wants to make a good showing in front of a home-state crowd.

Not that a Georgia jinx is on his mind. He gives no credence to the adage that competitions on home water come with inflated expectations that pressure the home-state angler to stumble or even fall.

“I’m not saying I will win, but my experience on Seminole will help,” said Tucker, who’s been fishing the lake since his family moved to Georgia when he was 13 years old. “There are places I’ve caught fish consistently for 20 years. But the stars have to align to win an Elite tournament, no matter where you’re from.”

Lake Seminole is in prime shape to produce big bags of bass, Tucker said.

“The lake has been very, very strong for the past four or five years, exploding with good quality fish. I can just about guarantee you right now that our average fish weighed in will be 3.75 pounds,” he said.

One reason is that the bass have had time to grow. Several years ago, overgrown hydrilla cut off access to many of the fishery’s sweetest spots. Fishing pressure was minimized.

“Now, rain and cold dropped the hydrilla back some,” he said. “It’s still plentiful, but a lot of those good spots we used to fish are now exposed again.”

Even the male bass are big in Seminole, he said. That fact will contribute to five-fish limits and big daily bags for most in the Elite field, he predicted.

“We’ll see a lot of five 5-pounders,” he said. “And a lot of 22-, 23-, even 26-pound bags.”

Tucker, like everyone in the Elite field, hasn’t been allowed on the lake since the official off-limits period began Feb. 13. But he suspects that the recent cold weather delayed the spawn. That means sight fishing, as well as flipping to vegetation could factor into success.

“In past years, we’ve had a spawn in January, but water temperatures stayed below 50 degrees this January,” he said. “That’s the coldest water I remember in the last 15 years. I’m guessing some of those fish are just moving up now.”

Recent rains have muddied Seminole’s water. Yet there are so many backwater ponds and spring-fed spots, Elite pros will be able to find clear water.

Tournament waters include Spring Creek and the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers as well as the main lake. Seminole is described by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as having 37,500 acres and 376 miles of shoreline. That gives Elite anglers many choices — perhaps too many.

“You can spend too much time eliminating a lot of ‘dead’ water,” Tucker said. “The fish are big, but they’re just not everywhere. Patterns are hard to establish.”

Even with his strong home-lake advantage, Tucker will face fierce competition. Although the Elite Series has never stopped at Lake Seminole, 13 Bassmaster events have been held on the fishery since 1995, giving many Elite Series anglers a history there. Three have claimed wins in tour-level events: Shaw Grigsby (2000), Michael Iaconelli (2002) and Gary Klein (2003).

Two other Elite pros — Cliff Prince and Randall Tharp — made the Top 5 in the most recent Bassmaster tournament on Seminole, the 2010 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open presented by Allstate.

The Elite Series’ first Seminole competition will begin at 7:30 a.m. ET March 13. Takeoffs will be at Earle May Boat Basin, 100 Boat Basin Circle, Bainbridge. The full field will compete for the first two days. The third day, the Top 50 from Day 2 will advance to Day 3. Only the Top 12 finalists will return to Seminole on March 16 for the final day.

Daily weigh-ins will take place at the same Bainbridge location beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Before the weigh-ins, the Bassmaster Elite Series Expo, a free fishing show featuring the Elite Series sponsors’ products, will open at noon Saturday and Sunday, March 15 and 16.

Alongside the expo, the 11th annual Bainbridge River Town Days will take place March 14-16, at the Earle May Boat Basin. The festival offers many free kids activities, plus vendors and Flames on the Flint, a barbecue cook-off. Free concerts include performances by Chris Cagle, Michael Miller Band, Midnight Rain, Crooked Shooz and Jacob Powell.

The Elite event’s local host is the Bainbridge-Decatur County Chamber of Commerce.

2014 Bassmaster Elite Series Official Sponsors: Toyota, Bass Pro Shops, Berkley, Evan Williams Bourbon, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Skeeter Boats, Triton Boats, Yamaha

2014 Bassmaster Elite Series Supporting Sponsors: Booyah, Carhartt, Diet Mountain Dew, Livingston Lures, Lowrance, Plano, Power-Pole, Rigid Industries, Shimano

Event Title Sponsor: Dick Cepek Tires

Event Presenting Sponsor: Hardee’s