KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – I’ve fished and covered tournaments on the Tennessee River system – specifically on Guntersville, Pickwick, Wheeler and Kentucky Lake – but today marked my first visit to this year’s Classic waters. Based on what I heard and saw elsewhere, I had certain preconceived notions about how things would look, and how they’d play out, but I tried to keep an open mind.
Photographer Shane Durrance and I rode with Elite Series pro Mike Huff today, and while I’ve learned that you shouldn’t expect to see many (or any) fish catches on the Wednesday preceding the start of competition, you can also learn a lot if you just keep your eyes and ears open. We stayed exclusively in Loudoun, never venturing into Tellico, so I don’t have a comprehensive view of the playing field, but I do feel that I know a lot more than I did 24 hours ago.
Here are 10 takeaways (and questions) from my time on the water:
There will be a lot of fish caught, and some big weights brought in. Any time we were able to talk to a competitor I’d ask how many bites they’d had and what they expected the winning weight to be. Most said three to eight bites, and 45 to 51 pounds for the winning weight. That’s 15 to 17 pounds a day. Normally by this point in the game they’d be sandbagging, complaining about the lack of bites (“I haven’t seen a keeper yet”), but NONE of them took that route. That’s a sign that things may be on fire.
Water color is good, but varies. Based on the reports of flooding throughout the mid-South, I expected that we’d be able to go far back into the woods in a sea of pudding-thick water that varied between the color of chocolate milk and Tennessee orange. On the contrary, the water seems to be falling and is certainly not out of the banks, and the color seems to be “fishy.” It does vary from place to place. One creek will be dirtier than the main river and the next will be clearer, but it all seems to have enough color to drive fish shallow and keep them there.
Current will play a role. The water is really trucking downstream, especially in narrow sections of the river where you can see the navigational buoys getting pulled hard. The fish that live here, especially, the smallmouths, are used to that and use the current to their evolutionary advantage. There’s no doubt that the angler who figures out the right type of current breaks, especially the more subtle ones that aren’t as easily discerned, could get a distinct advantage. They could be on the main river, in the front of a creek, or further back, but there will be some reason behind it.
Power fishing will rule. We haven’t had a true power fishing Classic winner since Guntersville in 2014. Edwin Evers and Jordan Lee (twice) both relied largely on jigs and soft plastics to win, and Casey Ashley used an underspin. With the water stained and in the low 50s, and the fish wanting to move up, expect to see moving baits and moving anglers. Think crankbaits, Chatterbaits, spinnerbaits. When was the last time a spinnerbait factored heavily into a Classic victory? Evers caught some on it in 2016, and Skeet did in 2009, but it wasn’t their primary tool. Maybe Clunn’s victory on the St. Johns jump started the “Year of the Blade.”
If it is a crankbait tournament, will the dominant paradigm be a flat-sided bait like the homemade ones that this region is famous for? Or will it be a rounder square bill, like the standard 1.5 that has become standard issue over the past decade?
The smallmouths will be a factor. I’d expected the water to be super-muddy, thereby putting the smallmouths out of play, but every angler seems to think that the brown bass will be players in the eventual outcome. That’s odd to me, because I assume that any 6- or 7-pound kicker will have to be green, but the few screenshots I’ve seen of bronzebacks so far show footballs with big bellies.
It will be a pattern tournament, not a spot tournament. Ott DeFoe told me that the winner will catch between three and seven of his 15 weigh-in fish from his best single area. Several others told us that they were getting bites, but rarely more than one or two from the same area. Luckily, this fishery has tons of textbook cover and structure that can be covered in quick succession. It’ll be critical to get on the right rotation – because if you’re fishing the same type/s of places as someone else, if you don’t get there first, or during the right windows, you might roll snake eyes.
He who moves most, weighs most? As noted above, covering as many key targets as possible might be the key to victory. We watched several pros who seemed to have their trolling motors on 100 as they burned down the bank. That’s a common practice day strategy, but here it felt like there were key spots, and a fair amount of dead water in between them. Why are “go fast” boats like Bullet, Allison and Norris Craft so popular here (we saw all three today)? Because there’s a need for speed.
Locals have the potential to make a difference, but I expect they won’t. Because Loudoun is essentially a river, with relatively few major tributaries, it’s possible for a popular or leading angler’s spectator gallery to get in the way. Over the past few years, they’ve gotten increasingly respectful and have become a largely self-policing group. That’s the first good news. The second is that the cold mornings might lead some to stay home or go to the Expo. Boat wakes on shallow fish could be a nightmare, and might influence the results in limited circumstances, but overwhelmingly we have the most knowledgeable fans in sports, and in this region they understand the stakes.
They bleed orange around here. I’ve been to a lot of sports-crazy towns and regions, but East Tennessee’s loyalty to the Volunteers may take the cake. Not only are they not divided (as in Alabama, for example, where Auburn and the Tide split the fan base) but they are rabid and visible. We saws lots of big boats in marinas with names that included a distinct Tennessee “T.” Other houseboats were trimmed in orange. Every other lakeside home had a UT flag. These people are rabid fans, and they’re also fish-crazed. They’ll be excited no matter who wins, but if it’s a local or home-state angler they’ll be especially charged up. With so much on the line, they’d love to keep bragging rights at home.