High waters work well

MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA – Normally, when you have an extra 10 feet of water in your backyard, you aren’t too happy.

But on Thursday, Springville, Alabama angler Randy Howell welcomed the flood into his proverbial “backyard” – the Alabama River. During the opening day of action in the Bassmaster Elite Series Alabama River Charge presented by Star brite, Howell was one of the many pros who brought larger-than-expected bags to the scales at the historic Union Station Train Shed.

Howell also didn’t mind the swift current that comes when an extra 10 feet of water pushes through a river system.

Why should he? He boated a five-fish limit of 17 pounds and put himself in great position for the remainder of the tournament.

“I had no idea it would fish like this,” Howell said. “There’s no way this time of year you’d think it would be flooded. I’m glad it happened, because it made the fishing a lot of fun. I was preparing for a largemouth bite and when I knew all this water was coming, I decided to commit to the spotted bass. Man, those spots were on today. I’d bet 80 percent of the fish brought on stage are going to be spots.”

Howell’s sentiment was echoed by many of his fellow competitors who are aiming for a tournament victory, a $100,000 paycheck and an instant berth in the Bassmaster Classic next year.

But, most thought, it wasn’t going to be like this.

The traditional norm for May, many said, is that you expect a good largemouth bite. That didn’t appear to be the case on Thursday, by and large, with the majority of Elites hanging out in the main river's channels of both the Alabama and Coosa Rivers. They looked for points where swift-moving current would hang fish up in the flurry of running of water. They threw to specific trees that had movement around their flooded trunks, and in some cases, branches.

That’s how high the water was. And the current was moving as fast as 10 miles per hour according to some anglers.

“We’ve had so much current, the largemouth bite has just been off and the spots haven’t spawned, though it looks like they’re getting that way,” said Jamie Horton of Centreville, Ala., which is about 75 minutes from Montgomery. “I’ve never seen it fish like this. Normally, in May, the shad are spawning and you’re fishing in the grass. But now, I think you have to stay out on the river, in the main channel and fish the current.”

Horton finished with an 11-6 total.

Mike McClelland, though from Arkansas, is quite knowledgeable of the Alabama River system – he won the Open Championship here in 2005. He said he didn’t have any preconceived notions of what to expect before he began practicing for this Elite Series event.

He did say, however, he’s doing something completely different in this tournament than he did during his Alabama River victory in 2005. Either way, he’s doing well again with a 16-11 sack brought to the scales on Day One.

“It’s totally different,” he said. “Any time I fish a flooded body of water, I have to be very specific with what I’m looking for. If there’s only 2 or 3 foot of water in the bushes, you can just flip bushes and be happy with it. When you get 8 or 10 foot of water in the bushes, you have to find the right one to flip to. And that’s been key for me.”

Not everyone had the best of days on the bloated water. Kevin Short, considered among the best river anglers on tour, caught a 9-8 total, but said his bite didn’t really “turn on” today. He did say, however, that his best bites came before the current slacked a bit around noon – something that Howell noted as well.

“The biggest thing here is the spotted bass,” Short said. “They’re just a different animal. And from what I saw today, they’re pretty freaking temperamental too.”

Elite Series rookie Hank Cherry has seen a lot in his short time on the tour, but one thing he’s never seen is a river fishery – literally.

“This is the first river I’ve ever put a boat on in my entire life,” the Maiden, North Carolina native said. “I had no idea what to expect. You know what I did? I fished like it was high tide at the beach. That’s it.”

The approach worked, apparently. Cherry boated five spotted bass for a 15-2 total. “I’ll stick with it,” he said.