Hockey game at Wheeler

DECATUR, Ala. — The professional hockey season officially ended Wednesday night with the awarding of the Stanley Cup to the Detroit Red Wings. But a southern style version of the sport will be in full swing this week during the Bassmaster Elite Series Southern Challenge presented by Advance Auto Parts.

 Even though Wheeler Lake's 68,000 surface acres represent the second-largest body of water in Alabama, most of the 107 anglers in this tournament will be concentrated in a small area within sight of the Ingalls Harbor boat ramp.

 "You can stand right over there on that point and watch it live," said Boyd Duckett, prior to Thursday's 6 a.m. launch.

 After Kelly Jordon acknowledged he would probably do some "boat bumping" with the crowd on the Decatur Flats area Thursday, Peter Thliveros asked him, "Wouldn't it be better if we just lined up side-by-side? Have you got enough anchor rope that I can just tie up next to you?"

 Jordon nodded his head affirmatively, adding, "I've got enough rope to tie you on in the front and the back."

 You must understand that there was significant tongue-in-cheek during that exchange, but it's not that far from reality. Kevin Short predicted Wednesday that you could stand on the rock point that Duckett pointed to Thursday morning and, with a pair of binoculars in your hands, watch 70 to 80 of the Elite Series pros fish for the next two days.

 It's going to be hot here this week. The forecast is for clear skies, highs in the 90s and a southerly breeze through the weekend. But it could really get hot on the Decatur Flats with all those anglers competing for the $100,000 first-place check here.

 Despite Wheeler Lake's considerable size, it "fishes small."

 "It has never produced weight," said Duckett, who lives only 3 1/2 hours away in Demopolis, Ala. "It's got a lot of small fish in it. The Flats are really the only area where you've got access to a lot of big fish. Then it gets over-pressured in every event.

 "But I'm going to go get in that hockey game and be a part of it. There will still be two top 10 (finishes) come off of it."

 Though Skeet Reese sits third in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year points race and doesn't mind fishing in a crowd, he's chosen a different game plan.

 "Trust me, I've fished my share of crowds," said the defending TTBAOY. "This is one tournament I've chosen not to fish in a crowd and tried to find some stuff that's a little bit different than what everybody else is fishing."

 That's exactly what Fred Roumbanis did in winning the last Elite Series event, two weeks ago at South Carolina's Lake Murray. While almost every other pro was running-and-gunning main lake points on Murray, trying to take advantage of the blueback herring pattern, Roumbanis ran way up the Saluda River and caught the winning weight on bass that were keying on bluegill. And he did it with a Snag Proof Frog topwater bait.

 Roumbanis' win, however, didn't figure into Reese's thinking prior to the Southern Challenge.

 "I kind of came into this tournament like I wanted to fish for a win," said Reese, who is one of only six anglers to make all six top 50 cuts this season. "And I didn't feel like I was going to be able to get a win fishing with the crowd on the Flats.

 "So I spent a lot of time looking for stuff elsewhere. I found some fish, but I didn't find any big ones. It didn't feel like I found the winning fish.

 "It's going to be a pivotal week. There's going to be guys that do well in the Decatur Flats. They're going to catch them one day, but not the next.

 Believe me, the last couple of nights I've thought, 'Did I screw up? Did I screw up?' We'll find that out after today."

 The weigh-in begins at 3 p.m. at Ingalls Harbor.