Lake Michigan fishing small

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The "mystery lake" has turned into a nightmare for the Bassmaster Elite Series. The Green Bay Challenge, which begins here Thursday, has become a challenge that no one expected when B.A.S.S. scheduled this event.

"I chose every site this year, so there's only one guy to blame and that's me," Jerry McKinnis told the Elite Series anglers gathered for the pre-tournament meeting Wednesday evening. "But I got blindsided."

McKinnis, one of the owners of B.A.S.S., made a special effort to be at the meeting prior to the four-day event. He wanted both the anglers and the public to know what difficult, unforeseen circumstances this event will be held under.

The problem arose when the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources put a northern boundary on the tournament waters. The anglers will be restricted to Lake Michigan south of a line that runs from the Oconto River on the west to Sherwood Point Lighthouse on the east. Off limits are some of the lake's legendary smallmouth bass waters, like Sturgeon Bay.

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"When we found out what we were up against, we tried to change (the site)," McKinnis said. "But it was too late."

Essentially, the Green Bay Challenge will be a 98-man, 35-mile boat race to Little Sturgeon Bay, where boats will be bumping for four days, weather permitting.

Coming one week after one of the most successful tournaments in B.A.S.S. history in the same state – the Mississippi River Rumble at La Crosse – McKinnis wanted his frustration understood.

"I'm sorry Green Bay and Wisconsin can't take advantage of what we could have shown them," he said.

As a result, the competitors are presented with an unprecedented challenge.

"As bad as I hate to say it, the bay itself doesn't really have a good population of fish," said Mike McClelland of Bella Vista, Ark. "There is a very, very limited stretch of water that, if you're going to compete to win, you're going to have to be in. It's pretty unsettling."

The weather, in particular, the wind, will determine just how unsettling.

"Yesterday it was beautiful," McClelland said. "I ran across the bay at 68 miles-per-hour. But if the wind is blowing, you can't average but 12 to 20 miles-per-hour.

"There goes half your day, and that's if you don't make any mistakes."

Randy Howell of Springville, Ala., is third in the Toyota Tundra Angler of the Year points race, 23 points behind leader Brent Chapman of Lake Quivera, Kan. This is the seventh of eight Elite Series events that will determine the AOY title. Howell has spent a lot of time trying to determine a game plan for these unusual circumstances.

"It's very concerning, for sure," Howell said. "It's nerve-wracking. Everybody is fishing the same area. The last two miles of the boundary, it seems like that's where everybody has been (in practice)."

Howell has added all the gear necessary to handle rough water, including a 50-inch-shaft trolling motor and a five-blade prop. He has also spent considerable thought about lure selection, believing it might be the difference in what will become the heavily-pressured waters south of Sturgeon Bay.

He has also considered fishing closer to Green Bay, in the Fox River. But Howell, like most everyone else, doesn't really believe the tournament can be won there.

"Right now, I really don't know what I'm going to do tomorrow," Howell said.

When B.A.S.S. announced a "mystery lake" as the next-to-last stop on this season's tour, it was an acknowledgement of founder Ray Scott's early concept of taking the anglers to compete where they'd have no chance to practice or study the patterns of previous tournaments.

But it seems the mystery now is how to make the best of a bad situation.

Daily 6:30 a.m. take-offs and 3:15 p.m. (Central Time) weigh-ins will be at Metro Bay Launch, 102 Bay Beach Road, Green Bay. On Saturday and Sunday, the Green Bay Challenge Family Festival will open at Noon.

All Bassmaster events are free.