Lake Wheeler preview – Decatur, Alabama

He'll spend much of the week fishing Guntersville but He would rather be on Wheeler Lake in north Alabama. He would have been one of the odds-on favorites to win the Southern Challenge which begins Thursday.

He would have been one of the odds-on favorites to win the Southern Challenge which begins Thursday on Wheeler Lake in north Alabama.

Thirty-five years of experience on a body of water will do that for you. Living two minutes from the boat launch the Elite anglers will utilize this week will do that for you. Victories in more than 60 club and open tournaments on one body of water will do that for you.

But Jimmy Mason won't be on Wheeler Lake for the Southern Challenge. An Elite Series angler in 2007 and a qualifier for the tour the year before, Mason sat out the 2008 campaign. Though he's aiming to return to the Elite Series in 2009, not being able to fish against the world's best anglers on a lake he knows so well is tearing him up inside.

"I've been hoping for a snowstorm this week," he said half jokingly from his home in Rogersville, Alabama. "It's not very fun sitting on the sidelines."

But the Elites can learn from Mason and his wealth of knowledge on Wheeler.

So what does he expect to unfold this week?

"It's post-spawn right now," he said. "That's the typical pattern this time of year. The vast majority of fish will be out deeper. It should be won that way, on a deep crank bite with a football head or a Carolina rig."

Surely, the overwhelming majority of the competitors in the Southern Challenge share Mason's sentiments. But he said there could be a curveball coming their way.

"We had a major rainstorm here last Tuesday," Mason said. "It was almost a flood really. The little town where I live, we had 11 inches of rain. So those conditions, and with the spawn over, shallow patterns may be working better than usual. More checks should be made shallow than in a typical year. The water is colored and it's high. So the first couple of days could be interesting. But by the end of the tournament, because no rain is forecast, the deeper water should be the key."

High temperatures are expected to stay near 90 degrees throughout the event, which further solidifies Mason's belief that fishing ledges in 12 to 18 feet of water will be the winning strategy.

"It's definitely summer fishing," he said.

Mason said the anglers who excel in such conditions are his favorites to compete for the Southern Challenge title.

"(Alabama pro) Timmy Horton will be tough," Mason predicted. "All the structure fishermen. Mark Davis. (Kevin) VanDam, I would think. (Edwin) Evers, he likes offshore stuff. Russ Lane is a good structure fisherman and he's from Alabama. So look out for him."

The past few Southern Challenge tournaments were held on nearby Lake Guntersville. This will be the first BASS event on Wheeler since 2003. Mason said the Elites can expect a few differences between the two lakes.

"It should take 65 pounds to win, no more than that," he said. "It's not like Guntersville where you'll have a bunch of 20 (pound sacks). You'll have a few, but you'll have a lot more 13s and 15s."

Mason said he'll spend much of the week fishing Guntersville. But there's someplace else he'd rather be.

"I wish I was on Wheeler," he said. "Of all the tournaments, I was looking forward to this one most of all. So it's hard. But I'll be back."