A 'Loaded' Lake

MONETA, Va. — Oh, if only this fight were at night.

As the Bassmaster Elite Series pros launched on the first morning of the Blue Ridge Brawl presented by Advance Auto Parts, they praised picturesque Smith Mountain Lake for its stock of plump bass. But they renewed the ancient angler's lament: It's one thing to know where the fish are, but entirely another to get 'em to bite.

"Clear water, high pressure," said John Murray as he sat first in line to take off. "They sit and look at baits during the day. You might fool them at night.

"This is just one of those lakes where you can't get a reading."

Murray's has been a common sentiment this week. Anglers predicted that this first summer-season tournament — with forecast highs in the low 90s for Thursday and Friday — would produce low weights, stir many anglers to junk-fish, and reward power fishermen who pounded shade and cover. But as Lee Bailey put it on Wednesday: "The fish are kind of in that post-spawn funk right now, so the lake's going to be weird."

Asked what he foresaw in this tournament, Ish Monroe replied, "There's freaky stuff going on." For one, he was launching with only five rods rigged. "When times are tough," he said, "go with the basics." And although he didn't seem enthusiastic about his prospects, he did say the winner will need to catch 18 pounds a day.

"They're in here," Steve Kennedy said seconds before he took off. "This place is loaded. It's just a matter of catching them, and I'm not sure I can."

Other indicators pointed to a leaner-than-usual tournament. After some hunting, a news crew tracked down hometown hero John Crews and asked him to talk about the tournament. Normally in this situation, an angler loves nothing more than to blow a lot of hot air about how the local lake is a bass Mecca that BASS will be showcasing for all the world to see.

Crews, though, soft-pedaled his expectations. He told the interviewer "these are the world's best fishermen, and they'll probably find stuff that has never been found at Smith Mountain Lake." And admitted away from the camera: "There will be some good fish weighed in. But some guys will struggle."

One who had been struggling was Kenyon Hill. Well before dawn, as he splayed a pile of rods across the deck of his boat, he said, "That ought to be enough to catch some fish." Not that he convinced himself with his arsenal. "I'm not catching them very good," he said.

He was asked how the high temperatures would affect the fishing. The heavyset angler shrugged underneath a loose-fitting sweatshirt.

"What would be adverse, weather-wise, would be a high of 40 for a few nights in a row, or flooding," Hill said. "You can see nice fish, but they're not necessarily feeding. They're feeding at night."

He then asked how hot it was going to be. Low 90s, he was told.

"I might be down to my shorts," he said. "Big ol' white belly sticking out." He turned to his co-angler and said, "You might puke."

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