Mother Nature tosses a knuckler

ORANGE, Texas — Mother Nature has thrown a knuckleball into the Sabine River Challenge. Unlike the challenge of making contact with a fluttering baseball, the goal for the Bassmaster Elite Series anglers has been just the opposite – not making contact.

It seems that almost every one of the 100 anglers has hit something during the three days of practice this week on the Sabine.

"I got really stuck twice," said 2013 Classic champion Cliff Pace. "One time I got stuck on the [river] bottom. There's nothing unusual about that. The second time I got stuck in the air."

Pace explained that he tried to power his boat over a half-submerged log. He made it only halfway.

"How I got off, I really don't remember," Pace said. "Good luck, I guess."

One area of the Sabine has been particularly tough on outboard motor lower units and propellers.

"There's probably $2,000-worth of props in that one spot that has been whipping our butts," laughed veteran Zell Rowland. "Ask Britt Myers. He knows exactly where it is."

Myers was another lower unit victim this week. The boat service crews have been busier than normal during practice, but those problems should ease once the tournament begins Thursday, according to Dennis Tietje of nearby Roanoke, La. He probably knows this shallow river system best in the 100-man field, and Tietje – much to his surprise – needed some serious outboard repair after he smacked an underwater obstruction Monday.

"Mother Nature threw a kink in this tournament," Tietje said. "The combination of low tide and wind had the water level about a foot lower than it has been in a long, long time. It's coming back up, but that's creating other problems as far as catching fish."

Tietje explained that heavy rains upstream on the Sabine have produced a surge of muddy water coming down the river, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico. The rising tide from the Gulf is meeting the muddy water and forcing it into the backwater areas, where the best fishing had been previously.

It has these anglers spread out in both directions from Orange Public Boat Ramp weigh-in site. Many of them are planning long boat runs in search of clear water and a five-bass daily limit meeting the 14-inch minimum length requirement.

"I'm catching numbers, but no size," said Bobby Lane. "You might catch 30 or 40 fish one day and weigh-in with zero. It's a matter of, 'Where's that 14-incher?'"

When asked about his practice period, Pace deadpanned, "I caught a redfish that was well over 14 inches. It was probably 20 or 22 inches."

But whether the daily bag weights are high or low, there is no doubt among these anglers that enthusiasm in Orange is remarkably high. It seems every business in town has a sign welcoming the Elite Series. Autograph-seekers are everywhere.

"I've never seen a place so excited to host a tournament," Pace said.