Ounces could determine this year's $200,000 winner as 47 qualifiers ply the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, battling the clock against barges and locks and dams, to keep fans on the edge of their seats. Though the three hard-edged waterways, which come together in Downtown Pittsburgh, are their cleanest in a century — supporting fish populations unheard of until recent decades — this year's bass numbers are down.
The bite is more than 90 percent smallmouth, but there are enough largemouth in the Mon and Ohio, as well as spotted bass, to keep things interesting. The largemouth aren't Toho-size lunkers, but just one could be enough to tip the scales in someone's favor.
Still, anglers are going to have to finesse their way through three distinct fisheries to put 10 pounds a day into their livewells.
"It's gonna be a tough little tournament, a nail-biter," predicted Marty Stone, 39, who is looking for his first Classic win in three tries. "I'll tell you one thing, you'll never be out of it. On Day Three, you could come back and win this thing."
Twenty-five anglers will qualify for the third and final day on the basis of their two-day total weight, which some say will be among the lowest in Classic history.
"We're catching fish, but they're awful small — less than a pound," said George Cochran, midway through practice week. "If the fishing doesn't improve, my record could be in jeopardy."
It was on the Ohio near Louisville, Kentucky in 1987 that Cochran, the 1983 Classic champ and 24-time qualifier, boated a three-day total of 15 pounds, 5 ounces, breaking Larry Nixon's seven-fish record of 18 pounds on the Ohio near Cincinnati, four years earlier.
"I've caught five or six keepers in four days and that's all I caught," said Nixon, a veteran of 28 Classics and winner of two, as he prepared to head home from his Pittsburgh pre-fish. "I didn't even catch many little ones."
Be careful what you wish for
Though lunkers may be few, the occasional 7-plus pound largemouth has shown up in Ohio River surveys and anglers' nets. Local tournament lunkers average 4 pounds. The day after the pros wrapped up their recent practice, a five-fish, more-than-11-pound total won the Three Rivers Regatta tournament and the lunker smallmouth weighed 4 1/2 pounds.
Those weights were consistent with the best catches reported by Classic pros, such as Kevin Wirth, a former Kentucky Derby jockey heading to his sixth Classic. "If I have a day like I had today, I'll absolutely win it," said Wirth, who boated 11-plus pounds and a 4-1/2-pound smallmouth on the upper Mon.
Anglers were throwing a variety of lures, though most said they felt crankbaits, plastic worms and topwaters will be the ticket. Three rivers bass are notorious for their light bite, and anglers will do well to keep an eye on their rods.
While the fishery has improved along with water quality, as Mother Nature would have it, bass numbers are down this summer by about 25 percent because of heavy rains during the spring spawn three and four years ago, according to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's top warm water biologist Bob Lorantas.
"It isn't real, real dramatic," said Lorantas, who grew up on the "Mon." "Instead of four fish, you might catch three. But these guys are the best. They'll figure it out. And patterns could change a few weeks from now."
The rivers have been low and clear, as Pittsburgh swelters through one of its hottest, driest summer in years and bass rebound from a long cold spring and a later than normal spawn.
"I'd like to see a big rain come in here and fire these fish up," said Ish Monroe, 31, as he trolled the banks of the Mon, boating just one smallmouth, a 13 1/4 incher, in two hours. "Just give me two more feet of water about two weeks before we come back here and I'll be fine."
"We need rain," agreed Cochran, 55. "Big fish aren't up close to the banks where everybody's fishing. They're scattered. When water's not flowing good, fish aren't holding close to cover. If we get current, they'll hold against cover."
Bass have plenty of docks, rock piles, drop-offs and feeder creeks to go to on all three rivers.
Anglers willing to explore the main channel will find deep holes and some structure.
Vegetation includes coontail and elodea, though much of it was scoured away by the high-water springs of previous years. Local anglers love to beat the banks since three rivers smallmouth relate well to shoreline habitat.
The tailrace of the dams also can be productive in the dead of summer, with oxygen rich water and riprap acting as magnets for gizzard shad, emerald shiners and other forage species.
Recent fish commission studies of the Mon River show that water for a mile below the dams can yield more fish than the mouths of the creeks, and the Sharpsburg pool below the Highland Park Dam, the first impediment on the Allegheny, is one of the best in the entire three rivers system.
An electroshocking done in June, 2004 revealed that, out of 40 fish sampled, 12 were over 12 inches, six were bigger than 15 inches, five were over 18 inches, and three exceeded 20 inches.
Among 12 inch bass, the Allegheny produced 5.1 smallmouth per hour to the Mon's nine per hour and the Ohio's 1.6 per hour. Among 15 inches or larger bass, the Mon and Allegheny ran neck in neck, while the Ohio yielded .1 (point one).
Old Mon river
The Mon flows northward through coal country from its headwaters in West Virginia, meeting the Allegheny to form the Ohio at Point State Park, Downtown.
The Mon is still the most industrialized of the three rivers. It has no islands and is a series of long, slower-flowing pools between dams, which may account for the largemouth that constitute six percent of its bass population.
Owing to its southern origins, and the absence of flood control reservoirs, it is also slightly warmer than the Allegheny and Ohio, and because of run-off from West Virginia farms, and lower gradient, more turbid.
The Allegheny is the least industrialized, and most forested, of the three rivers. Its steeper elevations and bottom release dams account for colder, faster moving water. It also has the largest number of islands and adjacent flats, which gives the river good habitat and structure.
The Ohio, which flows northward through Pennsylvania and then turns west, has characteristics of both the Allegheny and Mon. It is the widest of the three and has a fair number of islands. It also has slightly more spotted bass than the other rivers, although they comprise just nine percent of all bass and seldom exceed 15 inches, according to fish commission surveys.
Smallmouth are the three rivers' main bass species and will be the predominant catch on the 100 miles of water Classic anglers can fish. They also can target the Youghiogheny River, one of the Mon's bigger tributaries, and the Beaver River on the Ohio.
The Yough is renown for its smallmouth bass, although shallow water makes access to prime fishing spots a problem for anyone who doesn't have a jet boat. The Beaver has a lot of timber from defunct docks, which is known to harbor spots.
Classic anglers can fish for 14 miles up to lock 3 on the Allegheny, for 41 miles up the Mon to lock 4, and for 31.7 miles to the Montgomery Dam on the Ohio. With well over half of Classic water beyond the locks, most anglers are expected to lock through, a process that that could cut fishing time in half.
"The worst thing is to be sitting on a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and stuck in a lock behind barges," said Gerald Swindle, 36, a five-time Classic veteran gunning for his first title. "The drama will unfold when you have to decide whether to lock through."
Federation national champ Ed Cowan of Greeley, Pa., at the eastern end of the state, thinks he and other anglers who live in the Northeast will have a distinct advantage in Pittsburgh, which is a non-traditional Classic market.
Rivers are funny. Guys from down South can look at a reservoir map and the fishing jumps off the page," said Cowan, 46, and a heating and air conditioning installer. "Guys like Iaconelli and Dave Wolak and me, we look at a river and we understand how fish relate to current, and we know how to deal with locks and dams."
Wolak, Toyota Rookie of the Year, is 28 and lives in Warrior Run in eastern Pennsylvania. 2003 Classic champ Mike Iaconelli grew up fishing the Delaware River in Philadelphia. "The Pittsburgh rivers feel familiar," said Iaconelli, 33, a five-time Classic qualifier who began practice-fishing last fall. "It's the same sort of industrial water I'm used to."
Besides the Beaver and Youghiogheny rivers, he scouted the new dam in Braddock on the Mon and the site of the old dam, where submerged debris has created good underwater structure. While Wolak says he takes few notes during practice, preferring to fish by instinct, Iaconelli has been thorough in his homework and said he will approach the Classic with three different, carefully scripted plans.
Confidence is a huge factor in anyone's success, and anglers who feel discouraged by a fishery they're not used to will only hand an advantage to their competitors.
"I think it will be a mental strength that wins the Classic," said Gerry Jooste, 46, of Zimbabwe, Africa, and the only angler living abroad to qualify for the Classic. It will be his fourth as a BASS Federation finalist. "Some anglers have probably already lost this tournament because they think there are no fish here," he said.
2001 Classic champ and 15-time qualifier Kevin Van Dam is not one of them. "I like river fishing for smallmouth in summer, when water levels tend to be stable," said VanDam, 37, of Kalamazoo, Michigan. "I like that it will be tough fishing because that's when I do my best."