KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It’s been almost two decades since smallmouth bass figured in a big way at the Bassmaster Classic. Specifically, that would be going back to Woo Daves’ Classic win on Lake Michigan in 2000. There were some smallmouths weighed-in at Pittsburgh when Kevin VanDam won there in 2005. But that winning weight of 12 pounds, 15 ounces remains the lowest ever to win a Classic, so while they may have been important, they weren’t big.
That will change this week at the 2019 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’s Sporting Goods. The Tennessee River and lakes Tellico and Fort Loudon have significant smallmouth bass populations. They’ll have to be big just to be legal, as there’s an 18-inch minimum length limit for smallmouths, while it’s only 14 inches for largemouths and 12 inches for spotted bass.
“There are going to be guys that catch a 17- or 18-pound limit of smallmouths and not be able to weigh one of them,” said Edwin Evers. “There are 17-, 17½-inchers that weigh 3, 3½ pounds.”
Chris Zaldain has a photo of one he caught in practice that he estimated to weigh about 5 pounds, saying, “It was 20-something inches. I had three that were 17½ inches, an 18, a 19 and one over 20. I don’t think anyone will weigh a limit of smallmouths during the tournament, but they’re going to be a big factor. I think the winner will have two or three smallmouths a day, probably two.”
It’s that smallmouth bass factor that helps make this a particularly interesting Classic.
“If you take the smallmouth out, it’s a lot like what we’ve had the past few years, like Grand Lake, Hartwell and Conroe,” said Jason Christie, who finished second at both the 2018 Classic at South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell and the 2016 Classic at Oklahoma’s Grand Lake. “But the smallmouth throw a new kink in the whole plan.
“I live on a lake that has a good population of smallmouth. It’s not that hard to go out a catch a limit over 18 inches there. But generally there I fish out deeper, where you’re fishing for schools. Here, with most of the water being dirty and the main river ripping current, I don’t even know where to look for them. I’m kind of thinking they’re going to be up shallow. I tried (in practice) to fish places where I could potentially catch both largemouth and smallmouth.”
That ripping current, which Christie referred to, is another factor giving this Classic a unique flavor. Cliff Pace, the 2013 Classic champion at Grand Lake, compared it to a combination of two other lakes.
“It’s like something on the Arkansas River system, like Lake Dardanelle (in Arkansas). But then you factor in the smallmouth, and it’s not like Dardanelle. It’s like a hybrid. It’s almost like fishing a flooded Dardanelle with a flooded Bull Shoals. You’ve got both species of fish, and they’re both going to be a factor here.”
Evers, who won the Classic at Grand Lake in 2016, likes the unique challenge presented in this three-day event that begins Friday.
“I’m excited,” he said. “It’s changing every day. We’ve got all kinds of water conditions out there. There’s a 10-degree change in the water temperature, depending on where you are. If you go up river from here, the water is in people’s yards. It’s really bad if you go up two or three miles. And it’s five feet low on the other end, if you go down. It’s like when they’re pulling the Arkansas River really hard, and one end will be really high and the other end will be really low.
“I think it’s going to be a neat Classic. I don’t know in my career if we’ve seen a Classic with all this kind of stuff going on.”