JASPER, Ala. — There may be no professional bass angler in the sport who understands the potential of Smith Lake better than David Kilgore.
The native Alabamian lives and works just minutes from the 21,000-acre lake, and he won a 2014 event on Smith with a three-day total of 54 pounds, 11 ounces, that easily ranks as the heaviest weight ever caught during a B.A.S.S. event on the fishery.
But as much as he’d like to believe the fishing will be that good during next week’s Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Southern Open on Smith, he thinks the timing could be just a little off.
“I still think there will be a lot of fish caught,” said Kilgore, a two-time qualifier for the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods. “But as far as the lake really showing out, we’re probably another two weeks away from the good fall fishing.
“We just haven’t had enough cool weather in this part of the country yet.”
The tournament will be held Sept. 28-30, with takeoffs each day at 6:30 a.m. CT from Smith Lake Dam access and weigh-ins Thursday and Friday at 2:30 p.m. back at the access. The final day weigh-in will be held at Bass Pro Shops in Leeds, Ala., at 3:45 p.m.
Through the years, winning weights on Smith Lake have been in the 35- to 38-pound range for most B.A.S.S. events. Even the earliest B.A.S.S. tournaments on the fishery — the ones that featured a 10-bass daily limit instead of the five-bass limit that is standard for today’s events — didn’t crack the 50-pound mark.
But during the past 10 to 15 years, an invasive species of baitfish known as the blueback herring was illegally introduced. Though it is unknown what effect herring will have on the long-term ecology of the lake, they’ve had a profound short-term effect on the bass fishing.
“Before the herring, things were totally different,” Kilgore said. “After the winter and spring fishing, you just didn’t go to Smith unless you went at night.
“Now that the herring are in there, you can go a lot of times during the summer and actually catch several fish.”
Even with the herring, things are still best during cooler temperatures — and Kilgore said the current 10-day forecast, which calls for highs in the upper 80s and nighttime lows in the mid-60s, won’t be enough to have a positive effect on the lake.
“I’ve been way off before,” he said. “But I think, if you give me about 41 pounds for the week, I’d feel really good. If I could catch 13 to 13 1/2 pounds a day, I would be happy.”
Kilgore, who is one of the tallest anglers in B.A.S.S. history at 6 feet, 9 inches, said he’ll be “going for the slam dunk instead of the layup.” It’s a clever analogy that means he’ll only be satisfied with a victory and the automatic Classic berth that goes with it.
He’s made the Classic twice before via Opens victories, including the 2015 Classic on South Carolina’s Lake Hartwell where he finished a respectable 22nd and came away believing he should have done much better. The 2018 Classic is also set for Lake Hartwell.
“I’d love to get back to Hartwell again,” Kilgore said. “I felt like I had things dialed in the last time I was there, and it just didn’t quite work out.”
As for what he expects to see happen on Smith, he said 95 percent of the field will likely be sitting on points “herring fishing” — which means they’ll be waiting for giant schools of baitfish to surface and targeting the hungry spotted bass that are busting through them.
Regardless of what happens, he expects the event to be good for his hometown.
“There are a lot more tournaments on Smith than there used to be, and that has meant a lot more pressure on the fish,” he said. “There probably isn’t a bass out there feeding on those herring that hasn’t seen some kind of artificial lure by now.
“But that’s obviously what you want. You want more people to come visit. It’s good for the lake, and it’s good for Jasper.”
In addition to the Classic berth, the winner in the pro division will receive a Skeeter ZX200 powered by a Yamaha SHO 200. The co-angler champion will receive a Triton 179 TrX powered by a Mercury 115 ELPT Four Stroke.
The event is hosted by the Walker County Chamber of Commerce.