Classic: Stay shallow or go deep?

When the 2021 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk was rescheduled for the middle of June, it seemed it would be easy to predict that the winner would find a group of fish offshore like we see often in summertime events. However, after speaking with several anglers at registration, it may not be that simple.

Lake Ray Roberts threw a major curveball at our anglers when they started practice with water that was roughly 4 feet high. Also, an extremely cold winter and drawn-out spring has the water temperature lower than it would traditionally be this time of year.

The water has steadily risen a few inches each day since the start of practice. Traditionally, high water tends to keep fish shallow longer than they might stay otherwise, and rising water will often bring more fish from deep water to shallow water.

One angler who found this to be true was two-time Bassmaster Elite Series champion Jamie Hartman.

“Everyone knows when the water rises, the fish come up with it,” said Hartman. “Now the water is rising more, and the fish are scattering more.

“I don’t think the fish have really made it out deep yet. Some of the deeper stuff that I planned to fish is 32 feet or deeper now with the high water.” 

In the coming days, the water fluctuation will play a huge roll in how the Classic contenders will attack Ray Roberts. If the water continues to rise, it may end up scattering the fish out even more. However, if the water begins to fall it could possibly make the fish more predictable to catch. The 2019 Rookie of the Year Drew Cook had similar thoughts leading into the final day of official practice.

“I think the water could come up a foot or go down a foot and we would be fine.” Cook said. “I don’t think that it will drastically change by the time the tournament starts.

“I feel like if I’m going to win, it’ll be on the bank. I’m not saying that someone won’t find a good offshore spot and win off of it, but I just didn’t find it.”

Another angler who believes the best fishing is in the shallow water is third-year Elite Series pro Brad Whatley. Although the East Texas native has no previous experience on Lake Ray Roberts, he does feel like it sets up very similar to his home body of water. 

“I love to fish offshore, don’t get me wrong but it’s going to be won on the bank,” Whatley stated. “I have been guiding back home, and the fish aren’t offshore there yet, and this lake is about three weeks behind that. 

“Even if the water temperature was in the 80s and there was push for them to go offshore, when that water shoots up like that at least half of them would have come to the bank.” 

One of the few anglers I spoke with that spent the majority of his practice offshore was five-time Elite Series champion Brandon Palaniuk.

“I have spent most of my time looking deep because if I knew if I could find it that’s where I could win,” said Palaniuk. “I knew there wouldn’t be much of it, but I feel like that’s what will set you apart.”

Having fished in nine Bassmaster Classics, Palaniuk understands what it takes to set yourself apart amongst 54 of the best bass anglers in the world.

“I’m not trying to scrape points; I’m trying to hoist a 52-pound trophy over my head,” he said. “The fact that we had the super late spring and now rising water, none of that sets up to say fish should be going offshore but the biggest fish in a body don’t live like the others.”

It will be interesting to see which style of fishing will prevail over three days of competition. The 51st Bassmaster Classic is sticking with the theme of the 2021 Bassmaster Elite Series season in that the anglers will have to adapt each day to changing conditions.