Versatility key on Guntersville

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — The elite anglers competing in the Bassmaster Southern Challenge presented by Berkley pointed to one thing that will determine the winner of this tournament.

 And that is "versatility."

 Unlike the Elite Series event held two weeks ago on South Carolina's Santee Cooper Reservoir, the anglers can't rely solely on sight fishing prowess here on Lake Guntersville. That's because the bass are in a variety of stages on this 69,000-acre lake. Some have yet to spawn and some are on their beds. A large portion of the fish have already spawned and have headed back offshore.

 To the 106 elite anglers entered in the Southern Challenge, that means any number of techniques can be used to land the lunkers necessary to claim victory and the accompanying $100,000 check.

 "You're not going to win this tournament doing just one thing," said Preston Clark, who won the sight-fishing duel at Santee Cooper with a record total of 115 pounds, 15 ounces. "At Santee, it was just sight fishing. But it won't be just sitting on the ledges or the humps here that's going to get you a win. You've got to be willing to change it up."

 Fluctuating weather is adding to the intrigue. Temperatures in northern Alabama hit 90 degrees Wednesday afternoon, but aren't expected to crack 80 today. Steady rainfall hit the area Wednesday night and more foul weather is expected throughout this four-day tournament.

 Clark said that will have an effect on both the anglers and the bass they seek.

 "It's moved the fish into the summertime pattern a lot earlier than you would expect," he said. "A lot of the post-spawn fish are going hard to the ledges and stuff.I've been following them. It's not going to be the numbers we've seen Guntersville do before with the 100-pound stringers. But I think it will take 80 (pounds to win.)"

 Clark, who is from Palatka, Fla., plans to target bedding fish early this morning and move to ledges later in the day where he will throw Carolina rigs and spinners.

 California pro Skeet Reese, who finished third at Santee Cooper, said many anglers will try "to find that elusive pattern" today with so many options on the table.

 "I think you kind of have to go with your strengths and what you found in practice," Reese said. "The first day in a tournament, you want to catch a limit of fish whether it's 10 pounds or 20 pounds. Day two is the determining factor, where you look at where you sit in the standings and decide whether you have to play catch up or can just position yourself for a top 12 position."

 Reese plans to fish shallow water today, though he may change his style if his bass don't cooperate. He's excited about the prospects.

 "These kinds of tournaments, they make it interesting," he said. "I think you'll be able to see guys do what they want to do only one day. There won't be very many guys who can do the same thing two days, much less three or four days."

 Clunn's take

 Missouri's Rick Clunn said variety is nothing new in recent tournaments at Lake Guntersville. He recalled one BASS event several years ago where the winning angler used top-water baits while his closest competitors did everything from flipping at docks to dragging lizards.

 "This lake at this time of year is prone to a lot of different kinds of baits," Clunn said.

 Clunn was the second angler to launch Thursday morning so he plans on fishing for bedding bass early then covering ample water with spinner baits.

 "I think the bed fish are going to get picked off today early," Clunn said. "Then the catch will get smaller. The ideal thing is to have a pattern where you can catch 15 to 18 pounds a day that aren't bed fish."

 Arkansas' Jimmy Mize said he's going to fish shallow water today, but thinks other anglers will do fine offshore.

 "You can catch a fish any way you want right now," Mize said.

 Weigh-in is scheduled today for 3 p.m. at Guntersville High School.