BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Weather has dominated the discussions about the 40th Bassmaster Classic that begins Friday on Lay Lake, as winter conditions continue to hammer the southeast to create what surely will be the coldest championship in history.
Lay Lake is part of the Coosa River chain of impoundments, known for its spotted bass that can be aggressive in colder conditions. Lay also has a healthy population of Florida-strain largemouth bass stocked for years by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Conventional wisdom holds that spots are caught deep and largemouth shallow. But with ice having covered some of the shallow sloughs and water temperatures killing shad by the thousands, along with the notorious finicky attitude of Florida-strains in cold conditions, it begs a simple question.
Can "weird" win the Classic?
Can an angler go out with an unusual technique and catch some big spots or a few big largemouths to bolster a limit? Will we hear about a Scrounger head, a float 'n fly, an old-school hammered spoon or deep-running spoonbill jerkbait, or maybe an old "blade" bait like a Silver Buddy or Heddon Sonar in the mix with lipless crankbaits or football jigs?
"I think most definitely it could be something like that added into someone's game plan," said pro angler Kyle Mabrey of McCalla, near Birmingham, who regularly fishes the Coosa chain. "We've definitely had non-typical temperatures and it won't surprise me in the least bit to see something off the wall.
"A man won't go out and fish a float 'n fly and win that on that bait alone. But a man who can factor that into his plan may be tough to beat because he may get that 12- to 15-pound limit of spots and then, based on these changing weather conditions, quite possibly get a flipping bite or use something else to pick up some bigger fish."
All of the aforementioned techniques are effective in specific situations. The smaller blade bait mimics small shad with the action of a larger lipless crankbait. A float 'n fly is, typically, a crappie-sized hair jig rigged under a cork float, similar to bluegill fishing but with larger quarry in mind. The spoonbill jerkbait's broad bill takes the cigar-shaped lure deeper.
Quite possibly, the Scrounger head may be more of a factor for its ideal mimicry of a fluttering shad. A jighead with a flat, vertical face that pushes water causes the attached soft-plastic minnow to wiggle and jiggle during the retrieve. The lure can be changed to match the size of the forage, which in Lay is smaller threadfin and larger gizzard shad.
A problem the Classic field has encountered is a massive die-off of shad due to water temperatures in the upper 30s and mid 40s for extended periods.
"That could be the $64,000 question," said Jay Haffner, an Alabama DCNR fisheries biologist who has fished Lay Lake for 30 years. "It's been reported the threadfin shad have been seen killed because of cold conditions and their numbers are knocked back slightly. But there are plenty of pockets of protected water where they survived just fine, along with gizzard shad."
Haffner said evaluations of the state's stocking program of Florida-strain largemouth in Lay Lake have shown strong recruitment during spawning and healthy populations of fish. Those, along with the aggressive Alabama spotted bass, are why Lay is considered one of the top fisheries on the river system.
"Alabama spotted bass are eating machines," Haffner said. "I saw pictures from a weigh-in a week or so ago on the Coosa and the spots looked like fat footballs. It could be a different largemouth bite than the middle of May, no doubt about it. But they're eating machines and this is the Coosa River, and I expect bass to be caught. The fish should be in great shape."
Mabrey found that out a few weeks ago after picking up his new boat with a friend and hitting Lay for about four hours. They caught 15 fish, including a 6-pounder, throwing an Xcalibur Rayburn Red Xr50 lipless crankbait. Mabrey said a flipping bite in shallow vegetation — shallow being from on the bank to 5-8 feet deep — is possible along with the lipless or Scrounger bite in areas with coontail vegetation.
Forecasts for sunny skies with a few clouds this weekend during tournament days and temperatures climbing into the mid-50s could make a difference.
"If I were fishing in it, I'd go for spots in the morning and then go look to catch them on the Xr50 as the water warms up during the day," Mabrey said. "The grass on Lay has changed in the last five years. The flipping bite could factor in, but I'm just skeptical of it. I think that's about Alabama Power controlling the grass. What they select to kill, to me, is the primo fishing grass. What they don't kill, the fish don't relate to it the same way.
"Plus, another big deal this year versus three years ago is the availability of the coontail. If anglers figure out that bite with a Scrounger or lipless rattlebait they could be tough to beat. All winter I've blistered them on a Scrounger or Xr50. I think the main player will be coontail. Places where I've seen it the last couple of years, the population of fish has been tremendous."
Haffner said the cold temperatures definitely have knocked back the vegetation, which already was dead during winter. Even with ice over shallow sloughs, the hearty vegetation will be attempting to start growing. Deeper vegetation may not be as affected, but anglers will have to contend with stained to muddy water due to constant rainfall on the upper Coosa lakes sent through the dams along with tributaries feeding the lake.
After years of drought, Alabama has been blessed with enough rain to refill reservoirs since last autumn. The harsh winter conditions, starting in December, have not relented. Ponds and shallow river sloughs were iced over as far south as Montgomery, about 45 minutes south of Lay Lake, as recently as last weekend.
Conditions are changing, though.
"In my yard the daffodils are up about six inches, Haffner said. "When the daffodils are up and we get three or four gradually warming days, the fishing turns on. Guess what? We're fixing to have significantly warming weather this weekend. It won't be 60 and sunny, but it will be gradually warming. Fish are being pulled by the urging of spawning and are waiting for just a few warm days."
Mabrey believes the bass are adjusted by now after almost three months of frigid temperatures.
"If the cold weather surged in and was all new this week, yeah, it would be tougher," he said. "But I'm thinking the fish have gotten used to it and it's not as significant as it was initially. They've gotten over the shock of the cold temperatures.
"Something like a float 'n fly or suspended jerkbait couldn't win it outright, but the fish have acclimated themselves to the conditions by now," he added. "I believe someone may have an upper hand if they've gotten a feel for catching fish that way."