BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – On the final day of practice prior to the 2020 Bassmaster Classic, the goals for members of the media are much the same as they are for the competitors. We want to broaden our knowledge base. We want to avoid getting stuck in a narrative that won’t prevail. Perhaps most importantly, we want to turn a simple game of checkers into a master class in chess, coming up with answers and strategies for things that might happen two or three moves down the line.
For the anglers, those goals are complicated by the need for secrecy. They don’t want to be seen on their best areas, throwing their best baits, or somehow giving any insight into their plans.
For the media, the issue is often the anglers themselves. Because they’re not giving up the “juice,” to the extent we get any information at all, it may be loaded with false positives. With that in mind, I try to end Wednesday with a list of factors to consider, rather than a list of conclusions that may be wrong. Here are my top 10:
1. Spectators: As I drove down the edge of the lake yesterday, I was amazed by how many boats were out on a Tuesday. Every ramp had trailers parked at it, and at one bridge I counted five boats fishing less than a cast away. Today I saw fewer non-tournament boats out. Surely some will be out there during the tournament, as they have a right to be, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t impact some of the competitors.
2. Timing: Andy Crawford and I started in a lower lake creek, and we were quickly joined by at least eight or 10 competitors. For a big lake, there’s a chance that Guntersville will “fish small.” Those key areas may produce the winning catch, but it may also come down to who is on the best spots during windows of opportunity. That may require camping out or taking the risk of running and gunning.
3. Water color: Given all of the rain that the region has experienced, I expected more chocolate, particularly as we headed up the lake, but we never found it. There was some floating debris and eelgrass, but we never saw water that looked unfishable. I’m not sure if that brings more of the lake into play or less, or whether it renders certain baits more or less productive, but it’ll impact the outcome.
4. Bridges: Several anglers commented to me that they “hope it’s not won on a bridge.” That may be the case, but no doubt fish will be caught from some of the key riprapped structures. Might somebody win that way? Maybe, but they might also be tempted to stay with it too long based on what happened here in 2014. Which leads me to …
5. Patterns vs. spots: Guntersville is a classic pattern lake, but largely because of the caliber of the talent these days most tournaments are won on specific spots or areas. Which will rule this week?
6. Weather: We saw water temps in the low 50s this morning, and while we’ll have some cold nights between now and Sunday, we should also have some warm and sunny days. Surely these fish want to be up and breeding. Will there be a migration that pulls substantial numbers from where they were during last weekend’s official practice? If so, how long will it take for the anglers to relocate them?
7. Classic jitters: Based on last year’s Elite experience, it seems that even the youngest pros these days have ice water running through their veins, but no matter who wins, it will be his first Classic victory. There’s a lot of pressure on these guys, borne of a lot of opportunity. This week will be like juggling chainsaws for most of them – one wrong move and you’re done.
8. Fatigue: The Classic is a tiring week for any competitor, but for many of these guys it’s their first true time in the media meat grinder. Combined with the pressure (see no. 7), it means that mental sharpness will be at a premium.
9. Record weights: Even if the Classic weight record is not ultimately eclipsed, the mere possibility that it might be changes the dynamic of the tournament. An angler catching tons of 3-pounders may need to rethink his game plan. At Guntersville, as long as you’re still fishing, you’re probably not really out of it, but you can’t let the big fish frenzy get in the way of putting one at a time in the box. Remember, Paul Mueller fell short in 2014 because he failed to fill out his limit on Day 1, weighing in only three fish.
10. Big Bait Factor: Yesterday I stopped into Guntersville Tackle and Outdoors and found the pegs bereft of demon-colored Rapala DT crankbaits and fire craw Jack Hammer vibrating jigs. My expectation is that this event will be won on some power fishing technique that we all know and love, but there’s still a chance that the big swimbaits could play. That might favor someone like Chris Zaldain who is willing to live and die with them for the win.
Finally, if all of those considerations aren’t heavy enough, don’t forget that Sunday morning your clocks spring forward. The ultimate fishing tragedy would be for someone to lose the sport’s biggest prize because he missed takeoff or weigh-in.