A Grand surprise

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Shaye Baker

TULSA, Okla. – Oklahomans, veterans of the oil industry’s roller coaster ride, are no strangers to booms and busts, so it probably surprised none of them that today the typically bountiful Grand Lake was stingier than those of us in the pundit class might have led you to believe was likely. On the water, we kept expecting the fishing to break out, but while there were some solid catches, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to when the bites happened.

For most other bodies of water around the country, the first day weights at the 2016 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro might’ve been reasonable, or even exceptional, but on Grand — with a mixture of local hammers and all-time greats competing — anything less than lights-out catches were going to be seen as subpar.

Of course, not all of our predictions were wrong. Local pre-tournament favorite Jason Christie leads the field with 20 pounds 14 ounces, just 10 ounces off the pace set by both Mike Iaconelli and eventual winner Cliff Pace on Day One of the 2013 Classic here. On that day, there were three bags over 20 pounds, two more over 19 and three more over 18. By contrast, this year, after Christie, Greg Vinson had 18-01, there were two bags over 17 pounds and three more over 16. It’s hardly a story of Pittsburgh Classic dinks, but compared to the expectations, it’s slightly disappointing. Russ Lane might’ve provided the most backhanded compliment in Classic history when he told Dave Mercer that “Fishing is decent here.”

Most of us discounted some anglers’ tales of woe in the days leading up to the tournament. Almost all of them are notorious for prodigious sandbaggery. For once, though, many of the sandbaggers may have been telling the truth.

“This is exactly what I expected,” said Boyd Duckett, shortly after checking in at the ramp this afternoon. “The lake is jacked up. If you catch a perfect storm you can get five or six bites, but there are just itty bitty little feeding periods.”

Aaron Martens, the reigning Angler of the Year, likewise said at the ramp that he “told everyone I knew that today would be the toughest day of the tournament.” Why? “The 5 to 10 mile per hour winds and the bright sun.”

In other words, what is typically referred to as “Chamber of Commerce weather” might not have been what the local chamber ordered. Of course, the last time the Classic was here, temperatures in the teens and icy conditions were likewise blamed for the difficulty of catching fish on what is widely known as one of the most fertile and prolific bass fisheries in the country. No one’s claiming that last time would’ve made for a great “Wish you were here!” postcard, but when it comes to bass fishing, “good weather” is not necessarily synonymous with what is good for sunbathing, yard work and picnics.

“For me, perfect weather would be 20 mile an hour wind with 25 mile per hour gusts out of the south or southwest, and temperatures staring around 55 or 60 in the morning and going up to 70,” Martens said.

Indeed, many of us had predicted that the warm temperatures and stable conditions would negate the harm by what numerous anglers described as “overly stained” or “muddy” water, but several anglers countered that the fish were not yet in a stage when warmth alone would help. Brent Ehrler said that the fish are still in a late wintertime pattern and that this same weather pattern two weeks from now would lead to better numbers and weights.

Indeed, while it’s been warm in the afternoons, there was frost on many of the boats at take-off. James Overstreet and I remarked that our layering strategy worked, and starting at about 10am we shed another layer at each stop – first a rain jacket, then a fleece, then a sweatshirt, until we were fishing in shirtsleeves. One angler told us that he saw 59 degree water this afternoon where there’d been only 44 degree water on Wednesday, but there’s no conclusive proof that the bite was far stronger at one specific time of day. Some of the leaders caught the bulk of their weight in the morning and then culled sparingly while others started slowly and then made a climb up the leaderboard. It seemed like each time we logged onto BASSTrakk someone who’d been off the screen the last time had vaulted up into the top 10.

Of course, the tales of woe are not universal, and this is not all bad news even for the anglers who’ve fallen off the pace. With no one contender claiming a commanding lead – and with Grand full of game-changing 5- to 8-pound bass – two bites in a five minute stretch might not turn a zero into a hero, but they can turn an also-ran into a champion. Even one bite, like Marty Robinson’s 7-pounder today, could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Accordingly, every time we thought about abandoning one angler to find another today, some little sign came along to indicate that we needed to stay. Sometimes we were rewarded, other times we weren’t.

Whether you like it or not, tomorrow is scheduled to be another Chamber of Commerce day. Some will gain strength from the sun, while others will hide from its rays.

Most anglers on stage seemed to predict that things will improve, while James Watson bucked that trend when he told Dave Mercer that “this is probably going to be our better day today.” Sandbagging? Possibly, but whether it turns into a slugfest or remains tough, someone will go home with the trophy on Sunday night. That’s one prediction that this pundit is willing to bet the farm will come true.