At Guntersville the timing game reigns

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Thomas Allen

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – On a windy Day 1 at the 2020 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk, photographer Andy Crawford and I put eyes on more than 20 of the qualifiers as they fished, including a handful of the top 10, yet we saw only a handful of meager fish catches. It’s not that the fish aren’t there – after all, this is one of the most prolific tournament venues in the country – or that the anglers didn’t catch fish, but rather that we misplayed the timing game.

To put it bluntly: We could only be one place at any given time, and as a general rule we weren’t in the right place at the right time.

That reality was hampered by two factors, one natural and one artificial. The natural one was the often brutal wind, which made traversing some areas of the lake difficult if not treacherous, and likely reduced the overall number of productive areas. The artificial limitation was our work obligation. If one of the other photographer/blogger teams was already covering an angler or a section of the lake, there was no reason for us to make a beeline for that zone when BASSTrakk lit up. Both conspired to prevent us from making a 30-mile run on a whim or a hunch.

Still, we were around fish, and we were around anglers who knew how to catch them. The only explanation for the paucity of excitement in our boat is that we mistimed the action. We simply got on a bad rotation. Our sport, more than most if not all others, contains long period of boredom punctuated by shining moments of sheer panic. It’s possible that the best angler on any given day may only have five bites. That’s why historically it has been so tough to televise bass fishing live – until the team at Bassmaster LIVE unlocked the formula to make it compelling. It takes a lot of interstitial information and background to keep the wheels moving when flip after flip after flip come up empty.

Guntersville is a lake where the fish do get ganged up at certain times. We need only think back to last June’s slugfest and Chris Zaldain’s frantic last-minute push to know that this is a venue which can produce absolute mayhem. Nevertheless, that doesn’t seem to be the case for the most part this week. The fish are not ganged up so much as living in certain areas, which is why Hank Cherry’s early morning flurry was so critical. He caught a trio of 5-pounders at 8:41 a.m., 9:27 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Imagine if he’d saved that area for later in the day. He might’ve rolled snake eyes. Or imagine you’re the competitor who pulled up there at 9:30, after the damage was done. Your window has shut, at least on that opportunity. Thank you very much for playing, do not pass “Go,” collect nothing for your efforts.

John Cox, on the flip side, is two good bites behind Cherry, despite a start that saw him put a limit in the boat by 7:42 a.m.. He caught keepers at 7:19, 7:22, 7:25, 7:31 and 7:42. The pessimist says that his inability to build upon that shining start is an abject failure to capitalize on the opportunity of a lifetime. The optimist says that he found his window and made the most of it.

Indeed, this is Guntersville, and despite what might appear to be some lackluster catches, there are still a huge number of contenders within two casts of overtaking Cherry’s early lead. With two days to go, that’s a lot of space in front of them, and a lot of time to make something happen. Of course, the clock seems to move more quickly when the fish aren’t cooperating – whether you’re a writer, a photographer or, especially, an angler competing for the sport’s biggest prize. The hardest thing to do is to pull out of a tailspin and seek something better, because the assumption is that if you leave you’ll miss out on the next big thing.

At some point over the next two days, someone will have a little flurry like the one Cherry had today. It may be him again, or it may be someone else. It might be 6-pounders instead of fives, but it’s going to happen, and what seems like a brief finite moment will last a lifetime. Crawford and I intend to be there to see it and to document it and to memorialize it. Hope springs eternal, even as the clock threatens to strike.