After two April events in Texas, the top circuit of B.A.S.S. returns for two May events in Alabama, starting with this week’s Whataburger Bassmaster Elite at Neely Henry Lake. It will be the fourth pro level event held on the fishery about an hour northeast of Birmingham, Ala.
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Neely Henry Dam was the first built by Alabama Power Company to further develop the Coosa River. The lake covers about 11,200 surface acres over its 77 miles with about 339 miles of shoreline. Built to provide energy, the dam also offers flood control, recreation and economic opportunity, irrigation and drinking water as well as fish and wildlife habitat.
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Scott Canterbury, the 2019 Bassmaster Angler of the Year from nearby Odenville, has plenty of experience there. “I think we’re hitting Neely Henry at as good a time as we could have possibly hit it,” he said. “The lake looks really good. It’s completely full with plenty of stuff to fish. I think it’s setting up for every angler in the field to fish his strengths, whatever they might be.”
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The Gadsden City Boat Docks at 200 Lake Street is tournament central, with daily takeoffs set for 5:40 a.m. CT and weigh-ins on the grounds at 2 p.m. CT. All B.A.S.S. activities are free. Expos will be held Saturday and Sunday beginning at noon.
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This will be the first Elite event held on Neely Henry. Last October, Cody Bird of Granbury, Texas, caught 34 pounds, 1 ounce over three days to win the Basspro.com Central Open there. Bird ran up river and fished fast, hitting 100 spots and making 1,000 casts a day as bites were scarce that time of year.
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Several anglers have parlayed decent finishes at Neely Henry in 2020. Matt Robertson turned around his season with a second-place finish in the Open, and he went on to secure his second Classic berth with a victory at Cherokee. Robertson finished out strong in the Opens to take third overall in points and qualify to fish the Elites, where he is second in the Rookie of the Year standings.
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Bryan New had some big doings — he got married — before heading to Gadsden last October. While his tournament wasn’t much to speak of, he went on to win the overall Opens title to make the 2021 Elites, where he started with a bang by winning his first event at the St. Johns River.
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Jason Christie finished seventh at Neely Henry on his way to requalifying for the Elites after a couple years on another circuit. He too has scored an Elite victory in 2021, taking the title on the Sabine River.
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The hits keep coming from Neely Henry’s top finishers. Joey Nania, who shows off a fish that helped him finish sixth in October, finally broke through with an Open victory last week at Pickwick Lake, thus qualifying for the 2022 Bassmaster Classic.
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How about the trifecta of Elite winners who fished the Neely Henry Open? Lee Livesay, plying one of the bridges last year in taking 25th, is coming off a historic Elite win on Lake Fork.
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Livesay, landing a 9-2 that helped him build the third largest five-fish bag in B.A.S.S. history at 42-3, said while Neely Henry might not be in its prime, the fishery offers a lot of opportunities. “It’s still full of largemouth and big spots — a lot of river grass, a lot of rocks, lot of wood, current, docks, backwater, river,” he said. “It’s really long. It doesn’t fish small. I’ve only been there once, but it can really spread you out just fishing cover.”
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Davy Hite won an Alabama Top 100 there in 1996, catching 55 pounds, which might be enough to earn a blue trophy this week. Livesay said his guess of 15 to 16 pounds a day might be a tad high. Canterbury said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a couple 20-pound bags. “There’ll be chances to catch fish any way you want,” he said. “There’ll be fish caught flipping, fish caught on moving baits and fish caught on topwaters. If you like dragging, I think there’ll be an offshore bite for that. There’ll be lots and lots of limits caught — and in my mind, that makes for an exciting tournament.”
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The weather might throw best-laid plans a curve, like six weeks earlier at Pickwick Lake when heavy rains required anglers to make major adjustments as water levels rose 6 feet. Anglers had to dodge lightning in practice Monday and storms all Tuesday and into Wednesday will alter conditions. The temperatures are expected to rise through clear competition days.
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There will be 98 anglers fishing Thursday and Friday — Gary Clouse has taken a medical hardship — vying for the five heaviest largemouth and spotted bass, which must measure at least 12 inches. The field will be cut to 48 for Saturday’s semifinal round and the Top 10 will vie for the $100,000 first-place prize on Championship Sunday.
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With the early launch times, Bassmaster LIVE air times are moved up an hour to 7 a.m. ET. On the weekend days, Fox Sports 1 picks up coverage at 8 a.m. ET and runs until 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and until noon ET on Sunday.