1998 Bassmaster Classic champion Denny Brauer isn't quite sure what to make of the Elite Series Southern Challenge on Alabama's Wheeler Lake that begins today.
"I'll tell you, it's been a mixed bag during practice. They're scattered and they're small, at least mine have been," he says. "You know, it's typical postspawn — there are a hundred ways to catch them. That doesn't bother me, but I am concerned about size."
His experience isn't unusual. Wheeler can be tough. The 67,000-acre lake has an excellent population of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. But, they have a wealth of places to hide and don't always bite the same baits from day to day, or from hour to hour. Finding a consistent pattern can be a tall order.
Anglers will catch some in the river at the upper end; some more off the weedy and stumpy flats in the middle of the lake; and more still along the steep banks and long, jutting points in the lower end of the lake near the dam. Each of these areas offers anglers a choice of shallow or deep bass-holding habitat.
"I've had some success here in the past but this one looks tough. (His past success includes an Alabama Southern Open win in 2003 as well as several other solid finishes.) I've caught a few fish shallow in the grass with a frog and a few more on a spinnerbait.
"But, I have to tell you I don't have them figured out, not at all. Most of my bass have been small — not the kind you win an Elite Series tournament with, that's for sure — and the couple that have had some size were singles.
"I thought by now they'd be schooled, and you'd be able to catch several from the same spot, but that hasn't happened here this year — at least not for me. I don't know why but this hasn't been a real strong practice for me. I wish I knew more about what was going on."
Taking all that into consideration, Brauer believes this is a wide-open event, one that any of the 107 anglers on the tour could win.
"This one can be won by anyone and with any of a dozen different patterns depending on who gets on a good bite. The water temperature is ranging between 78 and 85 degrees, and there are lots of shad in the water. That's good for everyone.
"I'd say the guys to watch are the Carolina riggers, maybe Peter T or someone like that. And, there's a pretty good topwater bite, too. We'll know a lot more after the second day weigh-in on Friday afternoon.
"As for me, it's a great flippin' lake, and I love to flip but I'm scared to depend upon it because they can raise or lower the water 2 to 3 feet here in just a few hours. That can destroy a flipping pattern immediately.
"Today (Tuesday) is a good example. The water fell 3 to 4 inches while I was fishing one spot. It really affected my bite. Water movement is not good when you're flipping. Generally, you need a stable water level to stay on a good pattern."
When asked what kind of weights he expects, Brauer is hesitant and hedges his bets. "If I had to guess I'd say maybe 24 pounds will make the cut on Friday, and it might take around 45 pounds to fish on Sunday but, like I said, that's just a guess. I have no idea about the big bass. It could be almost anything.
"I don't usually worry about how much weight it'll take to make a cut or win a tournament. I go out every day and catch as many as I can and hope for the best.
"If you pick a target weight and don't catch it you may think you're not doing well when you really are. And, the same thing is true if you exceed your target weight. That could give you a false sense of security. It's best to just fish as hard as you can every day."
Weather is not expected to be a factor during the Southern Challenge. It's been sunny, hot and miserable during practice — in the 90s during the heat of the day — and is expected to stay that way through the tournament's conclusion on Sunday.