By Clark Reehm
The big variable on any of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lakes is current. That’s what positions the fish and makes them active, so the issue headed into the Guntersville event was when they were going to start the water moving. Everyone was speculating throughout practice about that topic, but with Kentucky Lake ridiculously high and dangerous, we had no idea if or when they could start moving water out of Guntersville.
When people talk about the Tennessee River chain, at least as it pertains to our tournaments, the order of lakes goes Guntersville then Wheeler then Wilson then Pickwick then Kentucky Lake into the Ohio River which flows into the Mississippi. It might not seem intuitive, but they more or less run south to north. With Kentucky Lake so high, we didn’t know if they’d have to hold Guntersville where it was, which would mean that the fishing wouldn’t be quite as good. Making it even worse, all of that rain up in Tennessee was filling the Cumberland River, which feeds Barkley, so they were both bursting at the seams. They couldn’t just start it flowing where we were.
Fishing was pretty good on Day One because the TVA ran a lot of current. I was running a bridge pattern, looking for funnels, and that moving water definitely helped me. I think ten of the top fifty anglers were doing the same thing. A lot of people were more focused on the offshore bite and it wasn’t quite as good as last year. But good is a relative thing – instead of 20-30 four- to five-pounders a day they were only catching 5-10 quality fish. Even though the lake is chock-full of fish, it seems that they’re missing a class. Everything is either over 4 ½ or under 2 ½. I don’t know where the three to four pounders went, but they’re rarer than before. On top of that, the really big fish didn’t show up this year.
By now you’ve probably heard some of the bitching and moaning about the local pressure on the lake. Last year was my first time on Guntersville and I’d heard all of the stories about locals swooping in and hammering your spots as soon as you left. The lake gets a ridiculous amount of pressure seven days a week and there are more tournaments there than you can possible imagine.
I’m not going to bash the locals or vacationers for being on the water. Ultimately, as bass pros, we are ambassadors of the sport and one of our main focuses is promote people going fishing. If I didn’t fish for a living I’d be doing exactly the same thing with my vacation time. The only concern I have is that some of them are not exactly courteous. All I can do is try to live by the Golden Rule, remembering the whole time that I would never think of going into someone’s office and attempting to disrupt them from making their living. I have one of the best jobs in the world, but if I don’t catch fish I’m going to lose my ass.
The other issue with some of the “recreational” anglers at Guntersville is that the limit is 10 fish per person for day. When dozens or hundreds of people are taking home 8, 10 or 15 big bass a day, that has to hurt the fishery long term. Right now the place is thriving, but I fear that if they don’t drop the limit to 5 fish they could see some problems down the road. Do not take this the wrong way. I have eaten a lot of bass fillets in my lifetime so I am not knocking those that are looking for some meat for the table. There is such a thing as selective harvest though. Filleting 3+ pound fish is more of a bragging rights thing than a matter of good eats. Almost all the TVA lakes have an abundance of fish in them so how about cleaning those 15 inchers and taking pictures of those bigger fish that have you looking forward to your vacation time every year.
But the conflicts and overlaps on the water weren’t just with people outside our tournament – there was plenty of conflict within our field. This tournament, more than any other I’ve fished, made it clear that the statement “I don’t fish against the other anglers, I fish against the fish,” is a load of crap. Davy Hite summed it up best when he said that anything that’s obvious on the Navionics chip is going to get hit by 75% of the anglers during practice. The trick is to figure out subtleties others miss or how to get the bigger ones to bite. Even after that happens, you have to make a decision whether to stay or go. If you leave, you know anything good is going to get immediately raped, but if you stay are you giving up the chance to improve your catch? There’s never an easy answer.
The pressure plays with your mind, too. One day, after I weighed in I headed back to the ramp where I’d launched and saw three boats sitting on my best off shore spot where the “spectators” had come out and watched me throughout the day. Again, you could hear the flopping in the ice chest… I’d shared that area with three other tournament boats all day – you have to be sure your spot is pretty darn good and replenishing every day if it can withstand that daily attack.
At this point, three years into my Elite Series career, I know which guys have reputations as hole jumpers, or as overly aggressive. I also know that it’s in my nature to be talkative and that probably rubs some of them the wrong way. I figure I’ve got to work with everyone if I’m going to make things go smoothly. Anticipating conflicts, the policy mentioned at the pretournament briefing is that we have to work things out on the water, but a lot of things simply can’t be worked out. The money and the egos are too big. It is not as easy as calling “Shotgun” or “seat check” like it was back in the day when we were kids. What do you do? Say “screw it” and leave your best stuff? A lot of guys will do their best to intimidate you and while I’m learning not to take that personally, it still sucks. People run in cliques out here and they certainly hold grudges, so if you piss one dude off in all likelihood all of his buddies are going to think you’re in the wrong too.
Even if you allow yourself to be pressured and leave something you think you have a right to fish, there are no guarantees you’ll find something else in another spot. If you’re struggling, when a big lake like Guntersville fishes small there’s not much flexibility to find new stuff – everyone just thinks you’re moving in on their spots.
Now that I’ve laid out the bad and the ugly of the Big G, the good news is that I made it to Saturday once again. At some point I’m due to make a Sunday cut, but for now I have to be satisfied with four checks in five events. I’m here to make money and that’s what I’m doing. Unlike other tournaments, I was nervous all day Friday because I knew it was going to be close. There is nothing quite like landing that definitive $10,000 fish and being able to turn to your Marshal for some man love. That bite never came.
I’m grateful that I’ve already substantially exceeded last year’s earnings, but at the same time these middle of the road finishes don’t help you much. You see, in FLW’s point system, each place is separated by one point, but the weighted system at BASS only pays you dividends if you have a really high finish. Right now I’m just treading water. When I finished 54th at Pickwick and just missed the money I dropped 9 spots, but here I finished 31st and just moved up one spot. My big fear is that I’ll bomb one of the last three events and all of these baby steps will be negated.
Even if I hold where I am, if you’re in 30th to 45th heading into the last event of the season, you might not be able to play it safe. That might mean locking through two pools or trying to access a backwater that may leave me stranded. Sometimes instead of bunting with a shakey head, you have to go for the home run. All I know is that the points are going to be so tight in that bubble range, I’d rather have much more of a cushion as the end approaches. Anyone that says at any point during the year that they are not thinking about the Classic and the AOY points, that they just take them one event at a time is full of crap.