This story will be updated throughout the day with more from day one of the YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship presented by Lowrance C-Map Genesis on Wheeler Lake.
1:15 p.m. – Final update; docks heating up
It’s almost weigh-in time, which means it’s time to sign off the daily update blog.
The latest happening is that we’ve had some good catches reported by anglers fishing docks. In fact, other than dragging rigs and other slow-moving baits offshore, dock fishing might be the most productive pattern we’ve seen so far.
Several of the top teams are fishing close to takeoff at the lower end, while others moved into the Elk River in the afternoon, mostly around boat docks. Should be interesting to see how those areas have produced come weigh-in.
A few updates:
Ramapo anglers Zachary Orsino and Andrew Annuzzi have a small limit, but their boat broke down and they’re stuck fishing close to the weigh-in area.
Michael Dunn and Henry Colberg of the University of Pittsburgh checked in with 9 or 10 pounds.
Rogers State anglers Dillon Roberts and Brett Fite have a nice limit for about 13 pounds, though they weren’t sure on their estimate. Said it could’ve been a pound less or a pound more.
12:15 p.m. – Moving time
Weigh-in starts in just over two hours, which means it’s time for teams to start exploring Plan B – or whatever it takes to secure limits or make final upgrades before heading back to Joe Wheeler State Park. The weigh-in will be broadcast live, by the way, so you can follow along as the 139 best college teams in the nation weigh their catches.
Updates have slowed to a trickle in the last hour or so. There are a lot of boats running around and some new faces fishing closer to takeoff for the final hours. The shallow bite still hasn’t materialized, though a big bank of fluffy clouds is rolling over the weigh-in site at the moment. Maybe the shade will open a bite window.
Here are some recent catch reports:
Greenville College anglers Ray Hingson and Daniel Ellenburg had a limit when we found them fishing a boat ramp and courtesy dock. They made a nice cull and probably have a double-digit stringer.
Penn State’s Clayton Frey and Derek Horner have a limit and have culled, too, but no word on their total weight. They’re dock fishing.
Caiden Sinclair and Ethan Flack of Alabama wish their fifth fish was a keeper bass. The 40-pound catfish blasted a crankbait. They’re still stuck on four fish and less than 10 pounds.
UNC Chapel Hill anglers Graham Burke and Stephen Smith have three fish for almost 6 pounds.
Zack Montalvo, fishing alone for Tarleton, has two quality 4- to 5-pound bass in his livewell. He’s excited for a couple of afternoon spot he’s got lined up. Apparently he had some good bites at around 1:30 p.m. during practice.
11 a.m. – Everyone is chipping away
Gettys Brannon and Patrick Walters of the University of South Carolina are still the unofficial leaders, while Cole Sands and Connor Cohran of Bryan College are close behind. Chasing them down is a whole crew of teams that are chipping away little by little at limits in the 8- to 10-pound range. As predicted, big bites are tough to come by.
Current conditions are hot, sunny and humid with a light breeze. The bright skies might be part of the reason for the tough bite, at least for anyone wanting to use reaction baits. Most teams are focusing on mid-depth and shallow points, as well as steep banks leading out of creeks lined with spawning pockets, though the better bags have come a little deeper on structure in the mouths of creeks. The two top teams are working deep structure. Virtually no one is exclusively fishing reaction baits. Shaky heads, drop-shots and Carolina rigs are the most popular lure choices.
Other catches include:
McKendree’s Shane Campbell and Phillip Germagliotti with four keepers, including one smallmouth. Total weight is about 7 pounds.
Ethan Flack and Caiden Sinclair of the University of Alabama have two. They’re trying to get a buzzbait bite going, but it’s not been great so far.
Missouri State’s Grant Gaskill and Brandon Duemmel are hoping to drum up a keeper by ripping a big spoon offshore.
Kansas State anglers Travis Blenn and Kyle Alsop have four bass, including one “good one.”
Anthony Thorn and Scott Ellis of the University of Tennessee have two keepers.
Adrian College’s Jack Hippe III and Brandon Herzberg have a small limit.
UCF anglers Caleb Bundy and Jake Carter have one keeper that’s less than 1 pound.
The SUNY ESF team, Raymond Bentz and Ethan Hall, have two small keepers. They’re not fans of the sunshine, saying it killed their bite. They’re working in the shade of a bridge.
UW-Platteville’s Aaron Gohla and Colby Peterson have four, with one good one.
Sonoma State anglers Pete Bizzini and Jake Banuelos have zero keepers so far.
Patrick Henry Community College anglers Blaine Atkins and Dillon Crowder have zip.
McKendree’s Taylor Schmitt and Curtis Lilly have a pair.
Sam Houston State’s Dillon Harrell and Dustin Moreno have a limit.
9:45 a.m. – The action is picking up offshore; South Carolina and Bryan College on top
Cole Sands and Connor Cohran are still at it. They’ve not only filled their limit but have culled up to about 13 1/2 pounds. Sands caught what he says is his biggest drop-shot fish ever – it straightened his hook – but now they’re mixing up some reaction baits, swimbaits and other stuff to try and get one more big bite and cull a fish that weighs less than 2 pounds. Interestingly, they’re considering making a 40-mile run to a smallmouth spot, but the action on their current area – a point where fish are stopping on their way out of a spawning creek – is too good for them to leave right now.
Here’s a quick rundown of recent updates:
Slippery Rock’s Tyler Sheppard and Logan Pollman have two keepers – one of them is “decent.”
Doing a little better is the Bryan College team of Conner Thompson and Dylan Pritchett, with a 4-pounder and a 3 1/2-pounder. They’re on the main lake fishing finesse stuff.
Ohio State’s Michael Whitacre and John Belluardo are dragging rigs on the main lake and have a small limit.
Local favorites Triston Crowder and Lake Blasingame from the University of North Alabama have four for 8 pounds. They’re hopping around near the dam.
Patrick Walters and Gettys Brannon are hoping to make it three straight championships for the University of South Carolina. They have 15 to 16 pounds so far, which is the best we’ve heard of, and they’re working a couple of different patterns. We're getting more details on them now.
Tartleton State-Stephenville’s Dakota Ebare and Zach Ziober have a small limit courtesy of a Carolina rig. Their teammates, Justin Seeton and Stetson Overton, have just one and are on the hunt for a supposed 6-plus-pound smallie that they saw in practice.
Finally, Mississippi State anglers Cody Peak and Jeff Roman Clayton have a quality 3 1/2-pounder in the box.
There’s a light breeze right now that’s making for a very pleasant morning on the water. The sun is shining, birds are chirping and the fish are biting. The offshore action is the best game at the moment, but once the sun gets fully up it could turn on some bank action with a frog or flipping. We’re going to investigate that possibility further in the coming hours.
8:45 a.m. – Bryan adds another
The trolling motor was stowed. Cole Sands and Connor Cohran were ready to head for new water. But they're staying put a bit more now because they just landed another keeper. It's not big, but as we mentioned in the last post, any keeper is a bonus right now until the flows increase. The Bryan College anglers now have three keepers.
Also, Zachary Orsino and Andrew Annuzzi of Ramapo have two keepers for 4 pounds.
8:30 a.m. – Too late for the shad spawn? Waiting on current
There appears to still be a pretty strong shad spawn going on. The only problem is that tournament takeoff at 6:30 a.m. is a bit late to capitalize on the early morning shad spawn pattern. It’s light enough to run by about 5:30. On the flip side, there’s so much bait around that, as one local angler speculated at the ramp this morning, the fish might be able to be picky about what they eat. That, coupled with fish in full-on transition mode, has made for a challenging bite early on.
Cole Sands and Connor Cohran of Bryan College are the first we’ve seen catch a quality fish. They estimated it at 2 1/2 pounds, though we guessed a tad bigger. They moved to an offshore spot in the mouth of a creek to catch it, then said that any decent fish is a bonus until the current starts. They’re on the trail of some big smallies that only bite in the flow.
Elsewhere, one of the Bethel teams has checked in a small limit that includes a 3 1/2-pounder. Zachary Bennett and Chase Williams of Georgia College have one dink. McKendree’s Brock Wilke and Austin Niggli have zip. Christian Brown and Jared Rascoe of LSU-Shreveport are still looking for No. 1. Kile Quick and Mark Adams of Virginia Tech have one keeper. They’re way up shallow in the Decatur area.
The field ended up spreading out quite a bit, at least as far as Decatur and all places in between there and Wheeler Dam.
7:30 a.m. – Small keepers the story early
There aren’t many big-fish catches to report yet on Wheeler Lake, but the fish are biting. Lake Superior State University’s Jake Dorony and Hunter Scharphorn put a couple of small keepers in the boat by fishing for schoolers on one of the community hole points on Wheeler’s lower end. KJ Queen and Evan Owrey of Bethel University were fishing nearby and had landed a few shorts by 7 a.m., while Cole Sands and Connor Cohran of Bryan College had one small largemouth in the livewell. The latter were waiting on some current to flow to ignite the fish.
It’s mostly spinning rods for the crew on the main lake’s lower end. Up in Spring Creek, a half-dozen or so boats are working shallow cover with power-fishing baits. Only four boats ran up the Elk River, which is surprising, and about 10 headed up Second Creek, which is located adjacent to Wheeler Dam. We’ll catch up with those crews momentarily.
It’s currently sunny and slick, with barely a breeze. The water has a nice green tint to it on the main lake, with a few areas more stained here and there. There also has been a mayfly hatch, which had a few anglers at takeoff hypothesizing about a good frog bite under overhanging trees along the shore.
The situation at Wheeler Lake right now is fitting for a championship event that includes the best college bass anglers from one end of the country to the other. Presumably, a roster of 139 teams from every region would include anglers of all types – finesse specialists, power fishermen, deep-water electronics wizards and shallow-water flippers and pitchers among them. Well, all types will find something to like about Wheeler this week during the 2017 YETI FLW College Fishing National Championship presented by Lowrance C-Map Genesis. The biggest challenge will be figuring out where to begin in what is setting up to be a junk-fishing tournament, and figuring out how to pattern the better quality fish.
Small keepers are abundant, from the banks to the Tennessee River ledges. Catching 9 to 12 pounds doesn’t seem like too big of a challenge. Catching 15 pounds means finding those one or two kicker bites to get over the hump, while catching an upper teens bag will probably land a team at or near the top of the standings.
Right now, they’re eating topwater, reaction baits and bottom baits. There are fry guarders and bluegill hunters around shallow cover, as well as fish keyed on remnant spawning shad, though none of the anglers who FLW interviewed after Tuesday’s final practice round was willing to divulge whether any of those patterns had produced their better bites in practice. Several did report catching good bags of smallmouths, which could factor into the outcome at least on day one.
Last year, at the Costa FLW Series event held on Wheeler in mid-May, Bradley Dortch won the tournament by targeting postspawn bass transitioning out of spawning areas up the Elk River. In fact, most of the top 10 anglers were up the Elk, and the college anglers know it. Surely many of this week’s contestants will try their luck there. Recent rains have dirtied the Elk and cast about floating debris to dodge, but that area’s potential will be too much to resist.
Compared to its situation during Dortch’s Costa win last season, Wheeler right now has had two extra weeks for the spawn to progress and bass to funnel out of shallow areas, and due to the unusually warm winter and spring that most of the region experienced, it’s likely that this week’s patterns will be indicative of a bite that’s quite a bit “further along” toward a summer pattern.
On most of the other lakes on the Tennessee chain, that means ledge fishing, but according to University of North Alabama angler Triston Crowder, who lives near enough to Wheeler to keep tabs on the bite, Wheeler Lake’s ledge bite doesn’t set up the same. He says the ledges are deeper here, and the bass don’t pile up at the end of May like they do on Pickwick and Kentucky. Instead, they linger around the banks or middepth transition areas, or move out the ledges in smaller groups.
All it means is that the winning bag is anyone’s to catch, with the potential for it to be caught just about any way, and that’s good news for the out-of-towners who likely have little experience on the big reservoirs of the Southeast.
All 139 teams fish Wednesday and Thursday, with the top 10 teams based on cumulative weight making the cut to fish on Friday. The top team based on cumulative weight after Friday’s round will be crowned the champion, earning a first-place prize of a new Ranger Z175 with 90-hp Evinrude outboard.
The two members of the winning team will then participate in a fish-off on Saturday on Wilson Lake. The winner will earn a berth in the 2017 Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Murray.
Takeoff and weigh-in
Takeoff each morning is at 6:30 a.m. CT at Joe Wheeler State Park, 4401 McClean Dr., Rogersville, Ala. Weigh-ins will be held at the park on Wednesday and Thursday at 2:30 p.m. Friday’s weigh-in will be held at McFarland Park, 200 Jim Spain Dr., Florence, Ala., at 3 p.m. prior to the day-two weigh-in at the 2017 T-H Marine FLW Bass Fishing League All-American, which is being held concurrently at Pickwick Lake.
The tournament is hosted by the Florence/Lauderdale Tourism Bureau.
The weather on days one and two is forecast to be favorable and typical of north Alabama for late May, with highs in the upper 80s and lows in the mid-60s. Light winds will be welcomed by the field because Wheeler can get pretty bumpy in a stiff blow.
The weekend forecast isn’t as pretty. Storms are likely on Friday and Saturday.
Though Wheeler extends about 70 miles to include about 67,000 acres of water, most of the anglers will focus their efforts this week on the lower half, versus the “river” portion up past Decatur. Last year, the Forrest Wood Cup takeoffs were held up the river near Huntsville, but that area is dirtier due to recent heavy rains and is a long run from takeoff near Wheeler’s lower end.
Traditionally, the Decatur Flats area has been a good area in the main lake, with shells, stumps and natural structure to fish, and the lower end does have offshore ledges to fish. However, expect most of the field to work up the creeks – Second, First and Spring – plus the Elk River where shallower bass are easier to target.