Buddy Gross had some really bad tournaments in 2016, but they were outweighed by the good ones, particularly his FLW Tour win on Pickwick. There, Gross targeted offshore eelgrass patches for big stringers the first three days and coasted to a victory even though he weighed only two bass the final day. Though Chickamauga is Gross’s home lake, he’s won money almost everywhere on the Tennessee River and calls Guntersville his second home – ask any pundit and they’ll tell you he’s a strong bet this week. As such, I hopped in the boat with him on the final day of practice for the FLW Tour season opener on Guntersville.
We start the day at the ramp at B.B. Comer Bridge on the upper end of Guntersville. Gross has history all over the lake and has been working his way up each day of practice. Because he got a late start due to his top 10 in the Costa FLW Series opener on Okeechobee, he’s running a bit behind schedule. After a few moments getting the boat ready, we’re ready to roll. Coleton Jennings, who runs Jenko Fishing and is fishing the Tour as a co-angler and practicing with Gross, backs the boat into the water and we’re off.
Gross’s first stop is a long edge down the secondary channel. It’s loaded with eelgrass and old waypoints he’s saved for it.
“All my good creeks are muddy, but you can get numbers on the eel grass.” says Gross, who isn’t finding things easy, but has found a few spots. “We fished miles of grass yesterday and only ran into two patches that had fish.”
Gross is an electronics expert with impressive skills. At the console, he splits his StructureScan into a left and right view on each screen, runs DownScan and sonar and two boxes with maps – one zoomed in tight and the other giving a wide look.
Spotting a nice stretch of eelgrass growing in patches instead of a solid swath, Gross drops the trolling motor and pulls out a mid-running crankbait to fish over the grass. Even firing into a pretty brisk wind, Gross covers a lot of ground with the crank, frequently snapping his rod to free his line from floating grass or the bait from the submerged grass.
Fishing along, it’s easy to see why breaking down Guntersville is such a daunting task for the uninitiated. With so much grass in it, it’s hard to idle and impossible to break down by just fishing – there’s simply too much water to cover by casting in three days.
Running a short way, we set down again, idle a bit and then begin fishing down a contour marked on the Navionics map. Weaving in and out and following the edge, the Georgia pro expertly fishes with the current and against the wind, keeping his bait wet and near the grass on most casts.
Once, he prompts me to jump up to the bow and look at the DownScan, where he has marked bass positioned on the grass edge.
“See the fish on the DownScan? That's the most promising thing we’ve seen so far,” says Gross.
A short while later, after a few casts with a vibrating jig to mix things up, it’s time to go.
“I don't know what's going on,” says Gross. “There's plenty of fish here.”
Our next stop is another grass bed, but this evidently is a place that Gross knows well. Dropping the trolling motor without pausing to idle, he starts cranking, noting that the grass is higher than usual. Moments later, he hooks a 3-pouunder and stealthily leads it toward the boat where Jennings corrals the fish, unhooks it and releases it after I quickly get a photo.
Tour pros are well-versed in keeping their secrets during practice and I’ve seen a lot of ways to shake off fish and fishermen, but Gross’s system is certainly slick. A few minutes later, with nobody around, Jennings boats a 4-pounder and we prepare to leave.
“It's like I told you,” says Gross. “When you find ‘em, you find ‘em. That's usually a good spot though.”
Rolling back into a creek, Gross stops pretty far in the back, not really where one might expect to be fishing in wintertime. Nonetheless, the water looks great – there’s milfoil growing all around and no other boats in sight.
“This place brings back tons of memories,” says Gross. “My dad used to love coming here. Everyone says not to fish ghosts, but I'm gonna fish a ghost for a minute.”
A few minutes later, after a quick pass with a swim jig, we’re off and running again – the ghosts didn’t show up on this day.
The next place is another offshore spot, this time a road bed in a creek. Gross has the whole thing marked with waypoints, but he nevertheless idles along it for a ways to get his bearings and perhaps mark a few bass. Then, it’s time to fish.
Slinging a crankbait along the road bed, Gross catches a keeper after about 15 minutes or so. It’s not really the quality he’s after, so after a few more minutes of fishing we take off again.
From the road bed, Gross moves to another grass bed, this one composed of milfoil and in the back of a creek. He fishes a stretch about 50 yards long with a vibrating jig before making a short move to a similar spot and doing the same thing.
With the amount of experience Gross has on Guntersville it’s obvious that he knows where bass are most likely to be. That said, fishing so specifically might lead him to miss something – with so much history, it’s impossible to check or remember it all.
Our next move is out of the creek and back to the eelgrass on the main lake. Because of other boats, there were a few places Gross didn’t have the chance to fish in the earlier portion of the day. Now, he does a little idling and a little fishing with little luck. It all looks good, but the main-lake eelgrass bite doesn’t seem to be happening – at least not today.
That’s not to say it won’t be a player. According to Gross and Jennings, they hit one stretch of eelgrass in practice where Gross could catch them as fast as Jennings could get them off the hook. He’ll be in good shape if he can replicate that in the tournament.
Running up the lake into another creek tucked off the main channel, Gross plans to fish a few spots he knows. Unfortunately for him, the place he wants to start has two boats on it. Peeling off toward a rocky bank with a prime grass line, Gross picks up a crankbait to kill some time while he waits.
Done waiting, we make another short move to a shell bed that Gross knows about. It’s not where he wants to be, but it’ll do for now. Idling along it, he’s excited by some eelgrass there he’s never seen before, and he jumps up to the front raring to go.
“You ever have a place where you have a gut feeling that you're gonna catch them? I've had it about this place for years,” says Gross. “I hope this is the year.”
It’s not, or at least not now. After fishing along with a crankbait, Gross puts his rods up and finally moves to where he really wants to be.
It’s a little point off the bank dotted with stumps and eelgrass – it could hardly look better on the Lowrance. Picking up a lipless crankbait, Gross starts slinging. Though Jennings busts a shaky head off on the rough bottom, the fish don’t seem to want to play. After about 20 minutes fishing up and down it, Gross picks up and heads back to the ramp.
Returning to the ramp at about noon, Gross drops me off and decides to take the boat out. He’s not nearly done with practice, but he wants to make a move to a different part of the lake. As I pack up my camera gear, Gross pulls out and drives off to a different ramp on the lake he knows so well. Come game day on Thursday, we’ll see if that knowledge translates to another good finish to open his season.