Cold weather defined the Toyota Series presented by A.R.E. Central Division opener on Lake Guntersville. Still, despite frigid conditions, the patterns weren’t far off from a typical winter or late-winter event on Guntersville – grass and hard baits dominated the standings.
Jimmy Washam won in wire-to-wire fashion fishing a lipless crankbait and a vibrating jig in the grass, and the rest of the field fish pretty similarly.
Sloan Pennington picked up a BOOYAH One Knocker and went to work. On Day 1 he says he bounced around along the main river and back in a couple of pockets. He says, however, he was always keying on shallow water wherever he went.
“I don’t think a fish even saw my bait below 6 foot (deep),” he says. “And my trolling motor batteries are dead. I put it on ten and put it in front of as many fish as I could.”
Over the course of three days, the weather went from extreme cold to milder before dropping back below freezing on the final day.
“I actually had more bites (on the final day),” Pennington says. “When that sun came out it really helped me. And I like the wind as long as it’s still fishable, and it was today. I’d rather have a little bit too much than not any at all.”
Pennington says the winds helped him a few ways.
“I think it kind of helps mask my bait,” he says. “I don’t have to finesse it near as much. I can move it a little faster and cover more water and the fish seem to be a little bit more aggressive.”
As for why the fish seem to be hanging so shallow, he just knows that’s how they are.
“Maybe that grass is holding a little bit of heat and they just tuck down in it,” Pennington says. “But, that’s just the way I’ve always caught them in the wintertime. I’m sure there are a lot of deep ones too, but I’m not as good at catching those.”
Jeff McLain stayed consistent and steadily climbed the leaderboard from 17th on Day 1 to end the tournament in third for a $15,250 check. Like most, McLain was targeting bass in the ample beds of shallow eelgrass on Guntersville.
“I could keep the squarebill up above the (deeper) grass and just tick the grass,” he says. “The fish that were back in the grass I was having to throw that lipless where I could keep it up a little bit higher.”
McLain says he had two challenges finding fish.
“First, I had to keep from freezing,” he quips. “Second, I just tried to find grass near deep water. If I could find some deep water close to some shallow flats then I could catch fish.”
By deep water, McLain isn’t talking about the main channel. He says he was keying in on areas that had 12 to 15 feet of water within 100 yards or so of the shallower eelgrass beds.
“The fish I caught were moving up and down all day,” he says. “They’d move up and we’d catch one or two and then they’d move back down. Those fish were coming in and out.”
On day two of the event, temperatures were a little bit milder and 19-year-old Ethan Greene slammed them. Day one saw Greene in 30th place, but an 18-pound bag on day two shot him up to third place.
Greene primarily fished a Berkley Frittside 5.
“I’m just slow-rolling along the top of that grass, just letting it barely hit the tips of that grass,” he explains. “It’s just [a bait] I threw in practice and built some confidence in, and confidence means a lot.”
While lots of anglers put their trolling motor on high to cover water, Greene found an area near a boat dock where he felt fish were hanging and roaming in and out. He admits it took a lot of patience, but he basically camped out and just let the fish come to him.
“They’ll come in waves,” he says. “You’ll catch four or five and then 30 or 45 minutes later you’ll catch four or five more. They’re not really staying in that area; they’re just roaming through there. It’s just constant all day long.”
Unfortunately, the pattern failed him on the final day when the weather turned cold with a bitter northeast wind. Greene had to scramble and fish hard for a little over 12 pounds, dropping to fourth place overall.
The young pro from Eufaula, Alabama has only fished 11 MLF events. This tournament marked his fourth top 10-finish.
“I’m 19 years old and this is what I plan on doing the rest of my life,” Greene says. “This is a dream come true.”
Brennon McCord was way down in 67th place following day one. He climbed 58 places with more than 18 pounds of bass on day two to set him in ninth place for the final Top 10 day.
He says one solitary stump produced his day-two weight.
“I actually caught 22 keepers (Thursday) off of one stump,” he says. “It was the mouth of a ditch that come out and had a current break and there was one stump right in the middle of it.”
He says he wished he could have saved some fish on that spot, but his main goal was to make the top 10. He still managed 16 pounds and climbed to fifth place to earn a $13,250 check (including a $1,000 Phoenix Bonus).
“I couldn’t get bit on red this week,” he says. “Everything I could catch was on purple and white. There’s something special about it. I think it’s something that is just out and not a lot of guys are throwing it yet. It’ll probably have its time where it dies off, but it’s good now.”
As for where he was fishing, when he wasn’t on one stump, the former Phoenix Bass Fishing League All-American champ looked for transition areas at the mouths of creeks.
“I started out fishing the main river where I’ve caught them before, but I couldn’t figure anything out at first this week,” McCord explains. “I think they were pulling a little too much current. I think it sucked those fish back just a little bit off the main river where they could push up to spawn. So, I started looking for current breaks where they could push up into big bays to spawn and I caught all my fish in 2 to 5 feet of water.”
Blake Hall may have been one of the most consistent anglers in the tournament. He remained in the top 10 all week, never falling below sixth place.
“I was fishing 4- to 6-foot grass lines off the main river channel. It’s a pretty standard pattern this time of year,” he says.
Hall calls himself “old-school,” throwing the original ½-ounce Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap most of the time.
“The [Rat-L-Trap] doesn’t vibrate as hard as some of the newer ones, and I think that helps in the cold water,” Hall says. “They just bite it here. I’ve got a lot of confidence in it.”
On the final day, muddy water hurt Hall’s areas.
“Where I was fishing, there was a big shallow flat out from me, and the north wind was just rolling over it and muddied my water up,” he says.
On the final day, a camera boat followed Terry Fisher as he fished along a long line of boat docks. He says, however, he wasn’t “dock fishing.”
“I really wasn’t catching them on the docks,” he says. “People think I’m fishing the docks, but I’m not. Those docks I was fishing, there’s isolated grass right out in front of them. And where [the camera boat] saw me catch fish, there are two brush piles in front of that dock.”
Fisher wasn’t targeting the heavy, expansive eelgrass beds where some anglers were fishing.
“I don’t think they’re pushed way back in the grass,” he says. “I was concentrating on the edges and isolated clumps.”
Fisher says he runs a StructureScan transducer at the trolling motor to better help him see the edges. He caught most of his fish on a BOOYAH One Knocker, although he did catch two of his 15 fish on a bladed jig.
“The One Knocker is just a little quieter, and that’s what it seems like they like,” he says. “All week my co-angler was throwing a regular lipless crankbait and couldn’t get bit.”
Like others, Fisher was surprised by the tough bite this week.
“I thought the weights were going to be a lot higher,” he says. “And I thought the fish were going to be a lot deeper. A lot of these fish were shallow. Some of these fish are in less than a foot of water.”
As early as it was, he suspects the bass were thinking about spawning.
“They want to start moving shallow for the spawn, but the weather isn’t letting them,” he says. “The bait isn’t shallow. You can idle over the ledges and there’s bait everywhere, but the bass aren’t looking for it, so I don’t know what’s up. Bass are just moving and they want to spawn, but the weather is not letting them.”
Mickey Beck obviously didn’t read the same playbook everyone else did. He was the only top angler who went ledge fishing, purposely avoiding the shallow eelgrass bite. He says he just didn’t want to fight the crowd fishing shallow, and offshore fishing is really his happy place.
“I kind of wished I had pre-fished a little more with a lipless crankbait,” he says. “But I’d just rather be offshore.”
Umbrella rigs were his lure of choice, but due to a hefty current flowing down the main channel, he had to make some modifications.
“The secret was that I had to use really light A-rigs, and I actually had to cut the blades off. If you didn’t, the current would take the A-rig on down the river,” he says.
Beck told the crowd that every day he apologized in advance to his co-anglers because he knew that his style of fishing definitely was not going to be conducive to fishing from the back of the boat. The pro also came off the water every day complaining of a sore back after spending all day staring down at his LiveScope.
“I was LiveScoping every one of them all week,” he says.
The first two days it served him well. On Day 2 he actually had the only 20-pound bag of the day, even though he only caught six keepers. One of his largemouth actually got culled by a bigger spotted bass, one of the few weighed during the tournament.
On the final day, his offshore pattern failed him.
“I could see them and all they would do was follow the A-rig,” Beck says. “No matter what I did to it, they wouldn’t eat it today. I stuck to my guns today and just hoped to run into them but never did.”
Cody Nichols finished Day 1 down in 35th place. A Day 2 bag of 15-11 pulled him up into the top 10.
“Which one really didn’t seem to matter,” he says. “I just switched up depending on if it slicked off, or if the wind blew or how clear the water was.”
He added, however, that his pattern wasn’t working until late in the day.
“The first day my fish bit first thing in the morning,” he says. “The last two days they’ve bit really, really late – like 30 minutes to an hour before [before weigh-in].”
That impacted him on the final day, when check-in was earlier than it had been all week.
While he obviously put together a great tournament to land in the top 10, Steve Lopez blanked on the final day. He says his key area got killed on the last day by the stiff northeast wind.
“I was really excited to go out today,” he says. “I was fishing about a half-mile stretch that had a lot of fish in it, but I pulled up on it today and it had turned to chocolate milk.”
A strong northwest wind was blowing in on his shallow flat and churning up mud.
“It kind of killed it, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he says.
On his two good days, however, Lopez says his favorite lure was a 3/8-ounce Z-Man/Evergreen ChatterBait Jack Hammer.
“It just bumps harder than other ChatterBaits,” Lopez says. “It vibrates faster than most others, so it gets up to speed quicker. The bait is moving quick down there so I think they’re just reacting to it.”
Like many others, Lopez fished shallow.
“They’re ready [to spawn],” Lopez posits. “Their clock is ticking, and they want to do this thing no matter what. They have to beef up for that, so they move up shallow, but with this cold front, they’re hunkering down and just hard to catch.”