GREENVILLE, S.C. To Chris Lane, the Floridian who will fish his first Bassmaster Classic on Friday, a baitfish is "something silver that gets its butt blown out by a big ol' bass."
So his fascination with the blueback herring is understandable. On South Carolina's Lake Hartwell, the finger-length fish school in large spheres, visible from the surface. During practice, he watched as a striper punched up through one table-sized ball, scarfing fish.
"Of course I'm trying to catch this striper, just for fun," Lane said Thursday. The fish blasted through the school, "then all of a sudden they go right back into a ball. And then here he comes again koom! Twenty-five-pound, huge, massive striper. It comes up and koom eats another mouthful. They get back together and they're swimming around in a ball. It's crazy, crazy stuff."
A bass, keen observers will note, is not a striper. But a bass will munch a blueback all the same. The nonendemic, saltwater fish is what biologists call a "greasy" fish, high in natural oils. Not many freshwater fisheries have them, but Hartwell is certainly one.
"Bluebacks completely change this lake," angler Timmy Horton said. "Who would think that you'll see guys catch them on, say, a spook in the middle of February? But that's going to happen. You're going to see fish breaking, and the bluebacks are the reason for that."
Several anglers this week (Lane among them) admitted an obsession with the migration of the blueback herring, a curious variable even among a Classic expected to border on the chaotic. Among the oddities of this tournament:
• Drought has helped to push Lake Hartwell 8 feet below its normal levels.
• The 47-year-old impounded lake contains a submerged forest "a flooded freakin' jungle," in the words of reigning Angler of the Year Skeet Reese.
• The weather intends to veer from 40 degrees and rainy on Friday to 60 and cloudy the rest of the weekend. The first tournament day promises to be both among the wettest and coldest competition days in the Classic's 38-year-history.
• Among the field of 50 anglers, only four Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconelli, Takahiro Omori and returning champ Boyd Duckett have previously won a Classic, an unusually low number.
• Most of the bass are prespawn, perhaps a couple of weeks from moving to the banks.
• For good measure: Wednesday night, the moon was full.
What will it all mean? Ask 50 guys that question, get 50 different answers. One thing near a consensus is that the winner will adapt from day to day. And if a true x-factor exists among that jumble, the fickle blueback herring are as good a place to start as any.
"Here you've got 47-degree water temperature, and you have herring coming to the surface in the creeks," Reese said. "I've never experienced that before. I've never experienced balls of baitfish on the surface in the wintertime."
Angler Dave Wolak spent his four practice days on Hartwell burning gas, mapping creeks and marking those very baitballs. He hasn't worried about baits or presentation you know, actual fishing because, he contends, emphatically, that "the bait you use to catch them is irrelevant."
It's his public position that a bass following a school of blueback herring will react to an array of baits, and cites Mike McClelland's win on Clarks Hill Reservoir last year as a case study. "The reason that those bass were on that shoal that McClelland won that tournament on was because they were up there with the blueback spawn," Wolak said. "And he caught them on a jig. It's not even a blueback imitation. They're there because of the migration of those bluebacks."
Not all bass follow the bluebacks but enough do to balance an angler's diet. The herring are sensitive to light, anglers said, and ball up at first light. Overcast conditions could keep them closer to the surface longer, however, as might a warm wind tickling the cold water.
Wolak said he's looking for warming water to hold the blueback in creeks and bays. "It's like a bath," Wolak said. "That wind really dictates a lot this time of year, and they'll usually follow it."
And so, it seems, will the anglers.
"The fish that I'm going to fish exclusively in this tournament are feeding on blueback herring," said Alton Jones, the Waco, Texas, pro who is fishing in his ninth straight Bassmaster Classic.
"The easy money is on the blueback herring this week."
Jones believes you're going to have to key on these baitfish to catch the plump bass it will take to win the Classic. But in the next breath, Jones explains how there's not really any easy money this week because of the blueback herring.
"The herring is a very nomadic baitfish," Jones said. "They tend to just roam through open water a lot. They're not in predictable places a lot. You're got to find an open area where the herring happen to be swimming through a duplicatable-type pattern.
Jeff Kriet of Ardmore, Okla., was in one of those areas during practice one day. A school of blueback herring swam by his boat, close enough to the surface for Kriet to see them. But Kriet wasn't close enough to take advantage of what would happen minutes later.
"These bluebacks are really unpredictable," said Kriet, who is fishing in his fifth Classic. "Bluebacks don't even swim the same as threadfin shad. You know how threadfin will kind of ball up? These bluebacks, it's like they're on a mission. They're always moving.
"A small school went by me. They didn't get 50 yards down the bank when those suckers got smoked."
Jones thinks he has somewhat patterned what about 10 schools of bass will do in relation to the herring. He thinks they set up in certain areas and wait to ambush the baitfish. That's not always the case. You'll see areas on your electronics where herring and bass are holding.
"At some point each day, I'm pretty confident I'll intercept them where that's happening," Jones said. "What I'm seeing is short windows of opportunity. You've really got to capitalize on those short bursts of opportunity.
"Once you get that first one triggered, I don't think there's anywhere where I caught just one fish. There were a lot of places where I didn't catch any, but where you catch one, you'll usually catch two or three or four or five.
"That's probably the way this tournament is going to play out. If a guy can get one or two of those periods a day, he'll be right there."
However, Jones admits that herring aren't the only thing that's being eaten by the bass he's caught. Several of them have had crawfish in their mouths.
That's music to the ears of Steve Kennedy. The Auburn, Ala., pro was the 2006 Toyota Bassmaster Rookie of the Year and he's qualified for the Classic both years he's fished the Elite Series circuit. He's targeting bass that are feeding on crawfish.
"I ain't chasing all that stuff," said Kennedy of the whole blueback herring school of thought. Kennedy said his father was fishing for striped bass and hybrid stripers at nearby Clarks Hill a week ago. He caught "hundreds of them" and kept three one striper and two hybrids to eat.
When he cleaned them, Kennedy's dad found that these primarily shad-eating species were full of crawfish.
"I don't know that's what we've got here," Kennedy said. "Everybody is talking about bluebacks, and that's probably what will win it. But I'm not sure it's the main deal here now."
And the one angler in this field who knows the most about blueback herring Casey Ashley of Donalds, S.C. agrees with Kennedy's assessment in some ways. That's because, according to him, the bluebacks aren't behaving as they normally do this time of year.
"Most of the time, when the water temperature is in the high 40s, that's when they come into the creeks," said Ashley, who is fishing his first Classic after finishing second in the Rookie of the Year standings on the Elite Series in 2007. "They're all out in the middle of the lake, suspended in the timber.
"It's hard to fish. It's not something you can go out there and pattern."
That isn't likely to change during this week. According to Ashley, stable weather is what sends the bluebacks into the backs of the creeks, where an hour-long bass feeding frenzy ensues every morning, like clockwork.
"You want stable weather," Ashley said. "Either stable warm or stable cold. With what we've got now, it's like they're in a hurricane in the water. They don't know which way to go."
A lot of very good anglers won't, either, if he's right. But unless the blueback turn out to be just a red herring, they might mean $500,000 in easy money for one angler.
Bassmaster.com will provide unprecedented live video coverage of the Classic this week, Feb. 22-24. We'll have live "Hooked Up," daily launches at 7:15 a.m. ET and live weigh-ins and real-time leaderboards starting at 4:30 p.m. ET broadcast live from the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C.