BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Conditions were miserable enough Friday that more than a handful of anglers quit early to avoid the freezing temperatures and constant snowfall at Lay Lake.
The first day of official practice for the Bassmaster Classic got serious about 9:30 a.m. when the first few flakes of snow began to fall. Within the hour, boat decks were covered in white and anglers were covered in as many layers of clothing as they could scrounge up.
"I've got two layers of GoreTex on and two layers of everything else," Cliff Pace said.
And he still looked cold.
Some anglers looked forward to the adverse conditions, knowing it would eliminate much of the competition not prepared for a mental battle.
"The cold will probably have a lot more effect on the fisherman than those little green fish," Gerald Swindle said. "It's hard to feel your hands, you lose motor skills and it becomes a mental game. I'm hoping that my many, many back-to-back days in a deer stand has helped me become acclimated to this weather."
Advantage also went to reigning Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam, who spent much of the offseason in the woods or on the water ice fishing in his home state of Michigan.
"This is what I left home doing," said VanDam. "Snow is a lot better than rain when it is 34 degrees out. No matter what, it is going to be a grind. The fish don't bite well when the weather is like this, but if I can catch them through the ice … "
Not every angler that left the water early did so because of the cold. Federation Nation qualifier Brent Long was dealing with the flu and the weather only exacerbated the issue.
"I actually went to the doctor's office first thing this morning and then got out on the water," Long said. "But I was feeling so bad — it's nasty and cold out there — I decided to call it a day."
Fortunately for Long, this is his second Classic, and his prior appearance was on Lay Lake in 2007. That past experience will go a long way with being comfortable on a body of water that is 425 miles from his home in Catawba, N.C.
The real issue with so much snow will be the long-term effect on the water temperatures, which varied between 42 and 45 degrees around much of the mid-lake area. Even Boyd Duckett, winner of the 2007 event on Lay Lake, was concerned.
"I've never fished water much lower than 48 degrees here and it's 42 degrees now," Duckett said. "It's snowing now and the overnight low will be down in the low 20s. That's not going to help things. I don't think the fish will be caught as shallow as they were in 2007 when I won. I spend most of the morning looking out deep, which for Lay is anything not in 2 to 3 feet of water."
Forecasts for the Birmingham area are optimistic that the 50-degree mark will be reached mid-week, but that might be too little, too late to alter the tough fishing conditions. Many anglers launched Friday hoping the snow and low pressure system would have the bass biting.
"Some of the best days I've ever had have been in the snow," Brent Chapman said. "Fish seem to bite really well."
One glance at snow-covered Terry Scroggins throwing a spinning rod with a lure smaller than his thumb proved those hopes quickly unrealized.
"This weather is a little different than what we are used to in Florida," Scroggins said. "The mailman has to go out in any conditions and so do we, but my fingers are numb, my toes are numb and I'm not going to be out here much longer."
Not all anglers knew what to expect from a snowy day on the water. Louisiana's Cliff Crochet qualified for the Classic through the Central Opens and will fish the Elite Series this year, but he has only seen snow once or twice in his life.
"If it does start snowing, I'll probably jump on the bank and start playing in it," he said before launching.
If only the bass felt the same, the first day of practice might have been much more enjoyable. The most bites any Classic contender was willing to admit to was three, by Terry Butcher.
"I have gotten a few bites, so it hasn't been too bad and it can only get better," Butcher said. "When you are fishing water this cold, you have to expect that. I've really just been trying to learn where the fish are and what stage they are in. That way if it does warm up, I can follow the fish shallow. Looking at the weather forecast, it won't warm up enough to make much of a difference."
It certainly won't warm up in the near future. Day Two of official practice will be mostly sunny starting out in the mid 20s and then warming up to a high around 40 degrees. One snowy day down, two more chilly days to go as the 51 Classic qualifiers look to figure out the cold puzzle that Lay Lake is shaping up to be.