DECATUR, Ala. What a difference a day makes, as the pros fishing the second round of the Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel on Lake Wheeler were reminded when they launched their boats at Ingalls Harbor Saturday morning.
Where Friday's launch was characterized by a skyful of dark, menacing clouds and a bone-chilling northwest wind that forced a one-day weather delay, Saturday dawned calm and clear. Except for patchy fog and the prospects for floating debris dislodged by Thursday evening's torrential rains, the anglers could expect uneventful runs to their fishing spots.
Still, a couple of giant question marks were figuratively emblazoned across the wide blue sky Saturday morning as the boats trickled away from the launch site: will the tournament conclude Sunday as planned, or will it go through Monday to make up for Friday's lost round? How many anglers will fish in the final round, 50 or 12?
Tournament director Trip Weldon will make those calls, after checking up-to-the-minute weather forecasts throughout the day. The prognosis doesn't look good, as there's an even chance of thunderstorms Sunday afternoon, followed by more windy conditions on Monday. If the prediction is accurate, a repeat of Thursday and Friday is on the way.
Whatever Weldon decides, competitors were expected to swing for the fences in Saturday's round, hoping to hit home runs in the form of heavy stringers that propel them into the top 12 standings come what may.
As first-round leader Alton Jones noted Friday, a "new lake" was waiting for the contestants in this, the delayed second round. The Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment has risen by almost two feet since the practice round ended Wednesday, and the water is clearing. Some of the Elite Series anglers expect to find the Wheeler Lake that they know from previous experience, while others anticipate that a different set of rules will govern their success.
"I've probably spent about 200 days on Wheeler during the past 17 years and typically tournaments are won on the Decatur Flats," said Rick Morris, who's currently in fourth place with 16 pounds, 13 ounces. "No way, no how this year because the grass is gone. So, the lake is fishing really 'small' in that just about everybody is fishing creeks, main-lake and secondary points, and pockets.
"It's junk-fishing for me, instead of just going with one or two lures. I've got 20 rods rigged up with different baits, though I'm planning on throwing mainly jigs and crankbaits. I would rather stay hunkered down in one area, but I have the feeling I'm going to be doing a lot of running and gunning to put together a good stringer."
Jones' claim on first came by virtue of a 7-pound largemouth. Likewise, Morris moved into whispering distance of the lead with a 5-pounder he caught on a War Eagle jig, and then a 4-pound largemouth that nailed a War Eagle spinnerbait as he made his way back to Ingalls Harbor Thursday afternoon.
Ish Monroe, who's tied for 10th place with Timmy Horton, said his gas tank was topped off with 50 gallons of fuel, and he planned to burn most of it in the second round even though he doesn't plan to stray more than 4 miles from the harbor.
"I'm going to spend about two or three hours seeing if the bigger fish are still hanging a little deep, and then I might go to the banks, and then I might go back deeper," said Monroe, who weighed in a 15-2 stringer on opening day. "I tend to fish a lot of locations. I would rather move than go through a bunch of baits.
"Saturday is going to be a lot different from earlier in the week, but I'm pretty good at practicing during a tournament," noted the California angler. "I think most of the bigger females are still suspended in deeper water, say, 6 to 12 feet, and those places aren't going to get hammered so much as the bank cover is today. I've got to get on one or two quality fish, and just put together another decent stringer."
Like Morris, Skeet Reese held the preconceived notion that the weed-shrouded flats would hold chunky female bass preparing to spawn and now, like Monroe, he plans to check a lot of spots. The major difference is that he plans to key on the shallow bite in the "backwaters."
"I'm down to three or four rigs and I'm going to look at a lot of new water," said Reese. "In practice there wasn't much cover. Now there is, and I'm going see what's there. It's a beautiful day and the temperature is supposed to be in the mid 70s, so the bass should be in the shallow stuff. I'm just going fishing and hope to get 15 pounds or so."
Essentially, some of the Dixie Duel anglers are banking that bigger fish still will be staging along secondary points, channel ledges, flooded creek bends, structure changes and the like. A second group, composed mainly of "junk fishermen," are simply keeping their lures wet and milking as much shallow cover as they can find. Occasionally, some of the latter encounter bigger fish moving up from deeper water to the shoreline breaks and make the most of such opportunities. All of this is playing out in a state of flux, where conditions change from hour to hour, from morning to afternoon.
Ultimately, the issue will be decided by the angler who fishes in the right place at the right time, whether it be in a pre-spawn staging area, or a sunny run of flooded bank chock-full of aggressive bass.
Saturday's weigh-in at Ingalls Harbor begins at 4 p.m.