LAKEPORT, Calif. — The Elite Series is tickling the nose of a sleeping giant.
After two practice sessions Monday and Tuesday that Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin VanDam described as "so brutal I can't believe it," most of the 93 anglers leaving the Willow Point Park launch Wednesday for the final day of practice for the 2010 Golden State Shootout sound like they've been snake-bitten. It's been that tough.
"I think most of us would rather be back on the Delta," Denny Brauer joked Tuesday after practice. "I've thrown that swimbait 1,000 miles and don't have a thing to show for it."
Or, as VanDam put it: "It can't get any tougher than this."
Oh, but how quickly that could change.
This 43,000-acre lake located 160 miles northwest of Sacramento has been locked down in a late-winter funk, thanks to an early-March temperature dip that brought nighttime lows into the high 20s last week. Water temperatures consequently took a plunge, dropping into the high 40s and putting the emergency brake on the pre-spawn schedule of the largemouth population in northern California's most revered big-bass lake.
It's almost a mirror image of what happened last week on the California Delta, when a series of high-pressure systems and unsettled, cold weather produced a tough, unpredictable bite. And it's also the polar opposite of 2007, the last time VanDam, Brauer and the Elite pros tangled with Clear Lake's 5- to 10-pound class of Florida-strain largemouth.
Back then, Steve Kennedy obliterated BASS' all-time four-day total weight with 122 pounds, 14 ounces of largemouth, a performance that included one day where his fish averaged 8 pounds. Seven anglers broke the 100-pound mark at that event, and 11 caught 90 pounds or more in one of the biggest slugfests in Elite Series history.
Kennedy's record was subsequently reset at Falcon Lake, but the 2007 Shootout established Clear Lake in most Elite pros' minds as one of the best largemouth fisheries in the world.
And that's exactly why frustration has crept in during practice.
"You know they live here," VanDam said. "The big thing is, when we were here a couple of years ago, it was unreal, and that's what your expectations are. You know it's a good lake and that there are some big fish here. It's just one of those deals: It's not fishing well, but you know better. You know what it can produce."
Weeklong warming trend: At takeoff on Wednesday, water temperatures had crept into the low 50s. That doesn't sound very warm, but it's a drastic improvement over the 47-degree waters that anglers on a 100-plus-boat local tournament encountered over the weekend.
The National Weather Service is calling for highs between 74 and 76 Thursday through Saturday, and nighttime lows in the mid-40s. On a lake as shallow as Clear Lake, where the average depth is less than 12 feet, two straight days of warm sunshine will almost certainly push the water into the high 50s and even the low 60s in isolated pockets.
"We're getting to a point where, in a normal year, we'd be seeing a little spawning activity in some areas, but I think the fish moved up, and, boom, it got cold and they back off a little bit," Lakeport guide Ross England said. "The important thing in relation to temperature is that the morning lows are in the mid 40s this week, so the trend looks real positive toward the weekend. More importantly, it looks like the weather is stable, so starting (Thursday), things should really start to perk up."
That bodes well in a lake with gin-clear water. Many of the Elite pros have been astonished by Clear Lake's clarity, which is up to 5 feet in the shallow north end and as much as 9 feet in the Red Bud and Rattlesnake arms on the south end. That clarity, combined with the low temperatures, virtually eliminated the possibility of a jerkbait or crankbait bite early in the week and sent the field scurrying to find a pattern that would produce a limit on tournament Day One.
"I've been finesse fishing, jig fishing, I've thrown swimbaits, I've been offshore in 30 feet of water and up tight in 1 foot of water," Shaw Grigsby said. "I'm just trying to figure something out and catch five fish."
The baits: As Brauer hinted, the giant swimbait is a major part of the arsenal this week, thanks to Clear Lake's history as a Mecca for this West Coast specialty. Most of the 2007 field caught their big fish on big swimbaits, and Byron Velvick set a three-day record with 83-5 at a 2000 BASS Invitational throwing an 8-inch BassTrix.
"Last time we were out here, I flipped and fished jigs, and that just wasn't the gig," Greg Hackney said. "I knew enough about swimbaits at the time to be dangerous to myself, so I didn't fish 'em much. I got a lot of big chasers on jigs, but, gosh, I had a whole bunch of 4- and 4 1/2-pounders during the tournament. I'd like to be able to catch them on conventional tackle (this time), but if I have to swimbait 'em, I will."