CELEBRATION, Fla. — With a nearly $50,000 top prize, invitations to next month's CITGO Bassmaster Open Championship and a potential ticket to this winter's CITGO Bassmaster Classic at stake, the CITGO Bassmaster Western Open season finale on Shasta Lake, Nov. 17-19, is shaping up to be a game of high-stakes fishing.
The tournament will feature about 125 pros and their amateur partners competing in a three-day, elimination-format tournament. This is the last of three Western Opens and will send the top 15 pros from the points standings to the Open championship, Dec. 1-4, on the Alabama River in Prattville, Ala. The top five finishers of that tournament go to the 2006 Classic, Feb. 24-26, on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee, Fla.
Last fall, the Western Opens returned to Shasta Lake for the first time in four years. The big winner was Greg Gutierrez of Red Bluff, Calif., with a three-day total of 32 pounds, 14 ounces. He edged lake expert Russ Meyer by a mere 13 ounces. His success came on 7-inch darthead plastic worms with spade-shaped tails, as well as a brown, football-style 3/4-ounce jig.
From early indications, Gutierrez believes the weather and fishing conditions are shaping up to mirror last fall's Open.
"Right now, the conditions are starting to progress," he said. "If we keep getting these little cold fronts, I think it's going to be about the same as last year.
"The bass seem to be kind of deep. There's a ton of bait in here and they're fat. Everything I'm catching is just really full of shad.
"I'm hoping this colder weather will start getting these spotted bass a little more lively. Get them up on the bank. I think these bass are going to get a little more aggressive and a little more active as the bait and the trout move. The more trout that come up to the surface, the bigger baits you can throw for these spots because they like to eat those trout."
Make no mistake, Shasta Lake is chock-full of bass — especially the largemouth and spotted varieties. Spots will be the main targets of the BASS pros.
"There is a good population of largemouth, but very few of them are weighed in," he said. "And when you do weigh one, it's usually a good fish — 5, 6 or 7 pounds. The spotted bass, you can go down the bank and bring in a 20- or 25-pound bag here easily sometimes."
Although Gutierrez predicts the winner will average just 12 to 13 pounds per round, there should be plenty of action in terms of sheer numbers of bass brought to the scales.
One of California's premier recreation lakes, Shasta is a quality bass fishery. It has 29,500 surface acres and 370 miles of shoreline. Surrounded by snow-capped Mount Shasta, picturesque Shasta Lake was built in 1944 for flood control, irrigation and power production for the upper Sacramento Valley. Four rivers contribute to this scenic impoundment: Sacramento, McCloud, Pit and Squaw Creek.
"There will be a lot of fish caught," said Gutierrez, who recently caught 12 fish in one hour. "This place is crazy right now. You will come out of here with a sore thumb — even on a slow day."
With Shasta's resident bass populations scattered throughout the water column, Gutierrez believes a variety of fishing methods will work once the tournament begins.
"This place is such a mix right now," the 2005 Classic contender said. "You could probably catch some good stringers with topwater. But then again, that topwater bite was going on last year and I snuck in throwing bigger worms up on the bank and sliding them in to catch those big bass that were waiting for trout.
"There's so many different ways to fish this lake right now. It's wide open."
Sponsors of the CITGO Bassmaster Open Series include CITGO Petroleum Corp., Toyota, Busch Beer, Purolator, Triton Boats, Mercury Marine, Berkley, Lowrance Electronics, MotorGuide, Bass Pro Shops and Cialis (tadalafil).
Local sponsors include the Shasta Lake Chamber of Commerce and Phil's Propellers.