The 2014 Bassmaster Classic kicks off Feb. 21 at Lake Guntersville in Alabama, when 56 pros will launch in a quest to hook bass fishing's most coveted prize. And although the Classic is no stranger to Alabama — the state has hosted more Classics than any other — 2014 will mark the first Guntersville Classic in 38 years. The change is good, though, because Guntersville might just be the premier bass lake in North America and it could take more than 30 pounds a day (a 5-pound-per-fish average) to win this Classic.
How To Get To 30
There's a very critical formula behind any Bassmaster Classic-winning pattern. It's not enough to find the biggest group of fish, or the best group of big fish. In order to win a Classic, an angler must find the group of fish best suited to win — meaning, best isolated against boat pressure and potential local obstruction over 3 grueling days of competition.
The winning angler also needs to sit back just the right amount on day 1 to sneak under the radar. Nobody wants to lead day 1 of the Classic, because he or she will inevitably face an onslaught of spectator-boat traffic the next day, and many of those boats will certainly park themselves right on top of the winning fish.
With that in mind, here are the three patterns most likely to win the upcoming 2014 Bassmaster Classic.
Pattern 1: Trappin' In The Backs
Weather will be a huge determiner in this Classic.
The Classic used to take place in the dead of summer, when conditions were more stable, but B.A.S.S. moved it to late winter to kick off the season, rather than end it (think Daytona 500). So water temperature and fish phase can vary greatly.
Right now, everyone's wondering whether the fish will enter into their pre-spawn mode and move into creeks. If the water's warm enough, they will. That happened the last time the Classic visited Alabama: Kevin VanDam won with a rattlebait (generic term for a Rat-L-Trap-style lure) way back in a creek at Lay Lake.
VanDam won again the next year doing the same thing at New Orleans, when the pre-spawn fish moved en masse into a backwater spawning pond.
The creek-back bite is particularly fragile — boat wakes from spectators can quickly wreck it — but the tradeoff is replenishment: new fish might arrive in the creek by each morning or throughout the day, ready to eat.
Pattern 2: Swimbait in A-Rig Waters
The Alabama Rig revolutionized winter fishing on the Tennessee River chain with stunningly ridiculous catches. Ever catch three 5-pound bass on the same cast? You can do it with the Alabama Rig. The bad news for anglers is that The A-Rig is banned from Bassmaster competition. But the good news is the rig did reveal how easy it can be to catch deep winter bass, and competitors have adapted.
Instead of throwing five or six swimbaits at the same time on the Alabama Rig, competitors now have the confidence to throw a single, legal swimbait or Fish Head Spin to deep fish. If the water stays cold and fish don't make a mass move into a true pre-spawn phase, this could easily become the winning pattern.
Everyone will be looking for it, and locals will be fishing it too, so it's exposed. Still, if it stays cold, this will probably be the pattern to beat.
Pattern 3: The Jerkbait
There's plenty of holdover grass in the lake, although a lot of it recently broke loose due to heavy rains. But if the sun comes out and things turn right, the jerkbait could do a ton of damage.
Think back to 2004 and remember when George Cochran stunned the world in late-February when he fished close to the ramp with a jerkbait and weighed a 99-pound, 10-ounce, 4-day limit to win the Guntersville Bassmaster Tour stop. There were times Cochran was throwing back 5-pounders because they wouldn't cull what he already had in his livewell. It was an afternoon bite and it sparked a winter-jerkbait renaissance that's still going strong at the venue.
Again, though, conditions have to set up. Sun helps. Good grass helps. Clear water helps. Quiet helps. Patience helps. That's an awful long needs list.
Take a look at the patterns that have won Bassmaster from the past ten years:
2004: Takahiro Omori
Lake Wylie, SC
Takahiro Omori conquered Lake Wylie in 2004 by flipping a jig and plastics to deeper laydowns. On the final day he cranked the laydowns and caught the winning fish in the closing minutes of fishing.
All photos courtesy B.A.S.S.
2005: Kevin VanDam
Three Rivers, PA
Kevin VanDam won the ultra-tough 2005 Classic at the Three Rivers by throwing a vintage Smithwick Rattling Rogue to the up-current sides of points and bridge pilings. He won with a 3-day total of 11 fish for 12 pounds, 15 ounces.
2006: Luke Clausen
Kissimmee Chain, FL
Luke Clausen captured the 2006 Classic Crown by fishing shallow in Jack\'s Slough with a worm. The main factor in his success? "Fishing very slow and thorough," he told the media.
2007: Boyd Duckett
Lay Lake, AL
Boyd Duckett broke the jinx and become the first local angler to ever win a Classic when he runned and gunned around Lay Lake throwing an array of baits to targets like wood and docks.
2008: Alton Jones
Lake Hartwell, SC
Alton Jones targeted wintering fish at the bottom of a creek channel with spoons and jigs. His primary targets were flooded trees within the creek channel in 28 to 35 feet of water.
2009: Skeet Reese
Red River, LA
Bobo\'s Hole on the Red River held the winning fish — lots of folks knew that — but Reese put himself in perfect position within Bobo\'s and intercepted migrating fish by throwing a spinnerbait and flipping a craw.
2010: Kevin VanDam
Lay Lake, AL
Kevin VanDam threw a rattlebait in the back of a creek to capture the Classic crown at Lay in 2010. He fished next to his good friend and runner-up Jeff Kriet.
2011: Kevin VanDam
Mississippi River, LA
The 2011 Bassmaster Classic in New Orleans was decided in a backwater named Lake Cataouatche, where Kevin VanDam banged a square-bill crankbait off stumps to catch staging fish.
2012: Chris Lane
Red River, LA
Chris Lane fished Pools 4 and 5 on the red and pitched a creature bait to wood and vegetation. He credited the victory to his "willingness to win."
2013: Cliff Pace
Grand Lake, OK
Cliff Pace tossed a jig to very specific targets — areas where the bottom transitioned from big rock to gravel around the first channel swing inside a creek.
What The G-Ville Gurus Say
Speculation is one thing, ultra-expert opinion in another, and when it comes to ultra-experts, guides Jimmy Mason and Lee Pitts certainly stand out. Mason is widely regarded as the No. 1 guide on Alabama's Tennessee River lakes, and Pitts is a Guntersville junkie. Especially interesting about Pitts is that he focuses heavily on crappie, as well as bass, and that dual-species approach means Pitts runs into the occasional oddball bass pattern.
Mason, judging by the colder-than-average winter thus far, feels the Classic will be "a main-lake deal" — meaning, it won't be won in the backs of creeks. Mason told G&F:
"I think those big groups of fish that are staging up and getting ready to move — those groups of fish that guys will be catching on the Yumbrella (Alabama) Rigs — I think that's what's going to win it. We've had, extremely cold weather and there's a massive shad kill going on right now, and those two factors mean the deeper-water bite is going to be a huge deal."
Mason was quick to point out that certain areas of the lake will have the best fish and things could get cramped. "You've got those schools of big ones that move together and come up on certain areas of the lake. When it comes down to pounds-per-fish average, I think you're going to see a lot of the guys who make the top-25 and top-12 cuts fishing the same general 7- or 8-mile area."
Pitts isn't quite ready to place his bet on a winning pattern just yet — too much depends on water temperature, he said. And he mentioned the three patterns above — swimbaits, jerkbaits and rattlebaits — but he also noted how an oddball pattern could play.
"There are an awful lot of fish in this lake that stay shallow all year long," Pitts said. "They'll be in backwaters and off main-river channels. It's such a big body of water that there are still some overlooked places. When they start pulling water, fish can get on very specific pieces of cover in shallower areas that are closer to the main lake and an angler who knows the water could pick those areas apart and catch a lot of weight shallow. You never know."
Which pattern do YOU think will win? Comment below and be sure to check out BassFan.com for up-to-the-minute news and coverage on all things bass! Check out the U.S. record bass on In-Fisherman, while you're at it.