Luckily, when an all-star lineup of BASS pros returns to the city of Jasper and Smith Lake to kick off the four-event Elite 50 Tour on April 20-23, they won’t recognize the place.
“Let me tell you about the difference between fishing Smith Lake last year and fishing it this year,” said Gerald Swindle, the 2004 CITGO Bassmaster Angler of the Year who considers Smith to be his home lake. “It’s like the difference between fishing Okeechobee and Table Rock. It’s like two entirely different lakes.
“The difference is like night and day.”
The Elite 50 Tour is professional fishing’s first top dollar, no-entry-fee major series with a guaranteed paycheck for every participant — a milestone in the sport created last year by BASS. The 50 competitors earned their “elite” status through combined performance over the past three CITGO Bassmaster Tour seasons or their lofty place on BASS’ all-time money list.
The sport’s heavy hitters will launch the lucrative 2005 Elite 50 Series on the 21,200-acre impoundment of the Sipsey Fork River (located an hour north of Birmingham). The 44-year-old Alabama Power Co. reservoir is picturesque with its numerous bluffs, sloughs, bays, feeder streams and more than 500 miles of shoreline. Smith Lake is also deep and clear – a combination that the BASS pros seldom encounter.
Its waters are loaded with largemouth and spotted bass. In fact, Smith Lake has surrendered five world-record spotted bass over the years – the last, in 1979, has since been bested by several California fish.
Last year’s event on Smith Lake was the first BASS tournament held there since 1968 when the legendary Bill Dance was the winner. In 2004, Californian Charlie Weyer took the $100,000 top prize with a four-day total of 32 pounds, 10 ounces. To win, he fished backwater areas with a worm on a jighead.
According to Swindle, though, Smith Lake will require a completely different approach this time around.
Heavy rainfall in recent weeks has transformed the lake. It now looks nothing like what the pros were expecting to find.
“We’ve gotten so much rain that it’s hard to predict how the fishing will be,” Swindle said. “The lake has come up so much. It’s three feet over full pool right now and came up about nine feet in the last two weeks.
“What once was thought to be a sight-fishing tournament is going to be a fishing tournament now. I would have taken it either way, but the water coming up adds water color, and with water color you can’t see them as well.
Lake managers will likely be trying to drop the water level on Smith, “but they can only drop it six or eight inches a day – max,” said Swindle. “That will have the fish spooky. What few fish that are trying to bed will be all jumpy, so it looks like it’s going to be a fishing tournament. We haven’t had one of these where the water temperature was in the 60s and you could just throw something out and reel it in. We won’t know how to act. The guys are going to have to kind of warm up to that idea.”
Without all the rain, Swindle said the tournament would have been dominated by sight-fishing because Smith’s ultra-clear water lends itself to seeing shallow spawning bass.
“I think there will be a lot of fish caught on a spinnerbait and a crankbait,” he said. “The guys will catch them 10 feet deep and shallower. I don’t think there will be a big deep bite going on. There’s always somebody out there trying to do it, but I don’t think it’s going to be much of a factor at all.”
Beginning in 2006, the Elite 50 Series will be replaced by BASS’ “majors” – the Bassmaster Memorial, Bassmaster American and Bassmaster Legends. The majors will feature reduced fields, no entry fees and top dollar payouts.
BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail, which includes the Bassmaster Elite 50 series, is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.
For more information, contact BASS Communications at (334) 551-2375 or visit www.bassmaster.com.