October 23, 2003 by Gary Mortenson
For the first time in the history of EverStart competition, the season-ending championship will truly be a national event. With the incorporation of the new Western Division this year, the 2003 EverStart Championship now boasts a highly competitive field of anglers from all four corners of the United States - East, West, North and Central. One hundred and fifty pros and 150 co-anglers - including the top 30 anglers in the year-end standings of the Western Division as well as the top 40 anglers from each of the remaining three divisions - will compete in the four-day event on Old Hickory Lake.
Due to the growing popularity of the EverStart Series - which also saw a marked increase in the number of FLW Tour pros competing in 2003 - this year's championship boasts arguably the most competitive and diverse field ever assembled under the banner of EverStart competition. Although the competition undoubtedly will be intense, there are some early front-runners who should grab some of the early attention heading into the Old Hickory Lake event. Fujifilm pro Wesley Strader of Spring City, Tenn., led the Eastern Division in points thanks in large part to three top-10 finishes. Central Division champion Jackie Davis of Willard, Mo., finished all four regular-season events with finishes no worse than 13th place. Mark Zona of Sturgis, Mich., led the Northern Division with three second-place finishes out of a total of four events. Meanwhile, Brent Ehrler of Redlands, Calif., finished the year as the first-ever Western Division points leader as a result of three consecutive third-place finishes in regular-season tournaments.
The incentives for EverStart Championship anglers are plentiful. At stake in the Pro Division is a first-place prize of up to $35,000 cash as well as a fully rigged Ranger 519VS Comanche valued at an additional $35,000. In addition, the winning co-angler is guaranteed $10,000 cash and a fully rigged Ranger boat.
Authorized by the River and Harbor Act of 1946, Old Hickory Lake was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of a comprehensive development plan for the Cumberland River Basin. Finally completed in June of 1954, Old Hickory Lake extends approximately 97 miles upstream to Cordell Hull Lock and Dam near Carthage, Tenn. Rising 445 feet above sea level, Old Hickory Lake boasts 22,500 acres of surface water as well as 440 miles of shoreline. The main landmark on the scenic waterway is the Old Hickory Dam, which is located at the 216.2-mile mark on the Cumberland River, approximately 25 miles upriver from Nashville, Tenn. Known for its vast recreational opportunities, Old Hickory Lake boasts healthy populations of crappies, saugers, catfish and bluegills as well as black, white, striped, smallmouth and largemouth bass.
Techniques and tactics
According to many pros who plan to attend the 2003 EverStart Championship, the primary fishing locations during the fall season on Old Hickory Lake will likely originate in the backs of creek channels where shad should be plentiful.
"Typically in the fall, bass' primary forage is shad as they try to gear up for the winter. If you can find the shad, you'll be able to find the bass," said FLW Tour pro Clark Wendlandt, who will also be competing in this year's EverStart Championship. "My guess is that you're going to find most of the shad, and the bass, in the back of the creeks. If a lot of milfoil is present - which I'm guessing it's not right now - you'll also be able to fish the grass."
FLW Tour pro Wesley Strader agrees that there probably won't be many great locations on the main lake.
"Normally in the fall on Old Hickory, there is a lot of schooling activity," said Strader. "The shad will be in the backs of the creeks and the pockets. I really don't think there is going to be a main-river deal going on. But when you do find the fish, you'll definitely know it."
So what techniques are going to be the most viable on Old Hickory Lake in the fall season?
"Fast-moving baits are going to be key," said Strader. "You're going to see a lot of crankbaits, spinner baits and Rat `L Traps being used."
However, Wendlandt argues that two techniques will most likely dominate the action.
"In the last tournament I fished there, there were two main techniques that offered a lot of success," he said. "The first way was to flip a jig toward shoreline cover or any cover for that matter. Basically, you'll probably want to stay in around 2 to 10 feet of water with a jig. The second way is to throw a small crankbait. This should work especially well this time of the year."
Pitfalls and headaches
While many tournament anglers are familiar with Old Hickory Lake, that doesn't necessarily mean that the field will have an easy time in the championship. For starters, the tremendous fishing pressure that exists on Old Hickory all year will make for a tough bite. But if the stiff competition isn't enough to hold down stringer sizes, Old Hickory's relatively new 14-inch-minimum catch regulations will place an even higher premium on catching larger fish. Throw in the quirky fall-season bite and it appears that Old Hickory is gearing up to quickly separate the contenders from the pretenders.
"Old Hickory Lake is a real popular bass-fishing area, and it gets a whole lot of fishing pressure," said Wendlandt. "The lake fishes small anyway, but with a 300-person field, it's going to fish even smaller than it normally does. I don't think the weights are going to be huge. Ten pounds a day is going to be really good. I'd be surprised if it even took 20 pounds to make the cut. I think you're going to be looking at something like 18 pounds (over two days) to advance."
Strader doesn't believe it will even take that much weight.
"I think if you can land between 8 and 9 pounds a day, you'll make the cut," said Strader. "The problem is that it was hard catching fish before on Old Hickory Lake when the minimum keeper length (permitted) was 12 inches. But about two years ago, they changed it to 14 inches. It was hard catching fish back then, but it's even going to be harder now."
Both anglers agreed that largemouth bass will dominate the competition.
"You might see a few smallmouth bass caught," said Wendlandt. "But I think it's going to take a good largemouth bite to win this tournament."