October 25, 2006 by Jennifer Simmons
For most, autumn means a refreshing change in weather temperatures and a chance to marvel at nature's beauty when the leaves turn to orange and brown. But for Stren Series competitors, cooler weather brings the Stren Series Championship, returning for 2006 in its typical post-Halloween time slot. While trick-or-treaters are scouring the neighborhoods for Snickers bars and other candies, 400 championship contenders will be gearing up for top pro and co-angler awards of $140,000 and $70,000, respectively.
The playing field this year is Alabama's Wheeler Lake, with the tournament going out from the host city of Decatur. The Alabama Fab Four - lakes Wheeler, Pickwick, Wilson and Guntersville - are often favorite tournament destinations because the impoundments are simply loaded with bass. But for this event, fishing will be limited to Wheeler Lake - no locking through to Guntersville or other fisheries in the Tennessee River chain.
Pro William Davis hails from north Alabama, and the one tournament win on his resume came on Wheeler Lake in Wal-Mart Bass Fishing League competition in 2005. Davis will compete in the championship by virtue of his eighth-place ranking in the Stren Midwest Division, and he says Wheeler Lake does house a significant bass population. And while Davis expects good numbers of fish to be caught during the event, weights, however, will be another story.
"It will be tough," Davis said. "There will be a lot of fish caught, but it will be tough. A 20-pound bag is very capable of being caught, but I look for 10 to 12 pounds a day to be good. I think 11 to 14 pounds a day could win it."
Weather a big factor
Making the competition challenging is quite simply the time of year. In Alabama in early November, it's not yet cold, but it's not hot, either. The in-between makes the fish a little harder to figure out. Mother Nature could create conditions more favorable to fish-catching, though, if she just dumps a little rain on the area.
"If we have some rain, it would help," Davis said. "It would be clearer. But it's usually tough."
Temperature also plays a role, with Davis explaining that the colder it gets, the hotter the fishing. Competitors can also expect a fog delay, practically a given when visiting lakes in the Tennessee River chain. Davis said typical temperatures in northern Alabama in early November reach into the 60s and 70s for a high and down into the 40s for a low.
The Flats are back
One advantage Wheeler will provide, though, is a lot of water for 400 competitors to fish. Davis expects the lake to fish big, though the fabled Decatur Flats are likely to draw a crowd. Those who go there, though, better look out - it will be a rough ride. Falling water levels this time of year on Wheeler Lake make navigation difficult.
"Especially on the Decatur Flats and upriver in the creeks, you will definitely need to watch what you're doing," Davis warns. "On the lower end, it's not so much of a factor, but from midlake up, it's a big factor. On the Decatur Flats, you don't want to run anywhere in that area because there are stumps everywhere up there."
But you can bet a lot of anglers will be stump-dodging, because according to Davis, the Decatur Flats still provide the best chance to catch hefty bass on Wheeler Lake. Note the word hefty - the bass can be caught all over the lake, but the big ones are often found around the Decatur Flats.
And as for the bass, Davis says that while the lake does have a decent population of smallmouth bass, he expects the largemouths to dominate the tournament.
"Someone could weigh in a good sack of smallmouth, but it will most likely be won with largemouth," Davis said.
And whether you like to fish shallow or deep, Wheeler has it all. Davis said the hotter bite will probably be shallow, but he predicts a competitor or two could come in with a good sack caught deep.
Fall patterns predominate
As expected, the bass will be well into their typical fall pattern, and while Davis couldn't say for sure what he thought they might respond to, he made a few educated guesses.
"It could be won on a top-water, it could be won flipping a jig, or it could be won cranking," Davis said. "I'd say those three things and a spinnerbait, though a lot of people throw a Shaky Head."
And when the Wheeler bass are in their fall pattern, Davis says they can typically be found in one type of place.
"It should be a back-of-the-creek, typical fall pattern," he said. "They will more than likely be caught in the creeks, but there will be a bite on the river, too."
As for structure, Davis expects the Wheeler bass to be found on bluffs or wood, although the grass - like what is found in the prolific Decatur Flats - is good too.
Whether they're shallow or deep, in the grass or in the creeks, at the end of the day, Wheeler Lake is a good place to fish because of its diversity. With such a diverse slate of competitors - the top 40 pros and 40 co-anglers from five nationwide divisions - the competition certainly fits the playing field.
"Wheeler is big enough to accommodate that many boats," Davis said. "People can fish their strengths and do what they want to do, whether it's fish deep or fish the grass. They can fish up the river, below Guntersville Dam - they can do whatever they want to do on that lake and catch fish."
The four-day tournament begins Nov. 1 in Decatur.