UPCOMING EVENT: PHOENIX BASS FISHING LEAGUE - 2020 - Sam Rayburn Reservoir

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FLW Tour preview: Lake Wheeler – Feb. 13-16

Anglers predict cold weather, tough fishing conditions and plenty of strategy

If last month's FLW tourney on Lake Okeechobee offered anglers a bountiful harvest of largemouth bass, sunny skies and August temperatures, this month's FLW contest on Lake Wheeler may very well provide the perfect alter-ego to the Florida fishing experience.

For starters, the tempestuous winter weather of northern Alabama won't be nearly as forgiving as Clewiston, Fla. In fact, Rogersville, Ala., the site of next week's tournament, lies at the bottom of the Appalachian mountain chain where cold weather is the norm and not the exception during early February. Secondly, the expected cooler conditions should cause stringer weights to drop dramatically - in short, don't expect to see too many 20-pound sacks. Thirdly, Lake Wheeler is home to plenty of smallmouth and spotted bass - which means that diversified anglers should have their pick of the litter when it comes to fishing strategy. However, if the cold weather manages to slow the largemouth bite, smallmouth anglers should be able to capitalize.

In order to fish Lake Wheeler successfully, anglers will not only have to possess a versatile fishing arsenal, but they will also have to think and rethink strategy throughout the tournament. And unlike Lake Okeechobee, where it was possible to have a "bad day" and still rebound to make the top-20 cut, Lake Wheeler could be far less forgiving if an angler falters on either of the first two days.

Lake Wheeler history/facts

Located in north central Alabama half way between Birmingham and Nashville, Lake Wheeler boasts approximately 68,000 acres of fishing habitat. Formed as a result of the construction of Wheeler Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA), Lake Wheeler ranks as Alabama's second largest reservoir. In total, Lake Wheeler stretches more than 50 miles from the upper part of Guntersville Dam to the Wheeler Dam. The lake, which meanders past Huntsville and terminates approximately mid way between the cities of Decatur and Florence, is also sandwiched between Guntersville Lake - a renowned largemouth bass habitat - and the Wilson and Pickwick reservoirs, known for their healthy smallmouth bass populations.

Due to its close proximity to Pickwick, Guntersville and Wilson lakes, Wheeler Lake exhibits an eclectic combination of fishing habitats and species associated with its neighboring bodies of water. On the lower end of the lake, anglers will find many steep banks and long points. In the middle of the reservoir, weed beds, creek channels and stump flats can be found in abundance. And at the upper end, the lake takes on many characteristics of a typical river system. True to form, Lake Wheeler also exhibits a diverse ecosystem and topography featuring both shallow and weedy sections of water (consistent with Guntersville Lake) as well as deep, clear sandy bottoms (like those found on Pickwick and Wilson).

Not surprisingly, a variety of fish species are found in abundance as well. Although largemouth bass are relatively common throughout Lake Wheeler, there are also excellent pockets of smallmouth and spotted bass habitats. The lake is also home to striped bass, white bass, crappie, sauger, bream and catfish. In fact, the world record blue catfish, which weighed in at a remarkable 111 pounds, was pulled from the Wheeler Reservoir on July 5, 1996.

Difficult conditions expected for Feb. 13-16 Lake Wheeler contest

Marty Stone, an FLW Tour veteran who has performed as well as any angler on Lake Wheeler over the past several years, said that he expects a radically different tournament from last month's Lake Okeechobee contest.

"It's going to be a tough tournament," said Stone. "We're going to be fishing in the northern part of the state in the middle of February at the bottom of the Appalachian mountain range. So, it's going to be cold. And if it's really cold, it could get ugly fast."

FLW Tour pro Randy Howell agrees.

"It's going to be a lot different than Lake Okeechobee," said Howell, who finished in first place during the 1998 FLW Tour event on Lake Wheeler. "I was just up there yesterday (Jan. 30). The lake is flooded right now. The main river channels are muddy and cold - approximately 48 degrees - and running hard. It's really going to shake things up.

"It's usually pretty cold this time of year in northern Alabama," continued Howell. "And it wouldn't surprise me if we got some snow. Basically, all things considered, I think it's going to be a pretty tough tournament."

Smallmouth bass could be key to victory

While largemouth bass were virtually the only game in town on Lake Okeechobee, smallmouth bass could play a big part in determining the eventual champion on Lake Wheeler. And with cold conditions almost certain to be the norm, it is quite possible that the smallmouth bite may actually wind up being more reliable.

"During February and March, the smallmouth bass really turn on in Alabama. So, I think we could see a good smallmouth bite," said Howell. "And if that's the case, I think you'll see a lot of anglers using suspending jerkbaits and medium-running crankbaits. I think a jig could also be popular if the water stays in the low 50s."

"There's not a doubt in my mind that smallmouth bass will be a factor on the humps and man-made bluffs," added Stone. "And I think if you go up river, spotted bass could factor in as well."

Stone also argues that the baits of choice will most likely be jerkbaits, deeper-running crankbaits and jigs.

Small sacks, plenty of limits predicted

"It's definitely going to be tougher fishing than Lake Okeechobee," said Howell. "I expect to see a lot of small limits caught. And I think it's going to take about 21 pounds total to make it into the top 20.

"But it's also going to be a tournament where you can get behind in a real hurray," Howell continued. "And if you're not careful, you might not be able to catch up."

Stone says the weather will largely dictate the overall strategy of the tournament.

"The fishing is going to be very much affected by the weather," said Stone. "If it's warm, there will be a lot of fish caught. But if it's cold and we get the wrong conditions, people are going to wonder if there any fish in the lake.

"Florida bass are renowned for staying put," said Stone, who believes that 10 pounds a day will be enough to crack into the top 20. "But Alabama bass are known for having suitcases. If it gets cold, the bite is going to be tough."

Versatility and veteran anglers

With difficult fishing conditions expected, Howell argues that the tournament advantage will fall to the anglers who have the most varied fishing arsenals.

"It's going to be necessary to have two or three different patterns so you can put together a legitimate limit each day," said Howell. "This could be the most strategic tournament of the year. So, you're going to have to be very versatile. That's why I think you're going to see a lot of veterans do pretty well. Guys like Rick Clunn, Larry Nixon, Clark Wendlandt, David Fritts and Tommy Biffle are probably the favorites going into Wheeler."

Stone argues that the veteran anglers with a local connection should also have a distinct advantage.

"I think you're going to see guys like Randy Howell and Gerald Swindle do very well," he said. "They both know the lake and they have the experience to adapt to the changing conditions. And that's going to be key to winning this tournament."

Related stories:
Pro field announced for Feb. 13-16 Wal-Mart FLW tourney
Co-angler field announced for Feb. 13-16 Wal-Mart FLW tourney
Destination: Lake Wheeler, FLW Tour, Feb. 13-16
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Tags: gary-mortenson  pre-tournament  2002-02-13-lake-wheeler 

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