Alabama's Lay Lake is 12,000 acres of dammed Coosa River, more than 100 feet deep in its furthest reaches, and has 289 miles of shoreline equivalent to the distance from Birmingham to Atlanta and back.
It's a vast and varied area for the 50 anglers competing in this week's Bassmaster Classic to plumb in a short amount of time. Predictably, they've been loath to reveal much of what they noticed during practice, and no one's sure how much of what they observed will even carry over to the Classic forecasts call for temperatures 20 degrees warmer than the sub-freezing weather that befell the anglers during practice.
Still, the lake has given up its secrets in the past, and when it has, men like Reed Montgomery and Jay Haffner have been there to gather them. Montgomery, who lives in Birmingham, spends perhaps 100 days a year on Lay Lake, fishing tournaments, guiding, and just going fishing.
Haffner conducts the fish surveys on Lay as the district fisheries biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
As they eyed the coming week, these were some of their observations:
The big question, of course, is whether the water will warm much in time for the Classic. Haffner, for one, doesn't see that happening.
"I don't think there will be a lot of bass caught right up against the bank," Haffner said.
Water temperatures in the 40s will mean fish stay low; some may be caught at depths of 20 feet.
"The good news at Lay is, it's got a lot of diverse habitat current, rocks, standing timber and lay-down logs, long points, weed beds that are close to deeper water, trees that anglers have placed on long sloping points," Haffner said. "Certainly there will be fish caught in relatively shallow water at Lay, we've got docks and piers. But this is not going to be a shallow water bite."
In describing the lake's topography, Montgomery emphasizes the abundant, matted weeds, which will be thick even in the wintertime. Pulling fish from that foliage means using line on the order of 15- or 20-pound test.
"If I was in the Classic, I would use heavy line," Montgomery said. "The guys that use finesse lures and light line, you've got a lot of money on the line, and one broke-off fish can be a million-dollar bass."
With fish in a pre-spawn mode, some warmer temperatures could change the pattern of the whole lake. "The urge to go to the bank to spawn is great," Haffner said. "But in reality it takes a lot of sunshine, a lot of solar radiation, to warm up enough water at Lay Lake this time of year to really pull those largemouths to the bank."
Let's assume the cold snap lingers, or doesn't warm fast enough. Another major environmental change to watch for will be the currents in the Coosa River.
Alabama Power owns the hydroelectric dams at either end of the 48-mile lake, and if it decides to generate some power, the water level will rise a few inches, Montgomery said.
"A lot of guys will catch spotted bass during the week," he said. If the water runs on Friday, "they better have a good backup plan."
On the bright side, current will push fish toward structures, making them a more predictable catch.
"I'm sure a lot of anglers hope Alabama Power company generates a lot of power," Haffner said. "At the upper end of Lay Lake, that current certainly attracts prey species, and in turn attracts bass."
A flush of rain
Any significant amount of rain would raise the water temperature, bringing bigger fish close to the banks; and would push insects, amphibians and other bass foodstuffs to the creek mouths.
"Fish will go in the back of the creek and start feeding in the dead of winter," Montgomery said.
His greatest fear? The hordes of recreational anglers who would hammer any area that's productive in the Classic.
"I hope to God they don't win it in my favorite creek," he said. "(George) Cochran won it in Bully Creek (in 1996), and they beat that creek to death afterwards. For a year afterwards, there were probably 20 boats up in there."
Spotted or largemouth?
Alabama spotted and Florida largemouth are plentiful in Lay, which Haffner said is among the top fisheries he has seen in his 26-year career.
"We have stocked Florida bass in this lake over the years, as have some angler groups, but mother nature is making sure there are plenty of young bass every year," he said.
Where it could be won
"I'm looking for the mid-to-lower part of the lake is probably where it's going to be won," Montgomery said.
Look for anglers to work worms and jigheads in the deeper clear water and flip to the weeds.
Unlike many of the anglers interviewed this week, Montgomery said he doesn't expect limits to come easy.
"It is a strange lake," he said. "I would rather be in a hot summer tournament. Fish are pretty spooky in the wintertime. Anything could disturb them real easy."
Who can win it
And as for a victor? Montgomery likes Russ Lane, whom he has faced in tournaments there, for Lane's knowledge not only of Lay but also Mitchell Lake and Jordan Lake, the two "very similar" lakes below Lay on the Coosa River.
He also likes Randy Howell "he hasn't fished Lay a whole lot, but knows how to fish it" as well as Kevin Wirth and Mike Iaconelli, simply because of inertia.
"Look for guys on a roll," Montgomery said.
Haffner didn't offer a favorite. He's just rooting for massive fish to come out of the lake, and plenty of them.
"I hope to see some (three-day sacks) over 50 pounds," he said. "I make no bones about it. As the district fisheries biologist, there isn't anyone more anxious to see big sacks of fish come out of Lay Lake than me."