DECATUR, Ala. — To listen to the pros tell it here at Lake Wheeler after the final practice day for the Bassmaster Elite Evan Williams Bourbon Dixie Duel, either everybody is fishing in the same place, or everybody's fish are behaving in the same way.
The common refrain: The bass are really biting, but they're small bass. The consensus among several of the top pros is that the tournament championship is up for grabs during the next four days as predictions for a bountiful catch are as iffy as the weather.
Kevin VanDam, who came within a gnat's eyelash of beating Jeremy Starks last June when the Elite Series made its last stop at Wheeler, is among the crowd that thinks that the lack of quality bites and no discernible patterns makes it a wide-open race.
"Anybody could win here now," VanDam said. "I wish we could have swapped dates with the Guntersville tournament (the Southern Challenge, set for May 7-10). The bass are eating it up there now, and this lake (Wheeler) just hasn't turned on yet."
Tim Horton, who's always dangerous on Wheeler, blames the lack of aquatic vegetation on the Decatur flats and elsewhere for keeping the bass scattered between deep water and the shallows.
What's worse, though, is that the lake is about a foot and a half under summer pool and the water keeps rising and falling. Small wonder there's been no appreciable rush to the banks to spawn. And even if the lunkers were cruising the shoreline, anglers couldn't see them as several spring deluges have turned Wheeler's customary green to mocha.
All of which doesn't worry Horton as much as the lack of staging cover.
"We had a pretty hard winter up here and that might have killed back a lot of the milfoil and hydrilla, or the TVA might have sprayed it," said Horton, of Muscle Shoals. "I said last June that it would take about 16 or 17 pounds a day to win at Wheeler (actually, Starks won with 78 pounds, 10 ounces to Van Dam's 78 pounds, 2 ounces), but I think I might be on this time."
Mark Menendez, fresh off his win at the Toyota Trucks Diamond on Lake Dardenelle, shared Horton's expectations.
"I only fished here a couple of days in pratice and it was fair — about what I expected," said the Kentucky angler. "I think 11 or 12 pounds a day is going to put you in the money; 13 or 14 pounds a day will make the top 12 cut and 17 pounds a day will run off with it."
Though the Teflon-coated pros aren't too concerned about the two days of thunderstorms predicted for the event, rough water could affect the ability of some who plan to make the Dixie Duel one big scattershot milk run with boats going in all directions.
"If anybody has a solid pattern, I don't know about it," said Randy Howell of Springville, Ala., in between buffet bites at the social hour that followed the anglers' meeting. " I had a pretty good practice and it was all strictly junk-fishing.
"I fished water from 4 inches deep to 15 feet deep and caught bass everywhere in between. Every day I got at least one bass that weighed 5 pounds, but I caught them on about six different lures fished six different ways. And I did a lot of running."
As Horton noted, there will always be a few pros who will fish in the right spot at the right time, regardless of the conditions, and catch quality bass. One of them might be Brent Chapman, one of the few who wasn't grumbling about his practice round.
"I found some pretty good fish and had a really good day on Tuesday in one spot," said the Kansas pro. "I caught one about 4 and another about 6, and then I left. It's a run, but I'm in the first flight on Thursday and should be able to get there and get out before the storms predicted for the afternoon hit.
"The wind and the cloud cover on Tuesday helped me, and considering the weather we're supposed to get the rest of the week, I'm feeling hopeful."
Daily weigh-ins will take place at Ingalls Harbor off Market Street in Decatur beginning at 5 p.m. ET.