Northern Open season debuts with BASS' return to Chesapeake Bay

For the first time in nearly 20 years, BASS returns to Chesapeake Bay, the United States' largest estuary, to usher in the first event of the Northern Open schedule, set for April 16-18 out of Cecil County, Md.

In August 1991, Bassmaster Elite Series veteran Ken Cook of Meers, Okla., took home the prestigious Bassmaster Classic trophy on Chesapeake with a three-day total of 33 pounds, 2 ounces.

At stake for the pros is a top prize of $45,000 and valuable points toward qualifying for the 2010 Bassmaster Elite Series season and two berths in the 2010 Bassmaster Classic, set for Feb. 19-21 on Lay Lake out of Birmingham, Ala. Co-anglers will compete in the Opens for the top prize of a boat/motor package valued at $32,000. After Day Two, the field will be cut to the top 30 pros and co-anglers, who will advance to Saturday's final day of competition.

Fans are invited to the Open's Thursday-Saturday takeoffs and weigh-ins at Anchor Boats Marina, 36 Iroquois Drive, North East, Md. Anglers will launch their boats at 6:15 a.m. ET and the weigh-ins are scheduled to begin at 2:20 p.m. All activities are free and open to the public.

The upper regions of Chesapeake Bay, including the Northeast, Elk and Sassafras rivers, have in recent years become quite the hot spot for bass fishing. The Northeast River is a well-known spot for flipping action, particularly around Furnace Bay.

Bassmaster Elite Series pro Mike Iaconelli of Runnemede, N.J., who lives less than two hours from the Bay, will fish the Northern Open tournaments and expects anglers and fans alike to be "blown away" by the spectacular fishing that awaits at the Maryland event.

"The Upper Bay is awesome right now," said Iaconelli, the 2003 Bassmaster Classic champion and five-time BASS event winner. "I'm glad BASS is going there, people need to know about it. It's such a dynamic fishery, with lots of places you can catch them  creeks and tributaries, they'll be affected by the rain but there'll still be a bite even in the mud, and the main bay. In the main bay there are some places you'll catch a striper, a bluefish and then a 3- or 4-pound largemouth.

Despite a cold front moving across the Eastern parts of the country right now, Iaconelli said weather won't really affect the bite.

"The biggest challenge will be navigating," he said. "It's just a massive fishery. If the wind blows it gets really big and ugly, almost like you're out in the ocean.

While it has been close to two decades since Cook's Classic victory, he and his wife Tammy stopped by the Bay in between tournaments about two years ago and fished for a few days.

"This tournament was the reason I signed up for the Northern Opens, what with being a former champion there," Cook said. "In 1991, I fished the upper part of the bay  several competitors fished the lower part, but I was up there along the Northeast River. It didn't look a lot different in 2007, but I think it'll be a lot better this year."

Cook said he didn't think the winter conditions right now would help anglers at the Northern Open, but noted that the fish will bounce back fast after the front passes.

"It'll be an adjuster's tournament, just like all of them are," he said. "I suspect we'll all be looking for grass, but I'm not sure how developed it is this time of year. If there's submerged vegetation it will hold bass, especially in the spring. It'll be shallow-water fishing, stained water, we'll see shallow lures, and swimbaits if the water's clear. And of course, the spinnerbait, which is what I won with in '91."

Iaconelli, however, cautioned that anglers ought not to factor in the 1991 Classic when preparing for next week's Northern Open.

"A lot of people are thinking about the last time BASS was there, when Ken won the Classic. A lot of them are judging the fishery based off that tournament," said Iaconelli, who spent much of his childhood fishing the Bay. "But in the late 1980s, a hurricane came through and wiped out the whole Upper Bay. When Ken won, it was a rebounding fishery. Now, more than 15 years later, the grass has come back, and that's the big key to that place. From then, when 11-12 pounds was a good weight, to now, most of these tournaments need 20 pounds a day to win."

Iaconelli and Cook agree, three key forms of cover will be fished at the Northern Open: emergent grass, which Iaconelli said will not be lush like it is in July or August; wood cover, including docks, laydowns and timber; and rock structure, loads of it, both manmade and natural, including ripraps and jetties.

"We'll see springtime baits dominate," Iaconelli said. "It's not necessarily a clear-water fishery, so I don't think swimbaits will play a part. It'll be a pre-spawn pattern. We'll see crankbaits, vibration-type baits, and a lot of flipping, with jigs and tubes. There will be largemouth and smallmouth caught. I've caught smallmouth as deep as 30 or 40 feet, but I think it'll be dominated by a shallow pattern."

Iaconelli said he thinks finesse fishermen will also do well on Chesapeake, and the Open won't be dominated by one kind of fishing. He said making the cut to the top 30 will require about 13 or 14 pounds a day, and he aimed high in predicting the winning weight  18 to 20 pounds a day.

The next stop in the three-tournament Northern Open division is the Aug. 20-22 event on Lake Champlain out of Plattsburgh, N.Y.

The Cecil County Office of Economic Development & Tourism is the tournament host.

Sponsors of the 2009 Bassmaster Opens: Toyota Trucks, Berkley, BOOYAH Baits, Evan Williams Bourbon, Mercury, OPTIMA Batteries, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha Marine.