Before the 50 contenders in this week's 37th annual Bassmaster Classic ever launch their Triton/Mercury rigs into Alabama's Lay Lake, they have one over-riding, all-important decision to make.
Largemouth or spotted bass.
Go after the more plentiful Coosa River spotted bass or target the largemouth that tend to be heavier in weight. Or maybe take a two-pronged approach in hopes of catching a mixed bag that will add up enough weight to win the $500,000 winner's purse and the biggest title in competitive fishing.
Although the pros will occasionally catch both species in the same spots in Lay Lake, the experts will tell you that the two species have distinctively different habitats, locations and characteristics. In these waters, spotted bass relate a little more to cover, like a shallow rock ledge or piece of wood, while the largemouth tend to be more oriented to the shoreline grass.
As a result, it usually takes a decidedly different game plan to catch each type of bass.
That was the case the last time the Classic was held on Lay Lake. In 2002, winner Jay Yelas specifically fished for largemouth within sight of the dam with a jig; runner-up Aaron Martens bagged spotted bass with topwaters and hair jigs.
So the first decision that the Classic pros must make is: which species is likely to bite best and dominate the tournament?
The Alabama pros agree that the answer will be dictated by the weather conditions as Classic XXXVII unfolds.
"Everything totally depends on the weather that time of the year," said Russ Lane of Prattville, a two-time Classic qualifier and pre-tournament favorite. "It's getting real close to a transition period. It could either be a wintertime tournament where the fish are out on gravel and rock places in 10 to 12 feet. And it could be a pre-spawn tournament where fish are staging at 7 or 8 feet."
Last week's three-day official scouting period might not have offered many clues for the Classic contenders because it was so bitterly cold, windy, heavily overcast and raining/snowing most of the time. The conditions are supposed to be decidedly different this week.
"If we get some real more cold water, another arctic blast, it could be a spot tournament," noted Martens, a three-time Classic runner-up who lives in Leeds. "But if it warms up at all, it will definitely be a mix. I think it's going to take a mix to win."
"I'm going to try to catch a combination," added Gerald Swindle, the former Bassmaster Angler of the Year from Warrior. "That will strictly be dictated by the weather and what time of day I'll fish for which one. If I get the right conditions I might fish for largemouth all day. If I get the wrong kind of weather I may fish for spots most of the day.
"The colder the weather the better the spot fishing gets. Naturally, if it's warmer and it's more of a springtime pattern, largemouth will be a larger factor. The largemouth just don't bite that good with it gets real cold. The spots still do. The spots will still bite once it starts warming up just like they do when it's cold; the problem is the big largemouth will out-weigh them.
"You're going to catch spots day in and day out no matter what the weather. They're going to be a little more consistent."
Demopolis' Boyd Duckett, another pre-tournament favorite despite being a Classic rookie, plans to focus on largemouth.
"I think it will be more of a largemouth deal for the winner," he said. "You'll see a lot of spots weighed because they're biting pretty well. But when the largemouth bite is on at Lay Lake you can't win with spots.
"It will be predominantly largemouth for the leaders. With the warm weather they're calling for we'll get to see some good weights."
As part of his homework en route to making the big largemouth versus spot decision, Lane has closely been monitoring the weather forecast.
"I'm sitting here looking at weather.com and I think we're going to get one more rain a couple of days before the tournament and we'll probably see a warming trend as the Classic starts," he explained. "I think during the tournament is probably going to be the best weather we've seen in quite a while.
"But I think we're a few weeks away from a largemouth deal. There will be a handful of big largemouth caught, but I pretty much find it hard to believe that somebody can win it with all largemouth. I think spots will dominate."
With the updated Classic Week weather forecast in mind, Lane is predicting that the winner will have 15 bass weighing about 50 pounds. Martens is a little less optimistic, saying 15 pounds a day might be enough.