BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Lay Lake is cold and wet, promising to be a different beast entirely from the lake Boyd Duckett won on back in 2007.
Local ace Chris Rutland from Wetumpka, Ala., has won more tournaments on Lay Lake than most anglers alive (close to 50) and in his nearly 30 years of experience on the Coosa River impoundment, he has never seen the water temperature so low and the fishing so tough.
Just how tough?
"Six pounds won a tournament out there and 3 pounds won another one in January," Rutland said. "Another guy I fish with, he fishes out there every weekend and never got a single bite all winter."
Not just a tough day on the water, with a couple small keepers hitting the scales, but a day where the only bites were from Jack Frost and the only thing making it into the boat were icicles. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Will things be better for the Classic?
By the time anglers arrive in Birmingham for the start of the three-day practice period Friday, the water temperatures will likely be in the low 40s, a huge drop from the last time this show passed through town and only a slight increase from January's upper 30s.
"Traditionally, the third week in February is a week when big fish start moving up," Rutland said. "This year, with it being so cold, the biggest thing will be whether the time of year and their biological clock will override the water temperatures."
Long-term forecasts have the cold weather sticking until next Wednesday, the final practice day. After that, the predictions put temperatures in the mid 50s with sunny skies through the tournament, a recipe that could change everything the anglers learned in practice.
"If we could just get four to five days in a row with sun, that would help out a lot with the largemouth bite," Rutland said. "I'm sure there are a bunch of fish that are really fat, full of eggs and eating all the dying shad. Any little excuse to go to the bank and I think they will move up."
Three main techniques stole the show in 2007: flipping grass, throwing a lipless crankbait and fishing up the river in the current. Flipping grass has the potential to produce a big largemouth, but with more recent stocking of Florida bass, cold fronts mean lockjaw and a tougher bite.
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Fishing up the river produced a second-place finish for Skeet Reese, but recent rains have the water higher and muddier, and if those trends continue, it could make the river much less accessible to anglers.
The dominant patterns that fans saw Duckett, VanDam and the other top finishers use might still come into play, but Rutland believes it could be something off the wall that will produce this year.
"I would not be surprised if somebody wins this tournament doing something nobody expects to see on Lay Lake during the third week of February," Rutland said. "Something non-traditional like a jerkbait, jigging spoon or float and fly."
Because the lake is fishing so different, Rutland says a local advantage doesn't count for as much as it might otherwise. In fact, he thinks it might hurt guys like Boyd Duckett and Russ Lane.
"They are going to want to default to what they normally do, especially if they have not had a good practice," Rutland said. "They are going to go do what they have always done. Guys that don't fish Lay Lake much, without any past history, will look at the real conditions and it will be easier to eliminate stuff until they figure out how to catch them in cold water."
Don't take that the wrong way, Rutland is still betting on Lane, a longtime friend and 10-year tournament partner, who finished 24th in 2007.
"I look for Russ to do well because he practiced a lot before the cutoffs looking for structure places where the spots will move to," Rutland said. "If he can get just one bite doing a particular technique, that should tell him what the fish are doing and he'll know 50 places to hit just like it. Being familiar with the lake, if he figures something out, he shouldn't run out of stuff to fish."
Rutland named Kevin VanDam and Skeet Reese as the obvious pair to do well, because of how much momentum they carry over from 2009. He also said to look for Terry Scroggins and Kelly Jordon if the flipping bite is on. If it is more of a spotted bass tournament, Aaron Martens, Mike Iaconelli and Randy Howell get his nod.
Lay Lake has both largemouth and spotted bass for competitors to target, but Rutland believes that 90 to 95 percent of the fish brought to the scales will be of the spotted variety.
"It will just be so hard to catch the largemouth unless it warms up a little bit," Rutland said. "I'm kind of pessimistic about these things, but the overall catch will be down from last time. I'm going to say about 44 pounds will win it, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it as low as 40."
Rutland has not been out on the lake since he and Lane won a team tournament there in the fall, but in between tournaments on Lake Jordan, he'll be there next week cheering on his friend and watching to see just how the top anglers in the world unlock this new challenge from his home lake.