Same place, same time, different lake

EVANS, Ga. — Mike McClelland definitely won't be catching any bass this year from the places where he won this Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on Clarks Hill Lake last year.

When the four-day Pride of Georgia presented by Evan Williams Bourbon kicks off Thursday at 6:30 a.m. ET, it will be on a lake that is almost eight feet below its full elevation of 330 feet above sea level.

"When I stood on the deck of my boat, I was just about eye-level with the stuff I caught them off of last year," McClelland said.

The 40-year-old Bella Vista, Ark., resident captured his second Elite Series title on April 22, 2007, at Clark's Hill Lake with a four-day total of 70 pounds, 7 ounces. He has since added a third Elite Series $100,000 payday — at Florida's Harris Chain of Lakes in March — and leads the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year point standings this year.

Last year McClelland concentrated on dragging a jig across shallow points. Two years ago, Davy Hite won the Elite Series Pride of Augusta Pro event at Clarks Hill, and he also relied on a jig.

"I'll probably see turkey strutting around and gobbling on some of the places I caught my best fish in the past," said Hite, who lives in nearby Ninety Six, S.C. "Those areas, they're dry. So it will be a different body of water for all of us."

Well, maybe not quite all the Elite Series pros. Casey Ashley was 10 years old when he fished in his first bass tournament. He was teamed with his father, and Ashley caught a 9-pound, 10-ounce bass from Clarks Hill that day. (He finished second by one ounce in the big bass competition.) Ashley, who is from Donalds, S.C., is now 24 years old, and he's fished Clarks Hill at various levels over the years — from high to low and everything in between.

"It's not going to be the same deal for these guys who have been here the last three years," Ashley said. "That helps me a lot."

Clarks Hill Lake forms part of the Georgia-South Carolina border. (It's known as J. Strom Thurmond Lake in South Carolina, in honor of the late politician from that state who left the U.S. Senate at age 100 in 2003). At full pool, Clarks Hill Lake has 71,000 surface acres. It is the largest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project east of the Mississippi River.

Like South Carolina's Lake Hartwell, the site of this year's Bassmaster Classic, blueback herring are the primary bass forage.

"I did learn somr things fishing here three times previously that helped me at Hartwell," said 2008 Bassmaster Classic champion Alton Jones. "Mainly, to catch the fish you need to win this type of tournament, you need to find schools of bass that are somehow relating to blueback herring.

"And, two, they are not opposed to eating larger baits, rather than smaller baits.

"When I come to lakes that have blueback herring, I'm going to keep those two rules in mind at all times. Because if you're not following those criteria, you're probably not going to win on lakes that have blueback herring."

A cold front moved through this area during the pros' practice time earlier this week. Jones saw water surface temperatures ranging from 62 to 69 degrees, although those higher temps came Monday. The weather is predicted to warm into the 80s during the day and drop no lower than the upper 50s at night the rest of the week.

"I think you'll see improving fishing all week," said Jones, who noted that 70-degree water is a "magic number" for triggering blueback herring spawning activity.

"When that happens, there's going to be bass close on their tails," Jones said.

Hite's winning four-day total in 2006 was 71-12, exactly 20 ounces more than McClelland's total last year. The BASS tour also came to Clarks Hill in 2005. Mike Reynolds' winning three-day total was 52-11in the Georgia Citgo Bassmaster event. Based on those three BASS events over the past three years, it's taken roughly a 3.5-pound average to win here.

What makes that number special is when the blueback herring spawn is going strong, many of those bass will be caught on topwater lures.

"I figure by the end of the week, there will be some big fish caught on topwater baits," said Jeff Kriet, who finished eighth here in 2005. "It's probably the best topwater lake I've ever fished. When they get on it, that's all you throw — big topwaters, like Pencil Poppers and Zara Spooks.

"But the lake's got to be right to do that."

There is still some bass spawning activity here, so sight-fishing figures to play a role in the outcome of this tournament. Jigs and variously rigged soft plastics will also be important.

But to hear Ashley talk, it sounds as if Clarks Hill Lake is about to get right.

"I'm throwing topwater all day, every day," Ashley said. "Granted, I've got some places where, if they don't blow up on a topwater bait, I can catch them on a jig.

"But my goal is to hit 50 points (in the lake) a day."

The 109-pro angler field will be cut to the top 50 after Friday's weigh-in. The top 12 three-day totals qualify those anglers to fish for Sunday's $100,000 first prize. Daily take-offs (6:30 a.m. EDT) and weigh-ins (3 p.m. EDT) will be held at Wildwood Park.