Anglers sample Bassmasters venue at Lay Lake

For six days recently, the 52 competitors in the upcoming 32nd annual CITGO BASSMASTERS Classic had an opportunity to get a sneak peek at what awaits them on Alabama’s Lay Lake July 25-27, as well as search for a potential winning pattern that could capture the most important title in fishing.

Lay Lake, an impoundment of the Coosa River harboring more than 12,000 acres of water and more than 189 miles of shoreline, was the site of the 1996 Classic, which George Cochran won with a three-day total of 31 pounds, 14 ounces.

According to Alabama fisheries biologists, the 87-year-old lake is home to a significantly larger population of largemouth and spotted bass than it held six summers ago. So the Classic pros figure the fishing will be better this time around.

&uot;I think it could take 40 pounds to win,&uot; said Jamie Horton, a Federation representative from Alabama and the Classic angler most familiar with Lay Lake. &uot;The lake has improved a lot since the last time the Classic was held there.&uot;

Judging by what the pros experienced during the recent six-day pre-tournament practice period, the summertime conditions will likely create challenging fishing conditions in Classic XXXII. During the pre-fish days, they were plagued by an abundance of rain and unseasonably cool weather – conditions that are unlikely to be a major factor in late July.

The Classic contenders will face two major strategic decisions: whether to fish shallow or deep, and whether to target largemouth or spotted bass (or both).

Here’s a sampling of what some of the pros had to say:

&uot;I had a good practice,&uot; said Arkansas’ Stephen Browning, who is making his fourth Classic appearance. &uot;I eliminated a lot of water. I had three real good days where I caught 12 to 15 keepers, including some quality fish as well. I caught them up to 5 pounds.&uot;

&uot;I think it’s going to be an interesting Classic,&uot; said Texan Gary Klein, who will be competing in his 20th Classic. &uot;The lake has some good, quality fish in it. They can obviously add to an angler’s stringer and give you the opportunity to win this thing.

&uot;I think the person who wins it is going to be the one who is most consistent. It’s going to be hard to follow through all three days with big bags. It’s a small lake, and there will be a lot of (spectators) following us. What you find, you’d better catch them all because when you leave other people are going to be fishing for them.

&uot;The question is: Can the tournament be won with all spotted bass versus all largemouth? I personally don’t think so. The kicker fish are going to be largemouth. The biggest stringer of spots we had the last time we were there was caught by Kevin VanDam on the first day and weighed 14 or 15 pounds. He was real fortunate. He got into a school of fish that were actually busting the surface. Obviously, Kevin couldn’t repeat that (success). That was a gift. So I think an angler will have to have several key largemouths to really pull it off.&uot;

&uot;The fishing was pretty good in pre-fish,&uot; said Jay Yelas, who has qualified for 12 consecutive Classics. &uot;I felt like I had a better practice this time than I did there in ’96, and I felt like I got on a better pattern in a better part of the lake this time.

&uot;But you know how these Classic pre-fish (periods) are – things always change in a few weeks’ time. I just hope I can parlay this into a higher finish than seventh (his finish in the 1996 Classic).&uot;

Arkansas’ George Cochran captured his second Classic championship on Lay Lake in 1996.

&uot;The fishing was good, but different from last time,&uot; the 19-time Classic contender said. &uot;I didn’t catch the good numbers shallow like I did last time. I caught some bass shallow and some deep.

&uot;I think the fishing will be better than it was in ’96, but you have to remember that the toughest time of the year will always be July. It doesn’t matter where you are in the South; that’s the case. But I think the weights in this Classic will be better for several reasons &045; the biologists say the population in Lay Lake is at its all-time best; the fishermen today are better than they’ve ever been; and because of all the publicity from the ’96 Classic, everybody now knows that you can catch fish shallow on Lay Lake in the summertime.&uot;

Cochran said he could not resist the urge to check the back of Bully Creek, a shallow, stump-filled bay where he won the Classic six years ago. He found that the area had drastically changed.

&uot;That creek is so full of grass right up to the surface that is so thick that you can hardly get around in there,&uot; he said. &uot;I only caught a couple of little fish, so I don’t think Bully Creek will be a factor this time around. The funny thing about it is that I spent an hour and 15 minutes in there and counted nine boats that came in there.&uot;

It will be interesting to see what strategy produces the winning catch, which will earn the champion $200,000.

The Classic is much more than just the crowning event of the CITGO BASSMASTER Tournament Trail. Classic Week is the annual celebration of the sport of bass fishing that attracts B.A.S.S. members and other fishing fans from across the country, who come to meet their fishing heroes, attend the weigh-ins and participate in youth and other fan-friendly events.

The launch venue for the event will be Paradise Point Marina. The exciting CITGO BASSMASTERS Classic weigh-in show and the Classic Outdoor Show will take place in the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center. With the exception of the launch site, all of the venues for the event are located in close proximity.

ESPN and ESPN2 will offer same-day coverage of the Classic during the last three days of its Bass Week programs, which will air from 4-5 p.m. on ESPN2 July 22-24; 3-5 p.m. on ESPN2 July 25 and 26; and 6-10:30 a.m. on ESPN2 and 6-7 p.m. on ESPN July 27