By David A. Brown
Hosting this year’s Bassmaster Classic, Knoxville marks the beginning of the famed Tennessee River with the merger of the Holston and French Broad Rivers. An interesting juxtaposition, as this originating confluence will find three Yamamoto pro staffers concluding their B.A.S.S. careers.
Having committed to the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour, Brent Ehrler, Roy Hawk and Brett Hite will likely close the book on their Bassmaster stories once the Classic concludes. But true to their competitive natures, each of these seasoned pros will bring their A game, along with all the pride and passion that has defined their accomplished careers.
We caught up with Ehrler, Hawk, and Hite to get their outlooks on the big event.
Hometown: Newport Beach, Calif.
Fishery Outlook: Eyeballing the currently high water levels, along with the expectation of strong current and cold temperatures, Ehrler’s not mincing his words; he’s predicting a tough Classic. However, fish still gotta eat and Ehrler’s confident he can coax enough for his daily limits. Doing so, he said, will require competence in working with the conditions at hand.
“Typically, when it’s high and muddy, you try to find some areas of clear water, but if the water is flooded over the banks, it’s hard to find the fish because they spread out so much,” he said. “You have to find places where you can actually get to them. If there is shoreline cover, but the water is 20 yards beyond where you can go, I don’t feel like I can get in front of a fish.
“If I’m sitting right here and there is water for 20 yards beyond me, why are they where I’m at and not back there? So, I try to find places where I can actually get to where the fish are.”
Ehrler expects both Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes, along with the River to be in play. That being said, he’s looking to Tellico for the greatest stability.
“I’m assuming since the Tennessee River’s a bigger system, there’s less water coming through there (via the Little Tennessee River),” Ehrler said. “I know there’s a bigger population of smallmouth in Tellico, so if it remains cold, those smallmouth will be less affected than largemouth.”
Expected Patterns: Ehrler’s looking forward to giving his Senkos a good workout in weightless Texas rig and shaky head form, while flipping the Flappin’ Hog should be a solid producer — particularly up in the river habitat. He’s also thinking the new Daiwa Neko and Neko Fat worms could make an impact on finicky fish. Adding in some mid-depth cranking, Ehrler said, will handle the reaction bites from staging prespawners.
Ehrler’s key to success: “I think you’ll need to be able to find something on your own where you can manage the fish yourself; you’re not fishing an area with somebody else and you can pick at them every day without hurting them. If you can do that, I think you can do very well in the tournament.”
Perspective: Following a second-place finish last year on Lake Hartwell and a 3rd at the 2017 Classic on Lake Conroe, Ehrler feels he has some unfinished business.
“The Classic is something that has always been dear to me; I’ve always dreamed about winning,” he said. “I’ve been close and I’ve had the opportunities to win but I’ve not won yet. If I could win this event, it would really justify my career. Whether I’ll fish one again, I don’t know, but it will be a long time before I do, so to win this one would mean a lot.”
Hometown: Lake Havasu
Fishery Outlook: Hawk said he’s only fished the Classic waters once during an FLW Tour event, during which he focused on Lake Tellico. He said that despite the recent cold, muddy conditions, the fish still want to be shallow.
Expected Patterns: “The fish are going to want to push toward the spawning area. It’s been super cold back there, flooding and things like that, but they’re still going to be wanting to move shallow, so I’d say a prespawn bite is what we’re going to find when we get there.
“I don’t think it’s going to move into a spawn event. We’re going to have some 60-degree air temperature, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough to do anything major.”
Bait Bets: Hawk said he’s expecting a solid flipping bite, especially with the Flappin’ Hawg. However, he also invested a lot of effort into custom dying several Double Tail Grubs for jig trailers. Creating looks for various water colors was the plan. For example: A bright blue trailer that would stand out well in dirty water.
“It will be a lot of shallow cranking and spinnerbaits, along with the flipping bite,” Hawk said. “I have no idea of the clarity; I know the water got really high there. But if we got some clearer water, a jerkbait could come into play and then some deeper diving crankbaits, dropshots and Carolina rigs.”
Perspective: Even though Hawk’s decision to move to the Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour will likely end his Classic opportunities, he’s stoked to have qualified for this one. The path was a little unexpected, but he said he’s thankful for the conclusion.
“It really is a dream come true; I’d almost written it off as a possibility because I wasn’t going to go down that path any farther,” he said. “A couple of years ago, when I qualified for the Elites, I really was fishing the Bassmaster Opens to get a shot at the Classic. Then I qualified for the Elites and qualified for the Classic through the Elites.
“Prior to that, I had just kind of written it off because I just didn’t think I would ever fish the Opens and, therefore, the Elites and get a shot at going to the Classic. But God always has a different plan for us. So I’m super thankful. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid.”
Considering that the Classic is a non-points event, Hawk said the objective is simple: figure out how to catch the 15 biggest fish. That being said, the extra attention and hoopla associated with this event will necessitate diligence in managing distractions.
“There, I just rely on my faith that the Lord will get me through it and keep me at peace,” Hawk said. “The number one thing is to have fun. I’m there for the moment and I’m going to enjoy it.
“Once you start fishing and you’re standing on the front of your boat with a rod in your hand, that’s all you have. It’ll just be a matter of being focused at that point.”
Hometown: Phoenix, Ariz.
Fishery Outlook: “With the conditions we’ve had, it’s going to be an early prespawn/still winter pattern,” Hite said. “It’s been cold in Knoxville and we had a huge cold front the week before the Classic, so I think fishing is going to be a lot tougher than a lot of people anticipated it being. The Tennessee River has been fluctuating a lot, so it’s going to be a cold, tough tournament.”
Hite points out that water flow, which has been running at over 100,000 cubic feet per second, will be one of the major considerations, as it’s likely to wash out some areas and make other too turbid to fish.
“You’re just going to have to be mentally tough; just put your head down and know that just getting a limit will be a challenge,” he said. “We have a pretty big size limit — 12-inch spotted bass, 14-inch largemouth and 18-inch smallmouth — to keep. So, I think the guy that can put it together with a couple of good days and one decent day might have a chance.
“You’re going to need to hunker down and not get too messed up when things aren’t working out first thing in the morning. You might only be getting five or six bites a day.”
Expected Patterns: “I’ve fished in both Loudoun and Tellico and found that Tellico is a little bit clearer,” Hite said. “It doesn’t seem to get as heavy a flow, but who knows what’s going on with all the rain they’ve been getting. That’s a pretty good run, all the way down the river to Tellico, but I have no preference right now; I have an open mind.”
Noting that there won’t likely be a deep bite, due to the heavy current and muddy water, Hite said he’s looking for a good reaction bite — crankbaits, a Chatterbait or swim jig with a Yamamoto Swimming Zako (to be released soon!) trailer, or the Zako by itself in a traditional swimbait presentation.
“We’re going to have to use something in brighter colors just because of the stained water conditions I think we’re going to find,” he said. “I think slowing down is going to be a key. A Ned rig with a 3-inch Fat Senko is going to be an important finesse bait. And anytime I go to the Tennessee River, I’m going to have a football jig or a flipping jig rigged with a Yamamoto Double Tail trailer.”
Perspective: Hite, whose top Classic finish was a 7th place on Lake Hartwell in 2015, said: “You always take a Classic as a special thing. We all know this could be our last Classic, or it might not be. You don’t take it for granted. It’s an awesome event and I’m going to go out there and try to win it.
“It’s a cliché when everybody says that second is no good; of course, it’s good — but that’s not what the goal is. The goal is to try to find that pattern you can win on and then try to implement that for three days.”