When the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society announced a year ago that it would be returning to Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson for the 10th time, the biggest news was that the Bassmaster Central Open event would be in October.
Touring pros, everyone figured, would be catching this old lake at its annual peak, on the rabid fall bite as largemouth and spotted bass prepare for winter and the following spring spawn.
It’s when Barnett can be wild, and with $40,000 and a berth in the 2014 Bassmaster Classic on the line for the winner, it should be exciting.
For sure, it should be much more indicative of Barnett’s bass potential than the two most-recent B.A.S.S. events held on Barnett in December 1996 and February 1998, when the winning weights for three days were 22 pounds, 4 ounces and 25 pounds, 11 ounces, respectively.
“October: You can’t time it much better than that,” said B.A.S.S. Elite Series pro Pete Ponds of nearby Madison, who is entered in the event.
Ponds’ immediate reaction, other than salivating over the opportunity to compete on what he calls his “home waters,” was that the Bassmaster Central Open on Oct. 17-19 would be a wide-open affair.
“That’s a time of the year when so many patterns are in play,” he said. “All the things that we do on Barnett at different times of the year all will be available at that time. You name it, and you will be able to do it and catch fish.
“There will still be some fish caught on the deep structure in the main lake. There will be a lot of fish moving back into the matted vegetation in the upriver backwater. The pads will be filled with bass chasing shad, and that will be just right for frogs. Bass will follow shad into the shallows in Pelahatchie Bay, and bring the boathouses and docks into play.
“I’m telling you: This will be the most-interesting B.A.S.S. event ever held on Barnett.”
Ponds said all that a year ago, before Mother Nature threw fishermen a curve ball on The Rez that has so much B.A.S.S history. The open water of the main lake has been a challenge this year, and could still be slow in October when normally it is the place most anglers target.
“It all started with that late spring we had, which had a major effect on the shad spawn,” said Shannon Denson, a local fishermen who dominates summer and fall tournaments on the lake and who will fish the Central Open. “We’ve had a really tough year on the main lake. You combine the late spring and the timing of the weed spraying, which reduces the cover for shad fry, and we just haven’t seen the big schools of shad that we need.
“You can still catch fish on the main lake, but it’s definitely tougher and will probably be that way in October, too, because that’s when shad normally begin migrating up the river, in the bay and into the backwaters. Shoot, the river has had a great shad season. In August it already looked like it does in the fall. Shad were everywhere.”
What that means, Ponds and Denson agreed, is that the size of the lake could be a lot smaller, fishing wise, come October.
“I think that you will see a lot of fishermen leave the Main Harbor area and head north and not check up until they hit the upper river area,” Ponds said. “Either that, or they will head directly across the lower main lake to Pelahatchie Bay.”
The prospect of such long runs won’t stop anglers from doing what they have to in order to put fish on the scales.
“I know a lot of people who don’t understand much about fishing at this level of competition will think it’s a hardship having to run so far from Main Harbor up to the river and back. But, that is not an issue,” Ponds said. “We’re talking about guys who think nothing about 150- and 200-mile round trips in some events we fish around the country, so, no, running 50 or 60 miles is nothing. Most of the guys won’t bat an eye.”
The event will be staged out of Madison Landing on the extreme southwest corner of the lake. After launching at the landing, fishermen will motor around a nearby dike for check in and staging inside Main Harbor.
Fishermen will leave from the mouth of Main Harbor and basically have three options:
• Main Lake — The open body of the reservoir is about seven miles long and just more than three miles wide (at the dam, but funneling to about a mile across at the bridge at Mississippi Highway 43).
Even in the worst conditions, fishermen will be able to make the run up and down the lake or across it.
Fishing deep cover, however, will be difficult in strong winds. When Mike McClelland won the 1996 Mississippi Central Invitational in three rough days in December, he did so with just 22 pounds, 4 ounces — over half of which came the final day when winds laid enough to allow him to fish a shallow stump field with a spinnerbait to sack 13 pounds, 3 ounces.
• Pelahatchie Bay — On the east side of the lake, three and a half miles from Main Harbor, this bay is the reservoir’s largest residential area and its only major cove.
Pelahatchie Creek is the lake’s largest feeder creek, and fishermen can follow it for several miles. Boathouses are located in many areas, and if the shad have migrated into the bay, this could produce the winning weight. It did in 1998, when Louisiana’s Peter Daniels introduced punching matted vegetation to local fishermen; Daniels won the three-day event with 25 pounds, 11 ounces, without ever catching a single-day limit.
That pattern is still good in the bay, but it should be even better up the river.
• Upper Pearl River — Expect the majority of fishermen to make the eight-mile run past the Mississippi Highway 43 bridge to reach the upper river area. There’s about 25 miles of river to run from the bridge to Lowhead Dam, which is where the reservoir begins.
Fishermen can find cuts, sandbar points, pad points, steep banks with cover, stump rows and flats, standing timber in backwater sloughs, old river runs and, the latest, miles of thick, matted vegetation. The kind of stuff Daniels fished in 1998 to produce quality fish is available up the river in seemingly endless amounts.
Historically, fishing cover (stumps and tops) on or near structure (contour changes) on the main lake has been the most-productive October pattern and, despite the lack of huge shad schools, guys who can find the deep cover in the right areas — like Denson, who has placed scores of big brush piles in strategic position — could easily average 15 pounds a day.
Nearly a decade and a half after Daniels proved it would work, punching dense cover has taken off and, except for the heart of the summer, has become the No. 1 big-fish pattern on the lake.
“That will definitely be a factor,” said Jimmy Carruth, a local fisherman who wins a lot of tournaments punching grass. “Over the past decade — and especially the last five years — fishing that pattern has grown. It’s not easy, but it is worth the effort. You see a lot of guys doing that here now who 10 years ago wouldn’t be caught dead with a flipping stick in their hands.
“They will be fishing for six or maybe seven bites a day, but if they can convert (those bites) into bass in the livewell, they can post big numbers.”
When asked to predict a winning weight, or what it will take to compete, most local bass fishermen quickly said the magic number is 15, as in 15 pounds a day. That’s a total weight of 45 pounds.
They point to a report from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks that shows the average winning weight in a one-day tournament is 17.2 pounds. That includes summer events, which bring the average down.
Spring, fall and winter tournaments average 18 to 20 pounds.
But 45 pounds, 15 pounds a day for three days?
“That’s a lot of weight,” Ponds said, “and I think they are a little high in their expectations. The lake is good, and it should be at its peak, but a 3-pound average is really high when you have 150 to 200 boats out there. If the weather or anything else makes the lake fish small, then that number will come down and come down quickly like it did in ’96 and ’98.
“I will say this: If someone can maintain a 3-pound average, he will be going to the Bassmaster Classic as the winner at Barnett Reservoir.”