When 110 of the top bass anglers in the world hit the 33,000-acre Barnett Reservoir April 27-30 for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Elite Series event in Ridgeland, they’ll be catching the 52-year-old lake in near peak condition.
Ryan Jones, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks fisheries biologist whose region includes Barnett, said the reservoir’s bass population is in excellent shape.
“We’ve had several years of very successful shad spawns — both gizzard and threadfin shad — that, in turn, have produced several impressive year classes of Ross Barnett bass,” Jones said. “The fishery as a whole is very healthy, and the bass population is in tremendous shape right now.”
Jones reported earlier this year that he and other biologists have been tracking a huge one- or two-year class of bass that this year graduated into the preferred catch range — 14 inches or larger.
“They showed up in 2014 fall surveys, when we found a lot of healthy 9- to 12-inch fish in the population,” Jones said. “When we surveyed again in 2015, we missed them due to a drastic drought that kept us from reaching our normal survey area. Then last fall (2016), we waited until the water conditions were higher from another drought, and Bam!, there they were again, only bigger.”
The full field of 110 anglers will fish Thursday and Friday, but will be cut to the top 50 for Saturday’s third round. Only the top 12 will fish in Sunday’s final round.
Elite anglers must release all bass caught that are 14 inches in length or shorter, under new regulations established in 2016. Still, they should have no trouble filling 5-fish limits in the post-spawn period.
With a $100,000 first-place prize and valuable Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year points on the line, the fourth of nine regular-season Bassmaster Elite Series events will put the top-tier, competitive-angling spotlight on Barnett Reservoir.
Jones said the average weight of bass caught in tournaments was 2½ pounds in 2016 (a 12-inch minimum limit was in effect for about half the year). This year, local events have produced 30-pound, 5-fish limits during the pre-spawn and spawn cycles.
“I doubt the lake can produce anything close to (30-pound limits) in post-spawn,” said former Elite Series pro Pete Ponds of Madison, who now fishes the FLW Tour exclusively. “A lot of the fish are still going to be shallow, but finding that kind of concentration of big fish will be difficult. I think you’ll see some 20-pound limits but I don’t think any fishermen will be able to maintain that kind of average over a four-day event.
“My guess is that anyone who can average 15 pounds, which is 60 pounds over four days, has a shot at winning.”
Jones believes several five-bass limits exceeding 20 pounds will be a daily occurrence.
“In recent years, Ross Barnett was an average lake, at best,” he said. “Tournament anglers would need to catch 12 to 15 pounds of bass per day to win a multi-day event, but I fully expect to see a big improvement with the world’s best bass fishermen on the water.
“I believe we’ll see a big bass in the 8- to 9-pound range, and a fish exceeding 10 pounds would not surprise me at all.”
One angler eager to hit the lake is Randall Tharp of Port St. Joe, Fla., who won a 2013 Bass Pro Shops Central Open on Barnett with a three-day total of 41 pounds, 15 ounces, or about 14 pounds per day.
“I’ve heard the lake has improved dramatically, and as I’ve monitored tournament weights during the pre-practice period, I’ve been impressed with the size of bass regularly brought to the scales,” Tharp told Bassmaster.com. “Other than the Open I won there, I don’t have a lot of other experience to draw from, but I do know that anytime I can flip a jig I’m happy. And, you can bet a jig will play this time around.”
Takeoff will begin daily at 6:15 a.m. from Madison Landing in Ridgeland, Miss., and weigh-ins will be held each afternoon at the adjoining Old Trace Park beginning at 3:15 p.m. All events associated with the tournament are free to the public.
On Saturday and Sunday, in addition to the Elite weigh-in, Old Trace Park will be the site of the Outdoor Expo at The Rez presented by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks. It starts at noon each day and is free to the public.
Combined with Bassmaster Elite Series Sponsor tents, the Outdoor Expo will provide something for everyone.
The Elite weigh-in stage and Elite sponsors will fill the upper area of the park. Demo boat rides by Skeeter, Yamaha, Nitro, Triton and Mercury will be available, as well as a look at modern fishing equipment and accessories.
The Outdoor Expo presented by the MDWFP will take place down on the grass and will feature many of the state agency’s assets including an archery range, Museum of Natural Science exhibits, fishing demonstrations and information, license sales.
The Jackson Ready-Mix Sound Stage will have live music before — Four Shots from Laurel, 12:30 to 3 — and after — Burnham Road 5:15 to 7:15 — the weigh-in on Saturday, and on Sunday Brewer and Hurd will play from 12:30 to 3 p.m. leading up to the final weigh-in.
The Expo will also have food trucks, a beer garden, and arts and crafts vendors.
Local sponsors include the Ridgeland Tourism Commission, the Barnett Reservoir Foundation, Visit Mississippi, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, and Climate Masters.
For more information, visit barnettreservoirfoundation.org.