If shallow plays, it could play big

Harvey Horne doesn’t live in the past, but the Arkansas pro has learned the wisdom of drawing on memories of seasonal successes to frame his present day strategies.

Case in point: The frustration of playing cat-and-mouse with spotted bass that are still in the summer pattern of chasing offshore bait schools has presented a challenging scenario for anglers competing in the Basspro.com Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Norman. A common practice grumble: Scarcity of bites and the ones you get are mostly smaller spots.

In fairness, this Catawba River reservoir holds plenty of solid spots in the 2-pound range, but when they roam the offshore depths, it’s much harder to establish consistency; as opposed to a school of big fish parking on a point, a ledge or some other discernible target.

However, Horne is hoping that the seasonal fall transition might be teeing up something he can hit. While he caught spots in 35 feet of water, he also caught largemouth in 3 feet. Numerically, the latter plays second fiddle to Norman’s spots, but the greater weight potential and their preference for shallow cover could play a key role this week. 

“I’m going to go out and swing for the fences, throw big baits and try to catch what I can on Day 1. I'll muddle through as many little ones as I have to on Days 2 and 3 if I can make it (to Championship Saturday),” Horne said. “I’ll be throwing a 6-inch Megabass Magdraft swimbait or a buzzbait around docks with brushpiles to try and provoke bigger bites.”

Noting that his best practice fish — a 3 1/2-pound largemouth — bit a squarebill in the back 1/4-mile of a creek, Horne said he’s tempering optimism with realism. He’s hopeful a shallow move has started, but he’s not ready to go all-in for something that may or may not have begun.

“Those largemouth want to go back there, but I’ve seen it over and over in the fall; when that drawdown starts, it shuts that whole deal down and they won’t go because they want to know (how much depth they’ll have),” Horne said. “Over the last three or four years, I’ve seen where those early fall tournaments we can catch a lot of fish offshore, but those fish that have made the transition (to shallower areas), they’re just not in the far backs yet. 

“They’ll hang in the last 8-foot depths until the drawdown finishes and then they’ll go on back. I don’t know the drawdown schedule here, but going into the backs of creeks, I can tell (by water line marks on shoreline cover) that the water has been higher recently by 3 feet or so.”

Horne said he saw an encouraging amount of shad in the back areas, but he noted that baitfish typically show up earlier than the bass so it could be that nature is setting the table for guests soon to arrive. Making his best estimate at the likelihood of the creek bite igniting during the tournament, Horne gives it a 35-40%. 

“I’m probably going to target the two places I got bit shallow early on Day 1 and from there, I’m going to move out to deeper docks and open water,” Horne said.

Potential game changer: Wednesday’s heavy rainfall ushering in a cold front — notably precisely on the day the Farmer’s Almanac tells us (astronomical) fall begins. Tournament days will see mostly sunny, cool days in the mid 70s with overnight lows in the lower 50s.

That’s not a huge drop from recent weeks, but it’s a start. It’s the transition that fish and anglers have been waiting for. The thing about transitions — they create opportunities. 

Like the one Horne’s hoping to exploit.

Speaking Wednesday night, Horne said: “I’m going to drive up to try and get a look at the river to see if the water’s gotten dirty up there. If it has, that may change my game plan entirely. If we have some dirty water coming in, that’s where I’m going.

“If that water’s muddy, all that other stuff is out the door — I’m going up the river and throwing a spinnerbait and a squarebill.”

Anyone familiar with the mathematics of bass fishing knows that fall plus stained water plus shallow baitfish equals the potential for a largemouth bonanza.

It’ll all come down to timing. If Horne or one of his competitors lands on the right spot with a fresh group of hungry largemouth, separation from the field becomes a real possibility. 

Weeding through lots of offshore spots and lucking into a few good ones can still win this tournament, but the largemouth deal — while far from a certainty — will very likely get someone to Saturday’s final round.