By Matt Pangrac
Gadsden, AL – For the third time in the past four years, the Bass Pro Shops PAA Tournament Series presented by Carrot Stix makes a stop in Gadsden, Alabama on Neely Henry Lake, an 11,200 acre fishery along the famed Coosa River.
Todd Auten claimed victory on Neely Henry in a weather shortened tournament during the PAA Tournament Series’ inaugural season in 2009. In August of 2011, Auten turned in another strong performance on the Alabama fishery with a third place finish, but the week belonged to Steve Kennedy, who won the tournament with a three day total weight of 38.12 pounds.
Kennedy ran an aluminum boat to access the very back of Canoe Creek, where he relied on several different baits to edge out second place finisher, Greg Vinson, by just two-tenths of a pound.
Illinois’ Chad Morgenthaler, who finished in fifth place on Neely Henry in 2011, said that the Alabama fishery presents a unique set of challenges because there are several productive strategies that can be used to tackle the lake.
“The water temperature right now is averaging 90 degrees, and it climbs higher than that during the day,” he explained. “This is a river with current that has backwaters with vegetation. You also have both spotted bass and largemouth bass, so basically you have to pick your poison. You either choose to target one species, or you target an area that has the potential to surrender both species.”
Morgenthaler divulged that Neely Henry is fishing differently for him than it did just a year ago. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I’ve tried to force the issue and it just hasn’t worked. Some of the same areas are holding quality fish, but the fish aren’t reacting to the bait like I expected.” As a result, he’s taking a hybrid approach in to the first day of competition. “I’m going to pattern fish in the morning and then fish specific spots as the day progresses,” he stated.
Residing less than 45 minutes from the Lake, Trussville, Alabama’s Matt Herren is returning to Neely Henry for the first time since finishing in the bottom half of the field in the 2009 PAA Tournament Series event.
“Neely Henry is where my daddy taught me how to fish and where I started fishing club tournaments when I was 13- or 14-years-old,” Herren explained. He stopped fishing the lake on a regular basis when he began fishing fulltime just over a decade ago. “Back then, there was no grass in the lake,” he said.
With shoreline grass now prevalent on Neely Henry, Herren said that he has to adjust during practice. “I’m basically trying to relearn the lake on the fly. The lack of current and the grass has really caused the fish to relocate,” he admitted. “The lake has been dropping a little every day, so a lot of the grass is getting shallower and that is forcing the fish to relocate.”
Even though he didn’t compete in last year’s PAA Tournament Series event on Neely Henry, Herren is well aware of the fact that that Kennedy and a handful of other anglers who toted aluminum rigs to Gadsden this week could prove to be the wildcard.
“I halfway considered cutting down every tree at the mouth of the creek where Kennedy caught them last year just to block the entrance,” Herren said jokingly. “I think enough guys brought aluminum boats this year that they may cancel each other out and overcrowd the water.”
Kennedy doesn’t know if he’ll have company, mainly because he was only on the water for a half-day out of the official three day practice period. “I got to the lake at around noon on Monday, but I left my lifejacket in the camper, so I had to go back and get it,” explained Kennedy. “I put the boat in the water at around 2:00 p.m. and fished for a while. I haven’t been on the lake since then. I know where I’m going, and I know what I’m going to do.”
He said that he garnered several quality bites during his brief practice, but he is concerned that his area may not produce for the duration of the tournament this year. “I should be able to get at least one good day out of my area, but I just didn’t get the impression that there were enough fish in there to hold up for three days.
“I had to take the gamble and do the same thing this year that I did last year, but there’s a real chance that I’m going to get burned,” Kennedy continued. “I just didn’t see as many fish as I expected to see.”
While Kennedy is banking on history, Wetumpka, Alabama’s Greg Vinson is hoping for current. “If they were pulling current for most of the day, you’d see some really nice limits in the upper teens,” Vinson explained. “The problem is that we haven’t been getting a lot of rain and there really hasn’t been any current until the last few hours of the day.
“Neely Henry fishes more like a river than a lot of the other lakes on the Coosa Chain,” Vinson continued. “The water has a lot of color to it, and as you move down the Chain the water color starts to clear up. The fish here are so dependent on the current because they are river fish. As you move further down to Logan Martin, Lay Lake, and Lake Jordan, it’s totally different than up here. Realistically, I think that 14 pounds each day will be a really solid effort this week,” he concluded.
Vinson, along with the majority of other anglers at the registration meeting held at the Bass Pro Shops in Leeds, Alabama on Wednesday night, stated that a mixed bag of spotted bass and largemouth will be needed to hoist the PAA Tournament Series trophy on Saturday afternoon.
For Texas’ Matt Reed, who finished in 9th place last year on Neely Henry, attempting to land a jumbo Coosa River spotted bass is an unparalleled experience. “Fighting a Coosa River spot is kind of like fighting a really big smallmouth that doesn’t ever jump,” he explained. “These spotted bass are like bulldogs. They’re mean, but they’re a whole lot of fun to catch. When one of those big spots strikes a moving bait, it jars your whole body.”
Coosa River spots aren’t the only thing that will be jarring the competitors’ bodies this week in Alabama, as temperatures are forecast to climb to the upper 90s on Thursday. “It’s been over 100 degrees out there every day during practice,” concluded Chad Morgenthaler. “At this point, you just have to try and remain focused.”
On Thursday and Friday, the weigh-in will begin at 4:15 (CDT) at Coosa Landing in Gadsden, Alabama. On Saturday, the final weigh-in will begin at 4:30 (CDT) at Bass Pro Shops in Leeds, Alabama.
During each weigh-in, fans can follow the action through the LIVE Leader Board sponsored by Yamaha on FishPAA.com.