DAYTON — In bass fishing, BASSfest is the new black.
June 11-15 in Dayton, Tenn., BASSfest will be the latest innovation in pro fishing. Part competition, part festival, the five-day event will feature 140 of the best anglers in the game.
The qualifiers come from two Bassmaster circuits. The regular Bassmaster Elite Series field of 107 will compete, plus 33 anglers from the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens Series presented by Allstate.
They’ll be after a piece of an $875,000 purse. The winner’s take will be $125,000 and an entry in the 2015 world championship, the Bassmaster Classic. The main competition will happen on Chickamauga Lake, a booming fishery that hasn’t seen a Bassmaster event since 1991.
All 140 anglers will compete on Chickamauga the first two days, June 11 and 12. The Top 50 will qualify for the third round on Chickamauga.
In a twist to the fishing competition, the third Chickamauga round won’t happen the next day. Instead, the 50 pros will appear at the BASSfest expo, conducting free seminars and meeting fans throughout the venue all day on June 13.
But the competition won’t stop on June 13, either. With weights zeroed, the 90 eliminated anglers will participate in a one-day, second-chance shootout on nearby Nickajack Lake. The 10 who survive the shootout will rejoin the Top 50 anglers on June 14 for the third round on Chickamauga Lake. The Top 12 will advance to the final round on Sunday, June 15 for a shot at the trophy.
Chickamauga Lake, a Tennessee River impoundment, is unknown to many in the field, Elite and Opens anglers alike. Even Elite Series pro David Walker, who lives about two hours away in Sevierville, Tenn., has not competed on Chickamauga in 15 years, not since he was getting started as a pro in small regional events.
To come up to speed for BASSfest, Walker scouted Chickamauga in the spring. What he saw impressed him.
“I was amazed at how big the fish were,” he said. “It was way better than it used to be. Catching any limit in the teens used to be decent. Eighteen or 19 pounds could win an event. Now, I think it’s going to take that much weight just to make a check.”
The release of Florida-strain largemouth fingerlings throughout the past several years could be one reason for Chickamauga’s growing population of big bass, according to Walker. Prolific vegetation to support the food chain is another, he said.
“Evidently, those Florida largemouth have settled in and taken hold there. It’s so common to see 5-, 6- and 7-pound fish. It’s no exaggeration to say Chickamauga now is the best Tennessee River lake — better than Guntersville and Kentucky Lake, which have always been the best. Chickamauga was good years ago. Now, it’s crazy-good,” he said.
Walker isn’t the only one who’s saying “The Chick” is hot. The fishery was recently ranked as No. 7 on Bassmaster Magazine’s 100 Best Bass Lakes list of 2014. The buzz got louder after an angler landed a 13-pound, 13-ounce largemouth in early June.
Living in northern Alabama, Randy Howell is almost as close to Chickamauga as Walker is, but has even less experience there. From Springville, the 2014 Bassmaster Classic champ said he’s been on Chickamauga only once. That was about a month ago, before the lake was declared off limits to BASSfest competitors.
“I never had seen Chickamauga before,” Howell said. “It was really pretty, reminded me a lot of Guntersville. I mostly rode around and looked, but I know the fishing there is phenomenal.”
Howell has been tracking Chickamauga tournaments online, noting that hefty weights have been needed to win. He’s also been considering the options Chickamauga offers.
“I think this will be a full-blown summer pattern on offshore stuff,” Howell said. “Also, the lake has a good upriver section with grass. That means most everyone in the field can fish to their strengths and still be competitive.”
Like Walker, Howell expects to see good-size bass turned in.
“There seems to be a lot of 6- to 8-pounders in the lake, and I think we’ll see some every day,” he said.
Fans can watch the BASSfest competition online at Bassmaster.com and attend the free event in Dayton at Point Park (175 Lakeshore Drive). Takeoffs on Wednesday and Thursday, June 11 and 12, will be at 6:15 a.m.; weigh-ins will start at 3:15 p.m. On Saturday and Sunday, June 14 and 15, takeoffs will be at 7 a.m., and the weigh-ins will begin at 4 p.m.
The Friday, June 13, leg of the event on Nickajack Lake will take place at River Park at Robinson Bridge, just below the Chickamauga Dam. Takeoff will be at 6:15 a.m.; weigh-in will begin at 2:30 p.m. and will be streamed in from Nickajack Lake to the Dayton audience.