KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With guests soon arriving for the grand affair, the Tennessee River’s table is set for peak potential as a field of 55 anglers make their final preparations for the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota.
Competition days will be March 24-26 with daily takeoffs from Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville at 7:15 a.m. ET and weigh-ins each day at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus. Doors open at 3:15 p.m. with weigh-in starting at approximately 4:15 p.m. The winning angler will take home the coveted Ray Scott Bassmaster Classic Trophy and $300,000.
Tournament waters include portions of the Holston and French Broad rivers, the confluence of which forms the Tennessee River headwaters. The dominant waters are Fort Loudoun Lake — the first of nine reservoirs on the Tennessee — and Tellico Lake, which links to Fort Loudoun through a canal passing beneath the U.S. Highway 321 Bridge.
While the long-range forecast shows the potential for rain all three days, Bassmaster Elite Series pro and Tennessee River standout Brandon Lester has a largely optimistic outlook. In his view, seasonal patterns should be ripe for an impressive show.
“I think the fishing is going to be really good; honestly, I think it’s going to be about as good as it can possibly be,” Lester said. “Loudoun has plenty of good fish, but it’s not on par with, say, a Guntersville. But if you were to look at the calendar and pick one week for us to be there, I think the third week of March is the best week of the year.
“We’ve had a warm spring so far and we’ve had some warm rain recently, so I feel like the system is going to be in really good shape for a strong, shallow-water bass tournament.”
With the vernal equinox marking spring’s official start on the Monday of Classic Week, bass should be solidly committed to their prespawn movements. Lester, an eight-time Classic qualifier from Fayetteville, Tenn., said a cold spell the week before the Classic should positively impact the seasonal progression.
“We have had some unseasonably warm weather here lately, but it’s going to get back down into the 20s, and then we’re going to have some highs back into the 60s and lows in the high 30s,” Lester said. “That’s about typical for this time of the year, so I expect that water temperature to be around that mid-50-degree range (for the Classic).
“That’s a really good range to keep those fish in prespawn and in bite mode.”
While Fort Loudoun generally presents stained water with more of the traditional shallow-water targets like shellbars, rocks and laydowns, Tellico’s a clearer lake with more deep-water structure such as long points and channel swing banks. The predictable mix of prespawn tactics will include crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, bladed jigs, football jigs, Carolina rigs and Texas rigs.
A key point of consideration that will no doubt factor in several Classic game plans is the memory of Jeff Gustafson’s 2021 Elite Series victory on these same waters. The Canadian pro found a pile of big smallmouth holding over deep rocks in the canal between Fort Loudoun and Tellico and caught all of his weight with the moping technique, aka Damiki rigging, which vertically presents a small jig with a baitfish body over suspended bass.
Gustafson’s win was about a month earlier than the Classic’s timing; nevertheless, Lester said it shined a spotlight on the region’s smallmouth potential. These waters have long been considered a dual-species bass fishery, but prior to February 2021, largemouth have unquestionably held top billing. That has not necessarily changed, but Lester believes smallmouth must be at least considered.
“Honestly, I’m not ruling anything out,” Lester said. “It wouldn’t surprise me to see somebody weigh in 15 smallmouth (three five-bass daily limits) off of Tellico. Five years ago I would have never believed that but now we all have forward-facing sonar, and that shortens the curve on finding those smallmouth, which are a more nomadic species.”
Realistically, the opportunity or likelihood of catching a kicker largemouth outweighs that of smallmouth. However, when you find smallies, you often find a pile of them, particularly this time of year. Ultimately, daily weigh-ins will see several mixed bags of varying species.
“I definitely think we will see smallmouth play a role in this tournament,” Lester said. “There is a decent population of 6-plus-pound largemouth in Loudoun, and those are the big kickers you’re going to be looking for, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 5-pound smallmouth weighed in either.”
While the entirety of tournament waters could produce competitive fish, time management will anchor prudent decision making. Reaching Tellico requires a good run from the takeoff site and, from there, the lake’s length can burn up a lot of time.
Lester said the anglers who sample this lake will find plenty of opportunity at the bottom end, closest to Fort Loudoun. This section has the deepest water, with lots of fishable structure. Continuing further could reveal a secluded honey hole with unpressured fish, but success would hinge on the right balance of running time versus fishing time.
“I think the key to success will be finding a place to call home; whether that be Loudoun and Tellico, or just Tellico or just Loudoun,” Lester said. “As a competitor, it’s hard to know what to do, but a guy’s going to have to sample that during practice and figure that out.”
Lester said that, while the potential for a strong performance is scattered throughout Classic waters, consistency often proves elusive. The prespawn brings the biggest fish in the lakes into more accessible positions, but an often-fickle mood can prove perplexing.
“The hardest thing on these two bodies of water is being consistent,” Lester said. “A lot of times, you’ll see a guy come out of the gate with an 18- to 19-pound bag and then he’ll back it up with a 9- or 10-pound bag. It’s really hard to be consistent on these lakes.
“I think that’s really going to be a challenge. I think you’re going to see a decent amount of volatility in the leaderboard, and it should make for a very exciting tournament.”
Bassmaster LIVE kicks off tournament coverage Friday morning at 8 a.m. ET on Bassmaster.com, Tubi and the FOX Sports digital platforms. FS1 will broadcast live with the tournament leaders on Saturday and Sunday mornings before afternoon action from Championship Sunday picks up on FOX. A full viewing schedule can be found at Bassmaster.com/how-to-watch.
Festivities start Thursday at 5 p.m. ET with the Visit Knoxville Kickoff Party presented by TNT Fireworks on the Plaza Terrace at the Knoxville Convention Center. This family-friendly event will feature live music, local food trucks, fireworks and even a drone dance.
The annual Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by the U.S. Army will take place across the Knoxville Convention Center and adjacent World’s Fair Exhibition Hall with exhibitors on-site selling a variety of merchandise for fishing, hunting, camping and more. Hours for the Expo will be noon-7 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.
The Bassmaster Classic is being hosted by Visit Knoxville.