There will be opportunities to be had, but absolutely none to be squandered. As Elite Series pro Mark Menendez said, the St. Croix Bassmaster Open at Watts Bar Reservoir will likely test competitors’ patience and persistence.
Competition days will be Sept. 14-16 with daily takeoffs from Kingston Boat Ramp at 7:15 a.m. ET and weigh-ins each day back at the ramp at 3:15 p.m. Full coverage will be available on Bassmaster.com with FS1 broadcasting live with the leaders on Saturday morning beginning at 8 a.m.
“You’ll have to be a very clever angler to do well (in this event),” said Menendez, who hails from Paducah, Ky. “As a general rule, in September, the Tennessee River is a very difficult place to fish.
“We’re not really in fall yet, and we’re not really in summer still. We’re in those in-between dog days, so you’re going to have those fish that are lingering because of those warmer water temperatures. But we’ve also had a few cool nights so that early push of baitfish is going to pull some fish shallow.”
Menendez attributes the challenging circumstances to the dynamics of a pre-transitional period that’s typically short on consistency. With no one pattern likely to dominate, the weigh-ins might feature many talking of “junk fishing” their way to limits.
“You have fish that will be scattered from 12 inches to 30 feet. The only advantage to Watts Bar is that river section,” Menendez said. “It may hold the quantity of fish a little shallower, as rivers tend to do.
“It’s going to be stingy. I think a limit will be a prize possession. A 3 1/2-pounder is good quality on that lake. You get a 3 1/2-pounder and fill out with 2-pounders, that’s going to be a solid bag. Five-pounders are gold on that lake.”
The final event in Division 3 will take place on the second reservoir on the Tennessee River — one down from Fort Loudoun where the 2023 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Toyota was held March 24-26. With 39,090 surface acres, Watts Bar stands a couple of inches below full pool a week before the event begins.
As Menendez points out, the entirety of tournament waters will be in play, so competitors can scatter from creeks and major tributaries like the Clinch and Emory rivers to the river and main-lake waters. Fortunately, water level should remain fairly stable throughout the event.
Menendez said anglers will likely find visibility of 18 to 24 inches on the upper end of Watts Bar, with clear waters — possibly as much as 36 inches — on the deeper, lower end. Rainfall can always impact this, but with good numbers of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, competitors will have options.
Notably, the tournament’s 15-inch minimum size limit will keep all three species in play, but the latter two will play secondary roles. Someone could always boost their bag with a hefty smallmouth, but Menendez doesn’t expect to see the brown fish make as prominent a showing as they did when Canadian standout Jeff Gustafson earned his first Classic title back in March.
“I have seen tournaments on Watts Bar where the spotted bass have shown up, so there is a smattering population,” Menendez said. “I would say the smallmouth would be between 20% and 30% of the catches, and the rest will be largemouth.
“It can be day-to-day (with largemouth and smallmouth activity). We’re prone to start getting some major storms in the Southeast, and if we have a hurricane or a major low-pressure system come through, the fishing should be pretty good.”
Conversely, Menendez said the bluebird conditions of a postfrontal day will shrink the playing field, as fish will pull tight to big rocks, stumps and other cover. This is where forward-facing sonar can play a key role in helping anglers identify fish and fine-tune their targeting.
Productive baits will range from topwaters in the early mornings, to crankbaits, Flukes and lots of bottom-contact presentations such as jigs, shaky heads, Carolina rigs and big, Texas-rigged worms. Whatever the choice, success will hinge on execution.
“You’re going to have a tournament where the anglers are going to have to be resourceful,” Menendez said. “This is not going to be one of those where you’re going to get a lot of spare bites this time of year.”
Expecting 23 to 24 pounds to make the Top 10 cut and 43 to 45 for the win, Menendez believes mobility could be one of the key strategy points. Fishing pressure plus summer’s slim pickings tends to dispel the one-spot notion.
“I think you’re going to need to have a milk run of 25 to 40 bass condominiums,” Menendez said. “And if you get an opportunity, you’d better make the most of it."
South Carolina’s JT Thompkins leads the Bassmaster Opens Elite Qualifiers standings with 1,087 points. Bassmaster Elite Series pro Kenta Kimura of Osaka, Japan, is second with 1,080, followed by John Garrett of Union City, Tenn., with 1,067, Trey McKinney of Carbondale, Ill., with 1,034 and Robert Gee of Knoxville, Tenn., with 1,018.
Only anglers who fish all nine Opens this season are eligible for the Elite Qualifiers Division. After the final three Opens of the year, the top nine eligible anglers will receive invitations to fish the 2024 Bassmaster Elite Series. Complete standings are available at Bassmaster.com.
The City of Kingston is hosting the tournament.
2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Title Sponsor: St. Croix2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota 2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha 2023 Bassmaster Opens Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew's, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC