The 50 Bassmaster Classic qualifiers showed up at Alabama's Lay Lake for three days of practice last week, and were met by brutal weather. Temperatures remained consistently cold, and strong storms blew through the area.

"The highest it ever got was 33 degrees," Gonzales competitor Greg Hackney said.

These aren't your average tournament anglers, however, so they hit the water daily to make the best of the practice. And, surprisingly, the horrid weather didn't really stop the bite.

"I was getting 25 to 30 bites a day," Hackney said.

The key was moving into deeper water and focusing on Lay Lake's healthy population of smallmouth bass. Unfortunately, the smallmouth patterns Hackney and other competitors put together likely will be useless when competition begins Friday (Feb. 23).

"The conditions are going to be completely different," he said. "It's going to be cloudy, rainy and warm.

"I think I'll fish totally opposite of how I fished in practice."

That's because the warming trend, with forecasts calling for lows in the mid 50s and highs reaching into the mid 70s, likely will make largemouth bass a larger factor in competition than during practice.

"These fish are ready to go, and when it warms up, they'll go on up to the bank," Hackney said. "Now that it's warming up, it's going to be a largemouth thing."

He said that doesn't mean he'll be flipping, which is his favored style of fishing, however.

"They're not going to be up in the grass," Hackney said. "They'll be around it, but not in it. There's a good chance the Classic will be won on a spinnerbait."

His prediction that blades will be more effective also reflects the fact that the weather has been consistently cold for the past month or so, keeping water temperatures and fishing pressure low.

"These fish really haven't been fooled with," Hackney said. "They're going to come on the bank and go on a feed."

While all of this might sound positive, Hackney said he actually was disappointed that the tough weather conditions didn't hang around.

"I wish it had stayed cold," he said. "It was going to cut down on what (his competitors) were going to catch."

Now, putting fish in the boat shouldn't be a problem.

"The warming trend opens up the field," Hackney explained. "Instead of having to beat out 10 percent of the field, now you're going to have to beat 75 percent of the anglers.

"It's going to be another slug fest."

Hackney said predictions for the winning three-day stringer had hovered in the 40-pound range, but the emergence of the largemouth bite should result in bag-bulging catches.

"I think it's going to be a big-weight Classic – 50 pounds or better," he said.

Hackney has competed in every Classic since bursting onto the Bassmaster scene by qualifying for the so-called "Big Show" in 2002 through the Bassmaster Open trail. However, he's struggled during his four previous Classic appearances.

His highest championship finish came in 2006, when he landed in 19th place. The other Classics ended with Hackney sitting in 42nd (2005), 35th (2004) and 31st (2003).

Hackney said that, while he has been disappointed every year, there's a basic reason for his low finishes.

"You've got to let it all hang out because you're not fishing for points," Hackney said. "You're going strictly for the win."

That has lead Hackney to take chances and swing for the fences.

"I'm known for going out there and doing off-the-wall stuff," he said.

This year will be different, with Hackney looking to be in play for the win.

"This is the first Classic that I'm going to go out and fish for a good tournament," Hackney said. "That's how I've won tournaments before. I'm still going to go for the win, but I'm going to keep it more in reason."

If he pulls it off, he'll add to his three Bassmaster wins and pad his account significantly with the $500,000 first-place check. That would push his total Bassmaster winnings from $771,550 currently to well over the $1 million mark.

Competition begins Friday and wraps up Sunday, with the event receiving extensive coverage on ESPN2.
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