Venice and the Bassmaster Classic just haven't mixed.

Pros filled the area before the 1999 Classic, expecting big things from the rich waters at the tail end of the Mississippi River.

But Hurricane Georges had blasted the vast delta less than a year before, leaving bass populations decimated.

That championship event was won by Davy Hite, who fished less than an hour from the landing.

When the Classic returned in 2001, eyes again turned to Venice.

The waters still hadn't returned to pre-Georges conditions, but the bass that were being caught were nice.

Again, however, Mother Nature intervened, sending Tropical Storm Barry into the Gulf of Mexico and pushing the water several feet higher than normal.

Several anglers made the 2 1/2-hour run to the legendary fishing grounds, and Kentucky's David Walker came to within a little more than a pound of winning the event.

Kevin Van Dam took the top prize during that Classic while fishing in Bayou Black — as far away from Venice as he could get.

This year, however, I'm predicting a Venice angler will be the one holding up the winner's trophy after the final day's weigh-in.

While there still aren't as many bass as before the eye of Hurricane Georges skipped by just to the east of the delta, there are numbers of 3- to 5-pound fish lurking among the roseau cane marshes.

Proof of that was graphically shown this year when anglers running as far as 350 miles round-trip to and from Venice consistently caught tournament-winning stringers in excess of 18 pounds.

Gonzales angler Jamie Laiche made the longest haul, running all the way from Doiron's Landing north of Morgan City to the Pass A Loutre area.

He placed second during that tournament, but he had already pounded the same area the day before during a Bass Fishing League event out of Bayou Segnette.

Making the same run many of the pros will make this month, Laiche brought back a 26-pound, 15-ounce stringer of bass that floored the rest of the tournament's field.

That's an average weight of 5.3 pounds per fish.

"It was just unreal — unbelievable," Laiche said at the time.

Two weeks later, V&M bait company pro Dwayne Plaisance of Harvey teamed up with Marrerro's David St. Pierre to boat 21.45 pounds of Venice bass during an Angler's Choice tournament out of Bob's Bayou Black Marina.

Plaisance, who has fished Venice for years, has been making long runs to the area for several years — and he has rarely been disappointed.

"I just think you can consistently catch better stringers in Venice," the 41-year-old contractor explained.

This hard-core bass angler believes so strongly in the virtues of Venice that he had a boat custom-built to allow frequent runs of more than 100 miles.

It was aboard this Venice veteran's Rocket that I found myself in late June screaming downriver at 80 mph to tour the area.

What I discovered further strengthened my belief that Venice bass would win the Classic.

This was when the Mississippi River was at about 11 feet in New Orleans, and I had about as much confidence that we would catch fish for pictures as in my chances of winning the Super Bowl.

Plaisance was undeterred, assuring me that we would have no problem.

As the boat shot downstream, I couldn't help but doubt the man.

The water was absolutely putrid, and I'm one of many anglers who had fallen for the conventional wisdom that Venice bass fishing was impossible at such a high, muddy river stage.

Scattered reports that Classic pros, who had been in the area that week for the practice period leading up to the championship tournament, had been catching some nice bass bounced around in the back of my head.

But I'll admit it — I thought we would have trouble putting bass in the boat. So when we turned into Dennis Pass, I was astounded by what we soon found.

There was plenty of beautiful water to be found.

Some was leaching out of the canes on the edge of the pass, providing that halo of fishable water that most anglers familiar with Venice know means bass.

But there were also canals that were filled with green water.

In less than an hour, we had our first strike, which I promptly missed.

By 9 a.m., however, Plaisance had put a 3-pound bass in the boat.

The day was done — we had a fish for pictures.

That wasn't the end of the fishing, however; we had a total of six or seven bites by noon.

But the real question remains: Can Venice produce enough big bass over three days to win the Classic?

Yes.

Here's my reasoning, backed up by Plaisance and my trip downriver.

First let's look at the health of the bass population.

OK, so the numbers of fish that historically swam among the roseau canes of the area were decimated by Georges.

But that was almost five years ago, and the numbers have steadily increased during the succeeding years.

However, total numbers aren't the only precursor for money-winning bags of fish.

Remember, the Classic game isn't about who catches the most fish — it's about who catches the heaviest stringers during the three days of competition.

So it's much more important that an area have big bass than numbers of bass.

Venice fits this bill perfectly, and Plaisance explained why.

"The big fish know enough to pull out to the deep water," Plaisance said. "Those little fish are the ones we find floating out into the Gulf."

So what happened after Georges tore through Venice was that the older, and thus heavier, bass left the ponds and pulled into the deeper, more stable passes.

When the water settled down, these fish slowly moved back into the marshes again as water conditions improved.

Anglers saw the rafts of dead fish, and logically assumed most of the bass were dead.

All the bass didn't die, however. Those survivors have been growing and getting heavier by the year.

That probably wouldn't matter that much if the other Classic waters — Bayou Black, Bayou Des Allemands and Caernarvon — were in prime condition.

But remember — those areas received a double whammy when Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili slammed into the Louisiana coast last year.

Isidore sliced through the state Sept. 26 on a line that took it directly over Des Allemands, churning up the area.

The storm surge also pushed immense amounts of salt water into the Caernarvon area.

A week later, on Oct. 3, Lili blasted into the Atchafalaya Delta with winds exceeding 110 m.p.h.

That put Bayou Black in the worst-possible quadrant of the storm, and the results were predictable.

Fish turned belly up by the thousands within days, with salt water being pushed far into the freshwater estuary.

Already flooded, Caernarvon received even more sea water, and Des Allemands was further churned by the fury of the storm.

One would have expected Venice to be pummeled, but the storms didn't seem to have much of an impact.

The reason probably was that the river, even at its low stage, quickly purged the delta of high concentrations of salt water and re-oxygenated any waters that were churned up.

Fast forward to this spring, and the results of the storms become evident.

While there were isolated 18- to 20-pound stringers landed in the northern Classic waters, the majority of the weights from these areas were down.

The summer heat settled winning weights down to between 10 and 12 pounds.

Caernarvon, despite the strong storm surge, might still be the only waters that can rival Venice, but the route is so unpredictable that it will almost certainly be ignored by the Classic field.

Just ask Dwayne Horton, who during the 2001 Classic made the top 10 on day two while fishing in Caernarvon.

He left the dock on the third and final day with hopes of clawing his way to a top-five finish, only to discover that between the Ostrica lock and rough water on the east side of the river he didn't have time to fish.

"When I got there, I looked at my watch, sat down and headed back," Horton said at the time. "I didn't have any time to fish."

Back to Venice

The waters surrounding this small fishing town are seemingly endless, with quality bass fishing stretched over 30 miles of marsh.

But don't expect the heaviest weights to come from the Wagon Wheel, Penny Rhodes or any of the other upriver areas.

Those waters are too accessible, so any pro stopping there will have to compete with local, weekend anglers.

There also are simply fewer good bass holes left near Venice.

Look at a recent aerial map — there just isn't much marsh left.

"The Wagon Wheel and the land up there is taking a whipping from erosion," Plaisance explained.

The more-southerly reaches of the river, however, are still lush, with ponds filled with sediment-filtering vegetation.

That still covers quite a bit of area, including the Delta National Wildlife Refuge and Pass A Loutre Wildlife Management area.

But I would look to the waters bordered on the west by South Pass and the east by Johnson Pass.

These are the waters that have what it takes for anglers to consistently put 14 pounds in the boat.

And if the right fish bite, an angler could find himself with 15 to 18 pounds, possibly more.

Plaisance agreed.

"There is one spot up there (in Delta NWR) where we have caught some good fish, but the more consistent stringers have come from down here," he said.

What is so special about this sliver of marsh?

Again, look at an aerial map.

The defining features are the main passes that spider off of the river.

Dennis, Johnson and Cadro passes filter untold amounts of fresh river water through the marshes. And then there's the water that comes directly out of the river's South Pass through cuts in the banks.

The result is a land mass that, by and large, is holding together to provide a stable, nutrient- and bait-rich environment for bass.

Fish also have very easy access to deep water in the event of a hurricane or surge of salt water.

"The fish can quickly escape into the river and the passes," he said.

These waters also provide something that none of the other Classic waters can — consistent water movement.

That is going to be extremely important during Classic week because the tides die out during the competition.

When the anglers practice for one day before the event, they'll be faced with a 1.1-foot tide that peaks at Head of Passes at 11:17 a.m.

That will create some difficulties because fish will be pulled into the canes and the anglers will only have about four hours to fish after making the 2-hour run from the landing. The water will be rising most of that fishing time.

This is when those anglers in Bayou Black, Des Allemands and Caernarvon will catch their best bags.

But the tides lose their punch during the tournament.

Day one will see a range of .7 feet, and the water will move only .4 feet on day two.

Day three, there will be a paltry .1 foot of movement.

In most tidal areas, that would be devastating — and you can look for bags from Bayous Black and Des Allemands, along with any that might come from Caernarvon, to lighten up as the tide wanes.

Venice stringers, on the other hand, will probably strengthen.

There's a two-pronged reason for this.

First, even on days of no tidal movement, there will be water flowing down the Mississippi River.

That means current will still prompt bass to feed along the passes, while anglers in Bayou Black, Des Allemands and Caernarvon will be fishing stagnant waters.

Tied to this aspect is the fact fish will pull out of the interior canes to be near the current, and that will make Venice pros' job of locating fish easier.

But Plaisance said there's an equally important reason why Venice anglers will benefit from the slackening tides.

"When fish are feeding on (a strong tide), they know when the best feeding time is, and they key on those prime times," he said. "Without the tide, they don't know when the prime time is.

"They will actually feed all day on poor tidal days."

A pro might only get six or eight bites scattered throughout the day, but the likelihood is high that the best five fish will add up to a heavy stringer.

A side benefit of the slack tide is that much of the water will be eliminated from their playbooks.

Ponds and interior waters will likely have little water movement, so the pros can forget about those areas and stick with the main passes and bayous.

Plaisance said the key will be to locate the stretches that include the deeper water typical of the passes near shallower feeding areas.

"That's a great place to catch a fish," he said.

The pros also will probably be hopping from point to point, flipping plastics and jigs.

But what happens if another storm forms in the Gulf and pushes waters higher than normal?

One tropical storm already has hit the state this year. Tropical Storm Bill came ashore south of Houma, but wasn't powerful enough to cause much damage to local areas, let alone Venice.

There was still a month left between then and the start of the Classic, however.

The only impact high water is likely to have is that fish will be less accessible.

That's not to minimize the effect on fishing.

High water in Venice means fish can and will move into the canes along the passes, but, as mentioned before, they will have to remain fairly close to moving water, which will put them within range of Classic anglers' lures.

"The bite will get slower, but if you can put those fish in the boat, you can still put together a nice stringer," Plaisance explained.

In this eventuality, it's going to be key for the anglers to locate some fish on the one practice day and then sit on them until they bite.

"That's what those pros need to do — locate those key spots and claim them," Plaisance said. "Don't move and don't give it up. Those fish will bite sooner or later.

"They're not going far."