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What's on Classic Casting Decks?

What's on Classic Casting Decks?
Z-Man® Bassmaster Classic pros call out their starting lineup lures

Ladson, SC (March 21, 2023) – On two of B.A.S.S.' last visits to Knoxville and the headwaters of the Tennessee River, first-place anglers won with two completely different Z-Man lures, targeting two entirely opposite patterns—one shallow, one deep. If predictions for a tumultuous 2023 Bassmaster Classic hold true, might we see a third?

In 2019, the last time fifty of North America's finest bass sticks converged for a Tennessee River Classic, the winning angler slung an unnamed "3/8-ounce bladed jig, chartreuse-white, with a pearl white, fluke-style trailer." Eventually, although the Classic-winning angler wasn't sponsored by Z-Man, observers all arrived at the same conclusion—that the unnamed bladed jig was, in fact, a Z-Man ChatterBait® JackHammer™.

At the 2021 Bassmaster Elite event on the same waterway—albeit a few weeks earlier than the 2023 Classic dates of March 24 to 26—tournament winner and Z-Man pro Jeff "Gussy" Gustafson boated 63-pounds of Tennessee River bronze bass. Gussy put on a smallmouth catching clinic, boating 20 to 30 bronzebacks each day on a 3/8-ounce jig and 4-inch Scented Jerk ShadZ™.

Determining whether we'll once again see a "ChatterBait Classic," a deepwater Jerk ShadZ bite or an entirely off the wall pattern is what pre-tournament speculation is all about. Especially given the specter of unstable weather and bass in prespawn transition, no one holds the Classic crystal ball of bass behavior—especially on the dynamic, diverse Tennessee River system. But just as we anxiously pick our NCAA Final Four, it's fun to take gander into the boats of our favorite bass pros—in this case, examining the array of rods and lures lining the casting decks of Z-Man pros Gustafson, Seth Feider and Classic rookie Jonathan Dietz.

Gussy's Gameplan
"The last time we visited this fishery, something pretty special happened," recalls Ontario, Canada native and Bassmaster Elite champ, Gustafson. "Still cool to remember how all those smallmouths ate the Scented Jerk ShadZ, worked vertically over deep rocks. Gotta credit Ron Lindner, who pioneered the whole 'moping' technique—a super fun cat-and-mouse method for targeting bass around deep structure.

"This time around, the Classic lands a month later in the season. And one thing I've learned from fishing professionally over the past decade is that on these southern reservoirs, the same areas and programs never unfold the same from year to year. Up north, a good spot is usually good every year, but that's seldom the case on these reservoirs. I'm guessing, given the warm winter they've had (in Tennessee), the fish will be past that full coldwater mode now in late March.

"That said, I know the smallmouth population is significant here, so my plan will likely revolve around figuring out where they are at this stage—whether that's deep in the channels and canals between lakes or up a lot shallower."

Z-Man pro Jeff Gustafson's bass battle scars exhibit the efficacy of his vertical Jerk ShadZ program.

Gussy divulges a few of the rigs and baits that will likely remain on his casting deck throughout the event. "I'll definitely have a few different Jerk ShadZ tied on. Bad Shad and Shiner are both great patterns. Beyond the bait's uncanny durability, the thing that sets the Jerk ShadZ apart from other moping baits is its buoyancy. With most other plastics, you hang the bait down there and it just sags and sits tail down, which doesn't look right to the bass. But when you hang a Jerk ShadZ on a 90-degree jighead, the bait's ElaZtech composition keeps it hovering naturally horizontal, and floats it right over the rocky terrain without snagging.

"Again, I'd love to find smallmouths in those areas, set up on the deep rocks again. But in case they move up, I'll also have a Ned-rigged Hula StickZ™ on the deck the whole time. That bait is always a player, especially if bass are working shallower rocks, which looks like a real possibility."

Re-watching the 2019 Classic, Gussy also noted the prominence of the ChatterBait JackHammer. "Seems like almost every year, the JackHammer plays big among the top ten finishers, including 2019 Classic winner, Ott DeFoe. If the smallmouth thing falls through, I'll be relying on a ½-ounce JackHammer with a RaZor ShadZ™ trailer. That combo is one of the all-time great tourney baits, no doubt.

"Realistically, though, to give myself the best chance to win, the smallmouth program will probably have to play big," Gustafson admits. "It's sort of a roulette game because smallmouths must measure 18-inches to keep. But if you can catch limits of them, you have a great chance to be right there at the end of the weekend. No matter what we find, it's going to be fun."

Feider's Forecast
Heading in to Classic prefishing, Z-Man pro Seth Feider called out three potential presentations, each suited to find fish or extract big bites from smaller cover-laded locations. "I'm nowhere near as skilled with moping as Gussy. But this week, I'll have a Scented Jerk ShadZ rigged up and on the deck, no doubt. The reality is, there'll probably be too much attention to this method, which will make boating limits of smallmouths with it pretty tough, either way. Then again, not everyone will fish a Jerk ShadZ, which offers huge advantages in buoyancy, action and the resiliency to fish one bait all day long.

"Of course, the JackHammer and Razor ShadZ combo is always a big player here. I'll certainly have at least two ChatterBait rods up on deck to cover water and extract big bites. One, with a shad pattern like Spot Remover or Clearwater Shad. And a second with Fire Craw for way up in the creeks or around any dirtier water; that color is money. If we get rain and dirty water, the Big Blade™ ChatterBait could also play. Feels like that lure is on the verge of a big tourney win."

For prespawn bass, Seth Feider leans on low-profile jig trailers, such as the resilient and buoyant BatwingZ.

When the water's still down in the 50s, Feider likes to "go real slow with the JackHammer, often grinding on rock banks and along laydowns and marina docks."

Closer to Feider's wheelhouse, a flipping jig with a BatwingZ™ trailer will see water-time as a 'spot-checker.' "I've got a ton of confidence in that little BatwingZ, which has broad, flat flapper claws. It's a streamlined, subtle action trailer, especially great in colder water. When you stop, the buoyant claws ascend, hover and continue attracting attention— perfect for slow presentations around specific pieces of shallow cover.

"Regardless of how things unfold, we'll all be making daily adjustments. Bass will be moving up and back, especially if the water temp fluctuates between the high 40s and low 50s."

Dietz' Deal
When energetic Pennsylvania pro and Classic first-timer Jonathan Dietz first visited Knoxville in January, he drew parallels between the Tennessee River and his favorite waterways back home. "Realistically, the Tennessee doesn't set up that differently from the Susquehanna, Allegheny or other rivers I grew up on," notes Dietz, who qualified for the Classic via Bass Nation. "You're looking for stable weather, of course. So, I'm hoping to chase largemouths if the weather holds. But the smallies always seem less affected by weather swings."

Back in town last week, Dietz took a tour of the fishery and was greeted by budding hardwoods and the smells of spring. "The bass should be snapping," he noted, even before his first cast. "In prefishing, I started in the upper stretches and creeks and gradually worked my way down toward Tellico (reservoir) and out into the deeper main lake. Imagine I might continue this plan on Friday.

"For me, it could be that classic one-two punch of covering water with a ChatterBait—especially up in the creeks and around shallow laydowns—and slowing down and picking things apart with a Power Fineese ShroomZ™ jig and a Finesse TRD™.

"One cool little bait that's been tearing 'em up is a Boar HogZ™, cut to 3-inches, rigged on that same Power Finesse ShroomZ jig. Throwing this thing around isolated pieces of cover, I've got a lot of confidence in its ability to get bites.

"Everyone has tricks up their sleeve. This is my first Classic. I'm just going to take it all in; enjoy every minute of the derby. But that doesn't mean I'm not here to win. That's the cool thing. Put together a few good days, and it's anyone's ballgame."

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