By Greg McCain
One of the first major cold fronts of the fall proved to be a major obstacle for many fishermen competing in the Alabama B.A.S.S. Nation (ABN) State Championship on Lake Guntersville Friday and Saturday (Nov. 1-2).
Temperatures near freezing and north winds greeted anglers in both days of the tournament, making fishing conditions less than desirable after the front passed. Zeros were numerous and most weights were low compared to normal Guntersville standards.
For Justin Nichols, the passing front proved to be a positive rather than a negative, however. The Fayette Bass Club member posted a solid weight in the opening round and added the tournament’s biggest bag on the second day, surging past Day 1 leaders and claiming the 2019 ABN championship. Nichols’ 30.29 total edged second-place finisher Ed Payne (Winfield Bassmasters), who caught 27.75 over two days.
Opening-round leader Brent Crow (Marathon Bassmasters) finished third with 27.25. Crow brought over 16 lbs. to the scale on Friday but couldn’t duplicate the catch on Saturday.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Nichols said. “I’m almost 45, and I started fishing these tournaments when I was about 19. I’ve come close to winning one of these and have been on the state team several times. I went to the national championship in ’07.
“But I haven’t been able to put it all together until today. I’ve fished a lot of the qualifiers and had several top 10s the last few years. To win one is a huge accomplishment.”
Terrell Pennington (Winfield Bassmasters) claimed the co-angler title with a two-day total of 19.07. Much like Nichols, Pennington used a solid three-fish limit over 11 lbs. to move to the top of the leaderboard. Early leader Josh Dees (Birmingham Bass Club), who caught the Academy Sports + Outdoors big fish (6.43) on Day 1, finished second among co-anglers with 18.24.
Pennington and Payne combined to win the George Paint and Body Shop ABN Team Championship, just ahead of Nichols and his partner, Will Delaney (Shelton State Bass Club). Pennington and Payne combined for 46.82; Nichols and Delaney totaled 46.13.
Along with the individual competition, 14 teams competed for the team title. The top two teams, along with third-place team finishers Eulon Lee (Rumbling Waters Bass Anglers) and Lee Hanvey (Lee County Bass Club), all qualified for the B.A.S.S. Nation Team Championship on Lake Hartwell in December.
Despite the passing of the cold front and low temperatures on both Friday and Saturday morning, Nichols said he was glad to see the sunshine, which he said helped to position the fish in predictable spots.
He caught 12.45 Friday and found himself in sixth place.
“We had been here (practicing for a while), and they just weren’t biting,” Nichols said, “one fish here and one fish there. I could tell they were starting to bite a little bit. I had about 13 pounds on Friday, and it seemed like the bite was picking up. We hadn’t had enough sunshine to position the fish. When the sun finally came out, it caused these fish to make a move up the points, up to the edge of the grass, and up on the ledges.”
Even with the better bite, Nichols needed a late flurry to finish off Saturday’s round. Fishing “all over the lake,” Nichols caught an early limit but boated two tournament-winning largemouths in the final hour.
“I never was able to find a concentration of fish,” he said. “I had a limit in the livewell but had a couple that were just keepers. Then I caught a five and a four in the last hour. In fact, I caught the five-plus about 10 minutes before I pulled up the trolling motor.”
Nichols’ 5.44-pounder was the Academy Sports + Outdoors Big Fish for Day 2. That fish gave him 17.84 for the day.
Nichols and Delaney caught their fish on True Bass swimbaits in the 99 Problems color, mainly around grass edges in 5-10 feet of water. The majority of the field reported catching their bass on A-rigs with some type of swimbait trailers.
“My life dream was to make the classic,” Nichols said. “This is a working man’s tournament and the way the working man makes the Classic. I’m glad to have another chance.”
Rounding out the top five in the boater division were Lee (24.86) and Kyle Glasgow (Winfield Bassmasters; 22.76). On the co-angler side, Larry Franks Sr (Coosa River Rats; 16.26) finished third followed by Delaney (15.84) and Chris Curvin (Neely Henry Bassmasters; 12.67).
The top five boaters and co-anglers all made the state team that will compete in the B.A.S.S. Nation Southeastern Regional on Lake Okeechobee in late January.
Also making the state team were each of the boater and co-angler winners from the four qualifying tournaments this year. On the boater side, those winners were Rickie Harp (Lake Tuscaloosa Bassmasters), Joel Smith (Winfield Bassmasters), Will Davis (Pro Line Bassmasters), and Billy Black (Monroe County B.A.S.S. Anglers). Co-angler winners were McCain Merchant (Winfield Bassmasters), Trey Mitchell (Shoals Fishers of Men), Donny Davis (Belgreen Bass Club), and Donald Henderson (Monroe County B.A.S.S. Anglers).
The two Motivated Movers Angler of the Year winners for 2019 also made the state team. Myles Palmer (Pro Line Bassmasters) put together a consistent season and won the boater side ahead of Bruce Sargent (Birmingham Bass Club).
The co-angler AOY winner was Jonathan Barnette (Carbon Hill Bass Club). Jonathan Trowbridge (Birmingham Bass Club) finished second.
Lee took home the final prize in the tournament as the top finisher among Fishin’ 4 A Cure (F4AC) participants. Competitors pay an optional $25 per tournament to F4AC, and the money goes to help combat childhood diseases at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham. Airport Marine and Office Partners are the F4AC sponsors.
Other regular sponsors for the ABN include Triton Boats, Mercury, Motor Guide, Lowrance, NetBait, Shell, Hammer Rods, Daiwa, Shelby County, StrikeZone Lure Co., Charlie’s BBQ, Davis Bait Company, and George Paint and Body. A new sponsor for the state championship was Halo Rods, which were included in the prize package for the AOY winners.
The ABN takes a short break but returns to action in late winter. The opening 2020 qualifier will be another potentially cold tournament Feb. 8 on Lake Guntersville. Other qualifiers will be held at Eufaula (March 14), Martin (April 18), and Neely Henry (May 16). The 2020 ABN State Championship returns to Eufaula Nov. 6-7.
Greg McCain is a freelance writer with current credits in Alabama Outdoor News, Great Days Outdoors, Alabama Game & Fish, and CrappieNOW online magazine in addition to producing content and photos for this website. He is a member of the Belgreen Bass Club, an ABN chapter near Russellville.