The 2008 Bassmaster Classic marks just the second time that fishing's most prestigious championship has been held in South Carolina. The 1973 Classic was contested on Clarks Hill Reservoir, another Savannah River impoundment, just downstream from Hartwell.
Impounded in 1961, the 55,950-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) reservoir bears the name of a nearby Georgia town which was named for Revolutionary War heroine Nancy Hart. The lake provides hydroelectric power, flood control and recreation, including bass fishing.
Although it's one of the most visited COE lakes in the country, it gets relatively little fishing pressure. This could change after 50 of the world's best bass anglers converge there for the Classic from February 22-24, 2008, and show the angling public what it can produce.
Lake Hartwell's terrain is fairly rugged. Its upper end lies in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and the waters run as deep as 204 feet. It has some shoreline development, but most of the banks are unspoiled and heavily wooded.
During construction of the dam, the standing timber along the shores was removed, but trees in the main body of the lake were flooded. The result is a giant underwater forest between 10 and 100 feet deep.
Shad and blueback herring make up the primary forage for Hartwell's bass populations. There is a 12-inch size limit on the lake's bass, but few anglers keep fish. In the mid 1970s, both Georgia and South Carolina authorities discovered pollutants in the water and issued advisories against the consumption of bass.
Hartwell will likely be an unknown quantity to most of the Classic qualifiers. It's been the site of only two professional-level BASS events, the 1996 and 1998 Georgia Invitationals, held in November and May, respectively. They were both three-day events, and it took between 42 and 51 pounds to win.
Though it's produced bass over 10 pounds, including a reported 14-pounder in the late 1970s, Hartwell is better known for numbers of bass than lunkers. Regulars on the lake report that bass spend much of the year relating to the flooded forests, especially those trees adjacent to creek and river channels.
If Classic week is cold, expect some successful competitors to unlock the deep water bite with jigs, spoons, drop shot rigs and other vertical presentations. If things warm up, jerkbaits, crankbaits and flipping jigs should get in the mix.
So, who's the early favorite? The smart money would have to be on Alabama's Gerald Swindle. He fished both previous BASS events on Hartwell, finishing fifth in 1996 and second in 1998. After bidding a tearful goodbye to his fans at the 2007 Classic following his disqualification for unsafe boating, a Classic championship would be an impressive comeback for the G-Man.
The blueback herring forms the forage base for Lake Hartwell and other Savannah River fisheries such as Russell and Clark's Hill. And this baitfish will likely have a role in the storyline at the 2008 Bassmaster Classic to be held on Hartwell.
The blueback herring has a spotty history. Native to the Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia to the St. Johns River in Florida, it's a tremendous baitfish for a variety of saltwater species.
It's also anadromous, which means it can survive in salt- or freshwater. This occurs naturally in some brackish waters and unnaturally in some landlocked bodies like lakes Lanier, Oneida, Champlain, Smith Mountain, Kerr and, yes, Hartwell.
Generally measuring less than 10 inches in length, bluebacks can grow to more than a foot long and weight better than a pound. That's bigger than most bass can handle and part of the reason anglers and biologists are less than excited about the long-term effects of herring on the bass population.
Young herring compete with bass fry for food, dining in some of the same places and on some of the same organisms. It only takes a couple of years for a blueback to grow to a size that most bass simply can't eat while threadfin shad stay bite-size for their entire life cycle.
Worst of all, when herring get to be too big for bass to eat, they actually turn the dining tables on bass and start to eat bass fry! Once the bluebacks reach a length of 8 inches or so, bass are not just predators, but also prey.
The enduring effects of blueback herring on the bass population are, as yet, unknown, but biologists and bass anglers are watching.