RICHMOND, Va. — Elite Series pro Charlie Hartley stood on the banks of the James River this morning and pulled a card from his wife Tracey out of his pocket. Amidst a jumble of smaller lettering, one large word stood out: “BELIEVE.”
He expects to get a similar card from her each day of the event. They are his grounding and his bearings, a taste of home when he cannot be there. Lately, home has just been a distant memory. Last week, he was in Louisiana to fish the Elite Series Toledo Bend Battle. Next week, he’ll be in Wisconsin with the Elites for the Mississippi River Rumble. Draw a straight line between those two points on the map and it takes you nowhere near Virginia. Nor does it take you near Tulsa, Okla., site of the 2013 Bassmaster Classic, but if he wants to get to world championship of bass fishing, the road will run through Richmond, one way or another.
Four Elite Series pros will compete here this week, and none of them is guaranteed a Classic spot. Rookie Kyle Fox, currently 34th in the Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year race, would seem to have the best shot. Fred Roumbanis (56th) will need a major late-season surge to get there. Stephen Browning (83rd) and Hartley (87th) would likely need to win one of the three remaining Elite Series tournaments to obtain a spot in the Classic through the Elites – but an Open win would accomplish the same goal. Thus, the four road warriors made a substantial detour between Toledo Bend and the Upper Mississippi to get here.
“It was 19 hours of driving,” Hartley said. “I used to be able to drive all night and didn’t mind it, but now I’m starting to hate all of the driving.”
For a certifiable neat freak like Hartley, it’s also meant a few extra trips to the car wash to keep his tow vehicle and Ranger boat looking showroom new. He’d love to ride a spotless boat into the arena in Tulsa, rekindling memories of his 2008 Classic Cinderella story, when he led the tournament after the first day and instantly became a fan favorite. That surge into the public consciousness added to the pressure, though. “It was a lot easier to have bad results when people didn’t know who Charlie Hartley was,” he said. “Still, most people out there wish they were doing this today. This is the greatest rush of my life. I tried to find that rush other ways when I was younger. I tried everything, but this is the only one that does it for me. I don’t regret the time or money I’ve spent chasing this dream for one minute.”
The Opens have been particularly hospitable to Hartley’s dreams. In the 2007 Southern Opens he finished 3rd at Kissimmee, 2nd at Santee Cooper and 13th at Wheeler to easily earn a berth in the Classic at Hartwell the following February. In last year’s Northern Opens, he finished 22nd at the James, 19th at Lake Erie and 15th at Oneida. With the win-and-you’re-in Classic qualifying structure, that didn’t earn him a second Classic berth, but it showed that he can compete against the best mix of tour-level talent and top local sticks.
“I don’t know why I do better in the Opens (than in the Elites),” he said. “I probably fish a little more relaxed, less puckered up.”
He’ll have to win to make it to Oklahoma next February; and while the second Northern Open, out of Detroit, would seem to many to provide his best chance given his Great Lakes expertise, he believes that his experience on the stingy Ohio River gives him a fighting chance this week, too. Prior to last year’s Open, he’d never fished the James, and although it was the worst of his three Northern Open finishes, he declared it “the one that I’m most proud of.” He recognized that he could not learn the entire river system in a short practice period, so he identified the region most likely to produce the winning catch and put all of his eggs in that basket. He intends to do that again in 2012.
This year he’s watched joyfully as long-time friends like Brent Chapman and Randy Howell have surged to the top of the AOY standings. “I love it this year because it’s a whole different batch of guys at the top,” he said. “Part of that is the schedule and part of it is the fact that nobody could stay on the kind of roll some of those guys were on forever.” The implication is that he hopes that it’s his time to shine, too, and that he will do everything within his power to relive the rush that surged through him that first day at Hartwell in 2008.”
“I’m tired of being mad that I’m not KVD,” he said. “I’m happy to be Charlie Hartley.”
One word: Believe.