When Alton Jones first visited Lake Hartwell in December to practice for February's Bassmaster Classic, he hardly fished at all. Instead, seeing that the impoundment was 12 feet low, he spent his time with a video camera, filming potential structure and cover that might, if the lake level were to rise, become prime bass holding areas. He marked them with his GPS, and catalogued more than 130 locations.
When the veteran Texas pro returned to Hartwell for the final official practice, he realized immediately the lake had not risen and his waypoints were still high and dry; nonetheless, he studied his videos anyway. This time, he searched for clues that might tell him what lay below the surface in those same areas.
"I've always said bass fishing is first about location, location, location," emphasized Jones, who after three tough-weather days on Hartwell made winning the 38th edition of bass fishing's biggest show look easy. He finished with 15 bass weighing 49 pounds, 7 ounces, more than 5 pounds ahead of runner-up Cliff Pace, who brought 44-5 to the scales. Kevin VanDam finished third with 43-8 —his fifth Top 5 Classic finish in the past five years; Florida pro Bobby Lane grabbed fourth with 42-7; and Greg Hackney slipped into fifth with 41-7.
Weather and water conditions during Classic week combined to make this tournament far more challenging than expected. Those pros who had been relying on a shallow prespawn bite faced near icy conditions and 48 degree water temperature; any bass that were caught shallow only served to give a false impression. At the same time, the low water level — more than half the boat ramps on Hartwell were closed — eliminated miles of spawning shoreline and cover.
The pros who had established deep water patterns encountered their own problems: Bass were either suspended or moving as they followed schools of blueback herring. As with the shallow fish, catches could be fast and dramatic but they weren't always reliable, especially when anglers encountered feeding sprees of bass attacking the herring.
After bringing 18-10 to the scales the first day and holding down fifth place, runner-up Pace noted, "It's so easy to miss it here. You have to find just the right spot at just the right time. You can spend all day searching for that 10-minute window of opportunity." Pace had just experienced that very phenomenon, in that he had caught one fish 25 feet deep in an hour of casting, then moved to the back of a creek and caught bass on every cast for the next 20 minutes.
Others weren't as lucky. Not only did defending Classic Champion Boyd Duckett's shallow brushpiles fail to produce, so did his deep fish; the two he did manage the first morning weighed just 4-15 and left him in 45th place. Deep jig expert and Elite winner Mike McClelland chased the big bite like Duckett and fared even worse; he managed just one fish and sat in 50th. Peter Thliveros, who described the lake conditions as "a foreign language to me," came in with two bass and sat in 43rd.
The top spot on the leaderboard with 21 pounds, 1 ounce after the first day belonged to Ohio pro Charlie Hartley, who fished the same lure — a 5/16-ounce Venom Jig — in both shallow and deep water. He caught his first limit of the day in 20 feet, then moved up to 8 feet and started culling. His secret? Taking practically five minutes to retrieve each cast, regardless of the depth, and even then he could hardly feel the bites.
To illustrate just how unpredictable things were on the water, consider how Scott Rook, who sat just 4 ounces behind Hartley with 20-13 that first day, caught his bass. He was Shad Rapping plain, sandy banks less than 8 feet deep, often just 3 feet deep, and he'd caught four bass over 4 pounds and lost a fifth just as big. Plain, sandy banks?
VanDam came in 10 ounces behind Rook with 20-3, doing what he does best, which is power cranking, this time with a custom-painted blueback herring-hued Series 5 Strike King crankbait, and covering a lot of water on the lower lake. He was getting the lure down about 12 feet, he noted, but was bringing some bass up from as deep as 20 feet.
Terry Scroggins held fourth, a pound behind VanDam, after a busy day spooning, drop shotting, and shaky heading for bass 50 feet deep in flooded timber. Admitting it was not the way he liked to fish, the Florida pro nevertheless boated a dozen fish and lost a really nice bass that broke his 6-pound line in the limbs.
Lane sat in 15th, after bringing in a solid 15 pounds with a spoon in 35 feet of water; for him, depth, not cover, appeared to be the key. Hackney had come in with 16-2 and held down 12th. Winding a Strike King Series 3 crankbait in water just 6 feet deep and covering both flats as well as channel swings, he realized his bass were relating entirely to herring and moving at will, regardless of the weather, and that he was in for a long week.
Jones held down 10th with 17-5, after catching five bass on his first six casts of the morning with a 3/4-ounce Cordell C.C. spoon in 35 feet of water. This was on a spot he'd only made one cast on in all of pre-practice, and even though he later culled three times, it shows once again how topsy-turvy conditions were.
If the Texas pro did not win this Classic on Day 2, he certainly made it more difficult for anyone to take it from him. Coming to the stage in front of a huge, cheering crowd in Greenville's Bi-Lo Center, he put 18 pounds, 11 ounces on the scales and jumped into the lead with an even 36 pounds. He didn't even fish his spoon spot of the day before because another boat was on it, but no matter, he still had a GPS full of waypoints he could check. He only visited two of them, boating eight of his nine keeper bites for the day.
Because the spoon bite was short-lived, Jones knew he needed an alternative lure rather than a totally different pattern, and he found it late on Wednesday, just before the Classic started on Friday. The lures — there were two of them — were a 3/4-ounce Booyah football jig named the Pigskin, and a smaller 1/2-ounce Booyah A-Jig. Both are prototypes that will soon be available; Jones had fine-tuned them by removing their standard skirts and re-fitting them with heavier living rubber skirts he'd taken from Buckeye jigs.
The Buckeye jig is well-known throughout the Carolinas because of its extra-thick skirt, and when the official practice week on Hartwell had ended a week before the Classic, Jones, like several other pros, drove over to Clarks Hill Reservoir to look at the lake in preparation for the May Bassmaster Elite event there. On the way, he stopped at the Buckeye plant outside Augusta, Ga., picked up some of their jigs, and decided to put their skirts on his Booyah prototypes. When he fished them on the single Wednesday practice day the next week and caught fish on them, he knew he had his backup lure when the spoon bite ended.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Lake Hartwell, they cleared the timber out to a depth of about 30 feet, but as would be expected, a few isolated trees and stumps were left, and these are what Jones targeted with his jigs. He caught bass on different trees at depths ranging from as shallow as 15 feet to as deep as 40 feet, crawling the jig on the bottom just inches at a time and then letting it sit.
His best places were actually narrow, steep-sided channels leading out of the timber toward the shallows, and Jones used his Humminbird Side Imaging sonar to pinpoint his targets. In this regard, his casting areas weren't unlike the channels anglers find on Amistad, although the Texas lake tends to have more cover.
In a way, Jones was finesse fishing, but with a large profile lure. His retrieve was very, very slow, but the larger lure seemed to discourage small bites.
Hartley's second day was much slower, and with only 13-12 to show for his efforts, he fell to second with 34-13. Surrounded by as many as 20 spectator boats, he caught all his fish early before the sun turned bright, and once it did, his action ended entirely. For him and many of the others, the fishing certainly wasn't getting any easier.
Rook's fish moved and he never completely found them again; his five weighed 7-12 and dropped him to 12th. VanDam's catch also fell — he and Rook weren't fishing that far apart — and he dropped to fourth when he came in with 11-14. Pace climbed from fifth to third by virtue of his 14-11 catch, even though his shallow bite died entirely. He caught all his fish drop shotting in 45 feet.
Jeff Kriet, adding 18-12 — the biggest catch of the second day — to his opening round of 12-15, moved into fifth. He'd come to Hartwell planning to fish boat docks but that pattern wasn't producing. His Plan B, which certainly was producing, involved crawling light 3/8-ounce football head jigs and drop shotting a Roboworm over the edges of long clay points 25 to 50 feet deep.
Hackney continued to crank his roaming shallow fish, and after bringing in 14-9, climbed into seventh, while Lane moved into eighth after weighing in 14-13.
Scroggins all but fell off the map, to 22nd, after struggling in with three bass weighing 4-7. Tommy Biffle held 25th with a two-day total of 23-8. Duckett was eliminated, as were Peter T, 2004 Classic Champion Takahiro Omori, rookie sensation Derek Remitz, Elite winner Kelly Jordon, and former Toyota Tundra Bassmaster Angler of the Year Tim Horton.
The fact these anglers were eliminated should in no way be interpreted as poor fishing. In fact, just the opposite is true; there is only one Bassmaster Classic, and no one ever remembers who finishes second, so, as Jordon commented after going fishless the second day, they were swinging for the fences to win it. He knew where the big bass had been, he said, but he didn't know where they went.
Weather the second day (Saturday) had been clear and sunny with climbing temperatures, but it did not last. Sunday dawned cool and heavily overcast, and stayed that way.
Hartley was the first to fall, as his fish simply quit playing. He managed only two, weighing 3-5, and fell to 15th with 38-2. A tournament fisherman for more than 25 years, the easygoing Ohio pro certainly made a lot of friends during his 15 minutes of glory as the first-round leader.
Kriet also fell in the final hours, although only from fifth to sixth. He had only five strikes all day and caught three of them weighing 9-4, for a total of 40-15. His best fish, a 4-4, came on a Smithwick Rogue jerked over the top of a tree; on the second day he'd caught two 4-pounders from the same tree.
Hackney moved ahead of Kriet into fifth by just 8 ounces, finishing with 41-7. He'd decided early on not to fish deep water, and he'd stuck with that decision. Lane finished with a final day total of 12-10 for 42-7; like Hartley, his deep fish also had quit playing, so he began working deep pockets with a Berkley Flicker Shad crankbait. It had been his backup pattern all week and while he had to cover a lot of water, Lane had fine-tuned it well enough that he knew exactly where to start casting in each cove he visited.
VanDam returned to the lower lake spot where he'd caught 20-3 the first morning, and never had a strike. Looking for water where he could work his power fishing magic, he changed areas of the lake entirely, heading far upriver to where he'd fished the second day. His thoughts were still on the lower lake, however, and when the skies began to cloud over, he raced all the way back down to try it once more. Despite the overcast conditions, the water remained slick and calm, and again, he never had a strike. He brought in five bass weighing 11-7 to claim third with 43-8.
In retrospect, VanDam expressed some regret at not having spent his entire tournament up the river, but after catching 20-pound bags on the lower lake each practice day, his reluctance to abandon the area is understandable. On the second day he spent just four hours fishing upriver, and on the final he fished there less than three hours, and he caught limits each time; one can only speculate what the outcome might have been had he devoted his entire week up the lake.
Pace, who described his day as "a grind," caught 11 pounds and sewed up second place with 44-5. Many of his fish came on a green pumpkin V&M finesse worm fished on the bottom, or on a Buckeye jig when the fish came to the surface to feed on herring.
All of this set the stage for Jones, who thought he needed a little over 8 pounds to win. He brought in 13-7, giving him 49-7 for the week. His day hadn't been easy, either, as he had not caught his first bass until 10 a.m., and his fifth fish until 2 p.m. He'd visited several different spots; in most he'd position his boat over the flooded timber and cast shallow, then slowly crawl his jigs out toward the treeline, but at other times, depending on the wind direction, he reversed this and cast from shallow water to deep.
Regardless, his very best spots were those with isolated timber.
And did the 130-odd waypoints he'd filmed months earlier actually help him win this Classic, even though they were on dry land? Opinions will vary, of course, but you can always ask the new champion to show you his camera the next time you see him on the water — because he'll definitely have it with him.