ANDERSON, S.C. — Collin Smith has spent much of his life honing his skills on the waters of fabled Lake Hartwell.
All that work paid off Saturday with his win in the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Team Championship Classic Fish-Off.
Smith, a 27-year-old grounds foreman for Anderson County, weighed a two-day total of 10 bass totaling 28 pounds, 1 ounce to claim victory in the final Bassmaster event of the 2022 season. With it, he earned entry into the biggest tournament of the 2023 season — the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic, scheduled for March 24-26 on the Tennessee River in Knoxville.
“I’ve dedicated the majority of my time to this pond (Hartwell) because all the big tournaments are out here,” Smith said. “I’m superthankful for the chance to fish the Classic. It probably won’t set in until I’m going up the road there for pre-practice … It’s been a lifelong dream. There has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears behind the steering wheel of my boat to get me to this point.”
No doubt there were dozens more miles added this week on Lake Hartwell, with Mother Nature throwing a variety of looks at the 500 anglers who started the team portion of the tournament on Wednesday. That two-day event was hindered by dense fog, but Smith and 5 Alive Sunday Series teammate Brady Kimbrell, also of Anderson, totaled 30-13 over two days to win the team title and the $25,000 cash prize that accompanied it.
Their performance set the stage for Smith’s ascension in the Fish-Off. The Top 3 teams, only six anglers in all, had their weights zeroed and then set out individually for two more days of competition. They were greeted by steady rain on Friday when Smith and Tyler Campbell of Martin, Ga., both caught 14-1 to tie for the Day 1 lead.
The temperature plummeted into the lower 40s by the final weigh-in, but Smith remained steady, following his Day 1 total with a 14-pound limit on Day 2 — just enough to nose him past Campbell, who wound up second with 27 pounds over two days.
The final day of the Fish-Off didn’t start swimmingly for Smith. The deep timber he exploited on Friday didn’t produce Saturday. Smith said that could have been due to changes in barometric pressure that followed repeated weather shifts in the region.
So, Smith put his intimate knowledge of Hartwell to use. He covered a lot of water on Saturday, fishing some reliable spots, but also a few he hadn’t tried at all this week.
“I went to a place this morning where yesterday there were 100 or 150 fish,” he said. “Today, they were just roaming. They wouldn’t sit still, so I chased them, but still couldn’t make them bite. At 8:30 this morning, I didn’t have a fish in the boat.”
Eventually, he did get the bites he needed, three of his spotted bass keepers coming off a rockpile in about 20 feet of water.
“I used a V&M 3/4-ounce football-head jig (green pumpkin/orange), especially out that deep,” Smith said.
“But I noticed the change in presentation is what worked today,” he continued. “Yesterday I was able to fish pretty fast. Today, you had to beg and plead with them to bite. I’d hold the bait in front of them for at least a minute sometimes before I even moved it.”
Reading the subtle changes helped him make the most of Hartwell’s bite.
“I used the Garmin LiveScope all week,” he said. “It’s a heck of a tool, but it can be pretty frustrating when you know you’re around 100 of them and they won’t bite. It helps, but you have to do different retrieves and different things to make the fish bite. You don’t just throw at them and catch them.”
The Classic berth is the grandest prize, of course, but Smith also picked up a $500 Bass Pro Shops gift card for winning the Fish-Off. It’s a perfect opportunity to pick up some gear before his turn in the sport’s biggest tournament — a derby he hopes is the start of something special in his fishing career.
“I can’t even fathom I’m going to the Classic,” he said. “But I’ll be focused. I’m not gonna’ just show up. I’ll give it 100%.”
Campbell, 21, was only 18 ounces from winning the Fish-Off. The 5 Alive Team Trail angler was disappointed but said he expects to be a factor in the future.
Chris Nelson caught a 16-1 limit on Saturday, the heaviest of the Fish-Off, with a largemouth kicker that pushed 6 pounds. That helped the Social Circle, Ga., resident to a 24-4 total, good enough to jump from sixth place on Friday to third overall.
Elberton, Ga., resident Jeremy Strong, Nelson’s teammate on the Palmetto Boat Center Team Trail, finished fourth with 23-14.
Joe Mitchell of Martin, Ga., and the 5 Alive Team Trail was fifth with 23-7 and Kimbrell finished sixth with 22-8.
Visit Anderson hosted this week’s tournaments.