No going home for Hartman

No one - rookie or veteran - is committed to the 2017 Bassmaster Elite Series season like Jamie Hartman. Hartman no longer has a home to return to, in his hometown of Newport, N.Y., or anywhere else.

"Everything is in storage," said Hartman. "All options are open. I broke it off with a girl before I left. I said, 'I don't know if I'm coming back. I don't want to keep you hanging on.' I want this to be my life, my career."

Unlike some of this year's rookies who are in the 20s, Hartman is 44. He fished his first bass tournament, a local club event, when he was 27.

"I won it, and I was hooked," Hartman said.

This will give you an idea of how committed Hartman is to making this work: He's already pre-fished four lakes on the Elite Series schedule - Cherokee, Okeechobee, Barnett and Toledo Bend - a minimum of 11 days and an average of 15 days on each.

Obviously, his preparation at Cherokee has paid off. He enters today only 13 ounces behind leader Jesse Wiggins.

Cherokee continues its finicky ways

As has been emphasized all week, Cherokee Lake has a well-earned reputation for being the place where consistency goes to die. We’ve seen vivid examples all three days.

Four anglers in the Day 1 top 12 fell out on Day 2, and they dropped like rocks: Cliff Crochet, from 1st to 44th; Jordon Lee, from 7th to 35th; Brent Ehrler, from 9th to 68th; and Mark Davis, from 11th to 40th.

Three more fell out of the top 12 on the all-important Day 3, and fell hard: Skylar Hamilton, from 8th to 22nd; Brian Snowden, from 10th to 29th; and Marty Robinson, from 11th to 38th. Those rising into the top 12 yesterday included: Mike Iaconelli, from 21st to 6th; Paul Mueller, from 27th to 10th; and Matt Herren, from 16th to 11th.

Over the last three days, no one pulled his fingers from the flames like Terry Scroggins, who was 83rd on Day 1, 50th on Day 2 and finished 32nd.

Here’s a look at those who made the highest jumps and sharpest falls in the standings from Day 2 to Day 3 in the Bassmaster Elite at Cherokee Lake:

+24 – Alton Jones Jr., 49th to 25th
+21 – Boyd Duckett, 41st to 20th
+19 – Jordan Lee, 35th to 16th
+18 – Terry Scroggins, 50th to 32nd
+17 – Paul Mueller, 27th to 10th
+15 – Mike Iaconelli, 21st to 6th
+15  – Jason Christie, 29th to 14th 

­­–27 –Marty Robinson, 11th to 38th
–25 – Greg Hackney, 22th to 47th
–23 – Paul Elias, 26th to 49th
–23 – Dustin Connell, 14th to 37th
–17 – Andy Montgomery, 25th to 42nd
–17 – Kelley Jaye, 34th to 51st
–16 – Clifford Pirch, 30th to 46th

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Mueller’s steady rise stands out

Paul Mueller made big leaps in the standings on Friday and Saturday to reach Sunday’s Top 12 at Cherokee Lake.  No matter what happens today, Mueller’s Elite Series season will be off to a significantly better start that a year ago, when he finished 110th at Florida’s St. John’s River.

However, Mueller will treasure that tournament in Florida for the rest of his life. He had a couple of bass in the livewell on Day 1 when he got a phone call that his wife, Kimber, was in labor. Mueller hustled home to Connecticut for the birth of their first child, a son named Waylon Paul.

Only Randall Tharp made a higher leap into the Top 12 from Day 1, when they were separated by an ounce (Tharp, 59th, 12-4; Mueller, 58th, 12-5). Tharp actually dropped two spots yesterday after rocketing up to 6th on Friday with the big bag of the tournament so far of 20-11.

The other thing that stands out when you look at how the Top 12 reached Sunday’s final is how steady the top four anglers have been over three days. Jamie Hartman and Jacob Wheeler were tied for fifth with 17-10 on Day 1. Today’s top four held those spots on Friday, with Hartman and Wheeler swapping places Saturday.

Mueller jumped 17 places yesterday with 17-15 to make today’s final in 10th place. Mike Iaconelli moved up 15 places Saturday with his 18-0 big bag of the day.

Here’s a look at the Top 12’s places in the standings over the previous three days at Cherokee Lake:

Name                                  Day 1      Day 2    Day 3

Jesse Wiggins                         2              1             1
Jamie Hartman                       5              3             2
Jacob Wheeler                       5              2             3
Seth Feider                             3              4             4
Josh Bertrand                       14            12            5
Mike Iaconelli                        18            21            6
David Mullins                        12             5             7
Randall Tharp                       59             6             8
Ott DeFoe                              31             9             9
Paul Mueller                          58            27           10
Matt Herren                          20            16           11
Brandon Palaniuk                10             7            12

Catchers change, but catching the same

While the anglers catching the fish have varied considerably over the past three days, the overall bass fishing has been consistent on Cherokee Lake. And it’s been about what was predicted before the tournament began.

For instance, several Elite Series pros said it would take 13 pounds a day to make the top 51, two-day cut and earn a $10,000 check. It took an average of 12-9, as David Fritts was 51st on Friday with 25-2. To make the three-day 12-cut, it took about 15-6 per day, a Brandon Palaniuk was 12th Saturday with 46-3.

Today’s finalists will look for inspiration at Randall Tharp’s Day 2, when he caught both the tournament’s big bass of 5-5 and big bag of 20-11. It’s an example of what is possible at Cherokee this week.

Cliff Crochet had Thursday’s big bag of 19-7. Mike Iaconelli’s 18-0 was tops Saturday. Mark Daniels caught the Day 1 big bass of 5-0. Both Paul Mueller and Jacob Wheeler caught a 4-1 Saturday to share big bass honors.      

                                            Day 1          Day 2        Day 3*

Bass weighed-in                  453              435             212
Total weight                      1,277-8        1,229-5        605-5
Ave. bass weighed-in       2.82 lbs.       2.82 lbs.     2.85 lbs.
5-bass limits                          73                 65               33
Pct. catching limit                66%             59%            65% 
Big bag                                 19-7            20-11          18-0
Big bass                                 5-0               5-5              4-1

* The field was cut from 110 anglers to the top 51 on Day 3.

Standings tighten up late

Fishing has picked up in the final hour before check-in and tightened up the BASSTrakk standings. The most significant catch was a 4-7 by Seth Feider at 3:01, which puts him in second place, less than a pound behind leader Jesse Wiggins.

Jacob Wheeler caught a 3-4 at 3:07 to leave him 2-9 back. Jamie Hartman had a couple of culls in the previous hour to get within two pounds of the lead.

And making a jump into contention is Paul Mueller with a pair of 3 1/2-pounders after 3 p.m. to give him 18 pounds on the day and move him up to seventh place in the BASSTrakk standings.

Pre-practice advantage

Earlier I reported about Jacob Wheeler's deep dive study of Cherokee Lake. Last December he spent over a week here, graphing the lake from one end to another. As a result he's destined to fish on Championship Sunday, unless the switch to Dustin Connell's boat proves unsuccessful.  

Here's the point. Pre-fishing mattered here and it's also a likey reason why so many Elite Series rookies are doing remarakably well this week. They pre-fished the lake. This tournament is like their Bassmaster Classic. It's the first event of the season and they have one thing in mind. Qualifying for the 2018 Classic. 

Meanwhile, the Elite Series veterans--and especially the Classic qualifiers--scrambled until the last minute to get their boats and gear ready. Some didn't take delivery of  boats until last Saturday. All of them spent the days leading up to this week waiting on tackle to be delivered, boats to get wrapped. Some endured a heavy schedule of making personal appearances at boat shows. 

All that said, the newcomers had more time to spend on the water, while the veterans spent time on the business side of the sport. 

Wheeler off sidelines, on rebound

Watch Bassmaster LIVE and see the back sides of two anglers fishing from the same front deck. They are Dustin Connell and Jacob Wheeler. Both are good friends and Connell came to his rescue after the previously reported mechanical breakdown of Wheeler. 

Wheeler, the more experienced offshore, deep water angler, has taken over boat positioning duties with the trolling motor. The good news is Connell is also on a large school of bass and Wheeler is in the search for those fish. Wheeler already has broken off a keeper. 

The two Bassmaster Elite Series rookies are swapping small talk and making the best of their situation. For Connell, his good deed now includes a real-time lesson in deep water bass fishing. For better or worse, each angler has gained a teammate. 

Hartman, Feider inching up

Jamie Hartman just culled up to match Seth Feider's second-place total of 50-5, which puts them 2-5 behind first-place Jesse Wiggins, unofficially. That's been the pattern since Wiggins jumped to the big lead this morning with his daily one-hour slugfest. Hartman and Feider have been slowly chipping away at Wiggins' lead.

Hartman's three-day performance at Cherokee is most impressive. The Elite Series rookie from Newport, N.Y., has no experience on a lake like this, but he's got plenty of experience with catching deep, offshore smallmouth bass.

"I've never fished anything like this," Hartman said yesterday. "I went with a game plan that these are wintering fish and they're going to be deep. That's it. I'm fishing deep. It's too inconsistent weather-wise this time of year to run shallow patterns.

"I know how to read my electronics very well. I've seen every single fish I've caught. Nothing has been shallower than 26 feet, mostly 26 to 37."