Missing out on defending his Classic crown on Lake Hartwell doesn’t sit well with Alton Jones, but the man of faith realizes it’s His purpose. So he’ll be in Greenville, S.C., for the 2015 GEICO Bassmaster Classic, not casting deep for fish, but digging deep for patience at the Expo.
“I will be getting tired of answering the question, ‘Hey Alton, how come you’re not in the Classic this year?’” he said. “It always hurts bad enough anytime you don’t make the Classic, but especially this one. I’m just going to have to grin and bear it and come up with several good pat answers for why I’m not there.”
Jones started the 2014 Elite season well enough, but several poor finishes in the second half left him 45th in the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings. He fell five places short of qualifying for his 17th Classic appearance. The empty feeling is compounded by the fact anglers like to fish where they’ve been successful, and he wanted another shot on the fishery where he won the 2008 Classic.
“Absolutely,” he said. “For me, one of my favorite places is the St. Johns River, because I’ve won there and it seems like I get a Top 5 every time I go there. So there’s some places where you feel like you’ve got it figured out. I’m not saying I have Hartwell figured out, but I would have loved to have gone back and see how dialed in I was.”
The 2008 Classic
From practice to the final day, Jones thrived on Hartwell in 2008. He totaled 49 pounds, 7 ounces, topping Cliff Pace by more than 5 pounds to receive the confetti shower.
“It was really a fun place for me when we had the Classic, not just because I won, but even during practice,” he said. “It seems to fish fairly similar to lakes we have here in Texas, at least for the wintertime fishing.”
His experiences fishing year-round in the Lone Star State gave him the key to unlocking that cold-water mystery on Hartwell. Jones found that the fish were positioning on the bottom of creeks and ditches, exactly in the middle, just like he finds on Lake Amistad.
“You don’t really see that,” he said. “It was a really cold tournament, though, and it happens to be that’s where the bait was.”
Finding their hangouts in practice excited Jones, but one worry remained. He found the fish throwing a jigging spoon, but that bite was short-lived.
“That bite lasted exactly 30 minutes in the morning, and you couldn’t get a bite the rest of the day,” he said. “It wasn’t until late on the final day of practice that I figured I could take a lightweight jig and throw it out and let it sink down 50 feet and get a bite on it. I realized I figured out a way to catch fish in that deep water.”
His 17-pound, 5-ounce bag put him 10th after Day 1, and he climbed atop the leaderboard with 18-11 on Day 2. His final day was more trying, as it was for the entire field. Cold and overcast skies gave way to sunshine, and Jones’ 13-7 bag was third best on the day. Yet he came in thinking he missed a golden chance.
The longest ride
“Our sport is different than other sports,” he said. “We don’t have a scoreboard. Just comparing Day 3, my weight to what everybody else had been catching, I really figured that was going to leave me coming up short.
“Looking back, it’s probably good that I felt that way, because it kept me really focused on every cast right down to the last possible second.”
With only three fish in his livewell, Jones left his best spot at midday and went to another area where he caught two nice fish to fill his limit, the final keeper coming an hour and half before he had to head in.
As leader, Jones was the last boat through the check station, where B.A.S.S. official Peewee Powers looked over his fish to forward a count and estimated amount to the weigh-in crew at the arena.
“He said, ‘Congratulations, I think you just won the Classic,’” Jones said. “I wasn’t nervous until then. You’re not nervous when you think you just lost the Classic, but when you think you just won the Classic … Boy, that hour ride back to Greenville from the lake, I’ll never forget that. That was the longest hour of my life.”
Writer Steve Price joined Jones on the drive from Hartwell to Greenville, and Jones said it was probably the most scatterbrained interview he’s ever given.
“I was so distracted during that interview, there’s no telling how the story came out,” he said. “I was trying to talk to him but my mind was someplace else.”
Fine Hartwell fishing
Adding insult to Jones’ injury of not having a chance to defend his crown is that he expects the fishing to be better on Lake Hartwell this time, in both numbers and quality. The lake was experiencing drought conditions then but stabilized at normal pool, which allowed shallow habitat to grow.
“Most of the season I was expecting to qualify for the Classic, and I’ve been keeping up with Lake Hartwell,” he said. “It’s been taking some good weights to win over there, and I think the fishing is overall better than it was in 2008.”
If there are similar cold temperatures as the 2008 Classic, Jones expects the same baits he won with to be in play, jigs and jigging spoons. Several anglers also fared well on crankbaits, and he said jerkbaits and even swimbaits could come into play.
While stressful at the time, he wishes he could once again be sweating out a lead in the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, where he fulfilled his lifelong dream and secured a spot among the select few who have won a Classic.
“It does really solidify your career in the sport. It gives you a title that holds a lot of weight,” Jones said. “I think the biggest thing it’s meant to me, it gives you people’s ears like never before.”
Jones joked that his opinions now are just as bad as there were before he won the Classic, but the celebrity as champion allows him to impart some inspiration.
“You have the ability to touch lives like never before, and I don’t take that lightly,” he said. “Anytime I get to meet somebody, I look at it as a divine appointment, and I try to make the most of it. I try to use that leverage as a Classic champion to have a positive impact on that person.
“There’s a way I can help them just by expressing some kindness, or some words, or help, maybe it’s a fishing tip. Even serious issues that people go through. I’ve had people who are dying of cancer, yet you are able to, at least for a short time at the end of their life, provide inspiration. Not because of anything great that I’ve done, just kind of the aura that goes with winning the Classic allows you to have a positive influence on that person and bring a smile even in a time of great hurt. So that’s very meaningful to me.”