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Carolinians in the Classic

Brandon Cobb, winner of the 2019 Elite Series event on Lake Hartwell.

Call it an early peek, recon or just due diligence; several competitors from North and South Carolina spent time on Lake Hartwell prior to the off-limits period for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk. Here’s what they found.

PATRICK WALTERS, Summerville, S.C.

Pre-practicing four days prior to Christmas, Walters wanted to inspect the lake during the low-water stage. Overall, he said the lake looks good right now and sees little reason to think it won’t remain strong for the Classic.

“There are a lot of fish in the lake; I don’t think numbers will be a problem,” said Walters, who won the 2020 Bassmaster Eastern Open on Hartwell. “I think we’ll see a variety of patterns. If you want to fish shallow all day, you’re going to able to catch them shallow. If you want to fish deep all day, you’re going to be able to catch them deep. 

“It’s going to be a matter of mixing it up to find the right pattern, because the fish are just spread out. You can catch them in 45- to 60-feet-of-water, and you can catch them in 2 feet. That just shows you the lake’s healthy.”

Walters noted that the seasonal drawdown hasn’t lowered the water enough to allow dog fennel — a perennial herbaceous plant in the sunflower family — to sprout. This bushy terrestrial plant played prominently during the 2018 Classic on Hartwell, after extreme low water had exposed enough shoreline for germination. Returning water flooded the new growth and created attractive shallow water habitat.

“With dog fennel taken away, it takes away some of the shallow largemouth bite, where they’re going to set up on different types of structure and different types of bottom,” Walters said. “That’s fine, because when that dog fennel’s in there, if you’re not fishing that stuff, you are almost not competing.” 

Walters summarized by noting that Hartwell’s history of water fluctuation has delivered Classics with fairly typical levels to drained looks like the 2008 event where the lake stood 15 feet below normal.

“That’s what I like about Hartwell; we’ve had three Classics there and every single one of them have been different,” Walters said. “That’s what makes it interesting, so I wanted to see which Classic it was going to set up like.”

BRYAN NEW, Lake Murray, S.C.

The second-year Elite angler devoted a dozen days from fall through year-end, snooping around Hartwell and looking for specific scenarios. From past experience, New has found it critical to not let this big lake stretch him mentally. His pre-practice plan was very specific, and it sounds like the effort was successful.

“I’ve lived two and a half hours from Hartwell my whole life (Lake Wylie, N.C.), and now I live an hour and a half from it,” said New, who won his first Elite at the 2021 season opener on the St. Johns River. “After I fished the 2020 Open there, it dawned on me what I’d been doing wrong.

“It’s a great big place, and I have a better game plan than I’ve ever had there. What I would want to do, I feel like I found 90% of it. I have a lot of ammo, and I’m looking forward to this Classic.”

Noting his previous Hartwell disdain, New said that he used to drive over the lake, take a selfie of himself giving Hartwell the single-finger salute and text the image to his friend and Visit Anderson Executive Director Neil Paul.

“I may zero in the Classic, but I don’t hate Hartwell anymore,” New said. “I’m actually extremely excited about the Classic.”

BRANDON CARD, Salisbury, N.C.

The Tennessee native, who recently moved to central North Carolina, graphed for three days on Hartwell and never made a cast. Marking about 70 brushpiles and cane piles, Card said he marked a lot of baitfish in various locations and spotted loons gathering in the drains and ditches — usually a sign of blueback herring clusters. Main lake clarity and dinginess in the creeks seemed right on target. 

“Unless something crazy happens, which a lot of times in the spring it does, I think it will be similar to previous Classics — the largemouth guys can do what they want in the creeks, and the spotted bass guys can catch fish on the main lake. Hartwell should fish pretty big, based on what I saw.”

MATT AREY, Shelby, N.C.

Visiting Hartwell two days shortly before Christmas, Arey fished minimally, but caught fish when he did. His biggest concern was the unseasonably warm weather that closed out the year.

“We still haven’t had a winter in the Carolinas,” Arey said. “We’ve had a few cold days here and there, but we haven’t had anything consistent. The number one factor I’m going to be paying the closest attention to is the weather.

“The water was still mid-to-upper 50s when I was on Hartwell. If we don’t have a (significant) winter, that could really make it weird. Unless we get a hard push of cold weather and then a warming trend, I think it could keep the fish scattered throughout the winter, and it could make it a little more diverse.” 

BRANDON COBB, Greenwood, S.C.

With a 2019 Elite Series win on Hartwell, the pro who calls it his home lake kept his pre-practice minimal to limit any preconceptions that might linger into the Classic. His overall impression was a continuation of the trend he’s seen over the past. 

“I fished Hartwell a ton from 2005 through 2015, when I fished 20 tournaments a year there, and the thing that has changed the most is that the spotted bass seem more and more prevalent,” he said. “Even now, the spots seem bigger, and there’s more of them than when we were there in 2019. 

“Any lake that spots get into, they eventually get thicker than the largemouth, but also, the blueback herring in Hartwell are making them grow bigger. I think anything over 3 pounds is a good one, but I think you’ll see quite a few 4-pound spots during the Classic”

KJ QUEEN, Catawba, N.C.

Having fished Hartwell several times in past years, the second-year Elite pro visited the lake a few times in the fall and again in late December. His goal: locating as many bush piles and cane piles as possible. He marked about 60, but he also reacquainted himself with the general lake layout.

“I was just going around and getting a feel for the lake and learning exactly how deep some of the ditches were,” Queen said. “I wasn’t really looking at what the (current patterns) were, as much as just studying and learning the lake.”

Queen said he took advantage of winter pool’s revealing level to note exposed clay points and various rocks. Mentally noting these heat-holders gives him a good selection of likely prespawn staging areas.

HANK CHERRY, Lincolnton, N.C.

The defending Classic champion, who became only the fourth person to win back-to-back titles with wins at Lake Guntersville (2020) and Ray Roberts (2021) did not pre-practice. Familiarity with Hartwell definitely factored, but Cherry based his decision on a statistically solid point.

“You could call it superstition,” Cherry said. “This will be my seventh Classic and in the three that I pre-practiced for I didn’t do so hot. In the three where I just went fishing, I have a third and two firsts, so I’m trying to not break the trend.”

Hard to argue with that logic.