ANDERSON, S.C. — When the first stop of the 2021 Carhartt Bassmaster College Series presented by Bass Pro Shops was changed from Lake Norman to Lake Hartwell due to COVID-19 protocols, Carson-Newman University angler Ben Cully was less than pleased.
Hartwell had not been kind to him and his partner Hayden Gaddis the last couple of years, including a 35th-place finish last year.
This season, however, Gaddis and Cully flipped the script and took home the victory at Lake Hartwell, catching 17 pounds, 13 ounces on both days for a two-day total of 35-10. Along with some hardware, the duo earned a spot in the 2021 Bassmaster College Series National Championship and more than $3,000 for the Carson-Newman fishing program.
“I was looking forward to Norman,” Cully said. “We fished Hartwell quite a bit and we haven’t done the greatest. It worked out this time, though. Hartwell treated us right.”
The duo finished over 2 1/2 pounds ahead of the Emmanuel College team of Tyler Campbell and Caleb Hudson, while their Carson-Newman teammates Braden Perry and Aidan England placed third.
“It’s just a range of emotions right now,” Gaddis said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a child and we finally made it happen.”
With the change in venue, Gaddis said they knew they had to target largemouth if they wanted a chance to win. They focused their efforts on the Tugaloo River side of Lake Hartwell, specifically targeting the back sides of docks and laydowns.
They used a white 1/2-ounce Z-Man Evergreen JackHammer with a swimbait trailer and a 1/2-ounce Z-Man CrossEyeZ jig in green pumpkin.
“It’s kind of like a staging area for those fish to get ready and spawn,” Cully said. “All the fish we’ve been catching are fish that are just about ready to spawn.”
Sitting in third place following Day 1, Gaddis wrote a simple message on the top of his hand before taking off on Championship Saturday: “Grind it.” The phrase turned out to be a reality for the team, as cooler, cloudy conditions swept over the area overnight and prevailed most of the morning and early afternoon.
After throwing the ChatterBait for most of the morning with no success, they slowed down and started flipping jigs. With one bass in their livewell by mid-morning, they made a move and quickly filled their limit and caught their biggest bass of the day, a largemouth they estimated to be over 5 pounds.
“It was just a mental note to keep your head down and fish, even when things aren’t looking good,” Gaddis said. “We were down and out until we pulled into that pocket and that just boosted our confidence and it got the ball rolling.”
Campbell and Hudson also struggled during the morning hours trying to catch spotted bass in deeper water on the Southern end of Lake Hartwell. Their fortunes changed later in the afternoon, however, when the sun finally emerged.
“Those spotted bass, the way they are set up right now, they have their nose in the cover,” Campbell said. “Once that sun popped out, we knew we had to capitalize on the opportunity. As soon as the sun came out and it (calmed down), we were able to get them in the boat.”
With one fish in the boat for most of the day, Campbell and Hudson filled their limit at around 1 p.m. and culled several more times for a Day 2 total of 16-12, jumping from seventh to second with 33-5.
Campbell, a Lake Hartwell resident, spent most of practice eliminating water and didn’t expect to fish offshore based on history. But when the shallow pattern didn’t produce, they made an adjustment and found some manmade brushpiles offshore.
The Emmanuel College freshmen used a 3/8-ounce Greenfish Tackle Swimball paired with a 3.8 Keitech swimbait in Tennessee shad to catch their spotted bass in 20 to 40 feet of water.
“We let it sink down to the bottom,” Hudson said. “They ate it right off the bottom or in the structure we were fishing.”
Despite leading Day 1, Perry and England fell short of a victory once again on a spotted bass venue, finishing third with 33-4. The Carson-Newman team used a vertical presentation on the first day, but strong winds prevented them from setting up on their spot Saturday.
“We were fired up to get out there,” Perry said. “We got to our one little honey hole and the wind was blowing right in on it. We couldn’t get set up on our fish and didn’t catch any fish dropping like we did yesterday. We had to scramble and come up with a new game plan.”
While a 3-inch Gulp Minnow with a 1/4-ounce VMC Moon Eye jighead was the key on Day 1, Perry and England salvaged their day Saturday by running secondary points with river rock, throwing a football jig and a wobblehead jig.
While they fell short, the duo qualified for their third-straight National Championship.
The team of Brady Harp and Jordan McCaleb won the Carhartt Big Bass of the tournament award with a 6-7 largemouth caught on the first day. They earned a $500 Carhartt gift card.
The tournament was hosted by Visit Anderson.