Dialing into Hartwell

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Andy Crawford

ANDERSON, S.C. — Do the arithmetic and the sum of the whole equals a tough bass fishing scenario in play at the Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open at Lake Hartwell.

The fall turnover is in full swing, the weather is bringing changing conditions and the blueback herring bite is unpredictable. And there are 179 boats homing in on a very narrow strike zone. 

But that’s tournament fishing. Someone will figure things out. The predicted winning weight is in the high 30s to low 40s. Lots of fish are being caught — 7-pound limits will be common — and the search is on for a quality bite. That could come from where the largemouth flourish up in the river. Or to win it could take catching a decent limit of spotted bass, and then going for a kicker largemouth.

“It’s typical fall fishing here, and we just had the fall turnover,” said Brian Latimer, who lives 40 miles from the lake. “The fish here get a little funky for the first two weeks of it.”

The turnover got jumpstarted after the remnants of Hurricane Sally passed over the region, delivering lots of rain and cooler temperatures.

“It literally started last Thursday and Friday,” added Latimer. “There will be a lot of fish caught, but not too many high weights.”

Another local, Bassmaster Elite Series pro Brandon Cobb, knows all too well what happens here during the fall turnover. His outlook is much more upbeat.

“The fall turnover normally pushes the blueback herring up higher in the water column,” he said. “So, you get into a lot of schooling action, with topwaters.” 

The challenge is dialing into a pattern that delivers consistency over the three-day contest. 

“Some of it will be brushpile related, while standing timber could be a factor,” said Cobb. “Or, the spotted bass could just come up and school in the middle of nowhere.”

Smith Lake in Alabama and Lake Hartwell share similarities with thriving populations of blueback herring, making that combination play well into the angling wheelhouse of David Kilgore. He believes fishing pressure will be a factor in what is a very narrow window of opportunity.

“Just like on Smith, you have to be in the right rotation, be on the spot when they school,” said the Alabama angler. “There will be a lot of luck involved in this tournament, and maintaining consistency over three days will be tough.”

Kilgore said most of the offshore areas, which are humps covered by what the locals call “cane piles,” are well known. Most of the field of anglers know their location, and the bass have grown wary of boat traffic. Even so, it’s game on when blueback herring come near their ambush cover.

“The largemouth bite is iffy, but if you can be in the right place at the right time, with a topwater bait, then you can get into the game with the spotted bass,” added Kilgore.

Carl Jocumsen found something he liked, and it wasn’t pinpointing a school of quality bass. 

“Since arriving here on Saturday the temperature has dropped a degree each day,” he said. “Things are changing big time.”

What that means is the angler adept at changing with the already challenging conditions will be in contention to finish strong.

“The guy who can fish on the fly and adjust is going to be tough to beat, because the weather is going to be a huge factor during the tournament,” added Jocumsen.

Indeed, it will. On Tuesday, sunny skies and breezy conditions gave way to calm winds and overcast skies on Wednesday, the first day of the contest. Calm conditions don’t fare well for the topwater bite. Rain and cooler temperatures are forecast for Thursday and Friday, the final day. 

“What is so frustrating is this lake is loaded with quality fish, and you can see them, but getting them to bite is difficult,” he added. “It takes every little trick in the book.”

Brandon Lester feels the frustration, too.

“These are the most educated schooling fish that I have ever encountered,” he said. “It’s like the ledge fishing that I am used to on the Tennessee River system, in that you can be around them, but getting them to bite is another thing.”

Lester wisely spent his practice fishing less and searching more.

“I spent my time graphing and looking for something different that I can have for myself, which is what you do to win on my home lakes this time of year, like Guntersville,” he said. “Getting away from the crowd, the pressure, can be a winning game plan.”

Brandon Palaniuk, like his peers, found plenty of bass, although they fit into the 7-pound-limit category that won’t gain an angler the needed weight to fish on Friday.

“The guy that can get a good limit of spotted bass and then run upriver and catch a kicker largemouth will be hard to beat,” he said.

That in itself will be challenging, given the wide distance and commitment of time required to do both. But this is Lake Hartwell, one of the top bass fishing lakes in the country.