Fresh off a Bassmaster Elite Series season-opening win, you can be darn sure that Takahiro Omori would love to have a shot at the upcoming GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods on Lake Hartwell, March 16-18. While Texas is in his angling blood and Alabama has produced three tour-level victories, the Carolinas have been the location of his greatest career accomplishment, his Classic victory in 2004 on Lake Wylie.
He almost made it a twofer in 2015, when he led going into the last day before ceding the trophy to Casey Ashley and ending up third. Now he won’t have another shot at it. That’s one of the cruelest things about our sport – just when you think you have things figured out, they pull the rug out from under you. I remember thinking that in 2012, when Skeet Reese didn’t get a chance to win “back-to-back” (2009 and 2012) Classics on the Red River. As the end of KVD’s epic streak of qualifications a few years back showed, there are no guarantees, and even once you qualify in three days of competition there’s little room for error.
That’s why my Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing Hartwell picks are going to be relatively safe. No secret inside info, no wild hunches on someone who’s never been east of the Continental Divide or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I want anglers who know how to close. Obviously, the Classic is full of anglers with titles to their names, and not all of my picks are past Classic winners, but they’re all likely to make the cut and none of them will spin out on Sunday.
Call me boring, but a similar strategy helped me at Lake Martin, and if this approach helps me kick Ronnie Moore’s butt, I’ll be a happy caster.
BUCKET A: ASHLEY
Don’t kick a winning horse
It pains me to do this, but I’m going with Casey Ashley to repeat here, or at least make it interesting. He’ll have a tougher hill to climb, because the fish are likely to be closer to true spring patterns, and while he won’t have Jason-Christie-at-Grand caliber spectator traffic it’s going to be more crowded than it was in 2015’s single-digit temps. Nevertheless, he’s going to know various patterns in play, with a backup to his backup, and while others are beating up on the same groups of fish he’ll have something left in the tank for Sunday.
The rest of this bracket is stout, with the likes of Powroznik, Martens and Ehrler all lining up to grab their first Classic win, but if you don’t want to crowdsource Ashley into your picks, go with Bobby Lane, who has an unbelievable Classic history, including a second and fourth at Hartwell.
BUCKET B: WHEELER
Jacob Wheeler fished his first and only Classic to date at Hartwell, back when he’d qualified by winning BASSFest as a non-Elite, and he finished a respectable 14th. Now, in a return visit, he’ll get another shot to add to his substantial trophy collection. While it didn’t show at Lake Martin, he’s exceptional in cold weather and with a wide variety of techniques. Love him or hate him, the dude catches fish everywhere he goes. I consider him a safe pick, but if you don’t, go with Ott DeFoe, who was 11th in 2015, and who is likely to win at least one major title sooner rather than later.
BUCKET C: COMBS
Keith Combs is not a name you’d normally associate with the Carolinas. He seemingly reigns where 100 pound catches are expected, throwing a big crankbait offshore, or flipping something gnarly. His real forte, though, is electronics, and if the fish are still prespawn as expected you should bet on him to find something subtle and productive. In six Classic attempts, the only time he’s missed the cut to Sunday was last year at Conroe, close to home. Don’t expect that to happen again anytime soon. If he’s not your cup of tea, look to Todd Faircloth, another Texan who looks to shed the label of “best never to win a major title.”
BUCKET D: DANIELS
Mark it down
I know that I implied above that first-timers need not apply to be picked, but I’m going to break my own rule and go with Mark Daniels Jr. here. Like most fishing fans, I don’t know much about him, except that he’s constantly in the money (13 checks in 18 B.A.S.S. events). His track record at FLW says that’s no fluke, and everyone in the industry seems to think that he’s the “complete package,” another breakout star in a sport where it’s hard to stand out. He won’t have the entourage of some of the others, and he might be able to sneak into contention heading into the last day. If you’re not willing to go with someone who hasn’t won with B.A.S.S. yet, try fellow super sophomore Jesse Wiggins, who has already won multiple times, and is one of the few guys who is willing and able to do it with a shakey head (among other things).
BUCKET E: HARTMAN
Jamie Hartman may have stumbled slightly at Martin, sliding into one of the last checks, but if you think that portrays a sophomore slump, you’re overlooking his rookie record of Sunday cuts. This is a tournament where a finesse jig, a little worm and a drop shot could play a role, and those three presentations are right in his wheelhouse. Hartwell may not look like the lakes in his native New York, but he proved last year that home is wherever he happens to be casting at a given moment. Rick Morris has the chops to get it done as well, and that would be a hell of a comeback story, but it would be even more impressive if Carl Svebek were to come out on top – especially if he used a Sweebo Worm to do it.