Babe Ruth. Michael Jordan. And Tom Brady? Maybe it's too soon to bring Brady up? There are names in every sport that seem to live on forever. In the world of bass fishing, there are a handful of names that definitely stand out amongst the rest; Kevin VanDam, Rick Clunn, Skeet Reese and Mike Iaconelli to name a few. In one decade or another since 1971, with few exceptions, there is one thing that ties them all together— the title of Bassmaster Classic Champion. Anyone who claims that coveted title goes down in history as a household name in the sport of bass fishing.
This year will be no exception. Lake Hartwell will offer familiarity for some and a brand new puzzle to put together for others. There are key differences that set this tournament apart from every other tournament these anglers will fish. These differences have tended to cause stress, anxiety, nausea, heavy sweating, time mismanagement and occasional vomiting. No, I’m not talking about Flu-A. I’m talking about the “Classic Bends.” Some guys just won’t be able to handle a laundry list of obligations to sponsors and fans and that could cause them to become disoriented.
First, the media will definitely play a factor. Between interviews and spending time with fans, these guys will have limited time to actually think about and prep for fishing. The atmosphere is full of energy and excitement enough to give the veteran pros butterflies. It’ll be critical to keep the mind focused. Second, fans on the water tend to pose issues for some. Crowd management will be very important. And lastly, the trophy, title and the $300,000 first-place money adds a few hundred thousand pounds of pressure, and all of this will only increase with each day an angler fishes.
It takes a special kind of angler to make it through all the mental land mines to take this tournament down. My Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing gameplan is to go with anglers who have a history of finishing well in Classics. Let’s dive in.
BUCKET A: IACONELLI
My Pick: Mike Iaconelli
There are two strategies in play here and truthfully, I could go either way. Casey Ashley has a monstrous ownership percentage. It’s currently 42 percent, and it’ll probably climb a bit more. Iaconelli has a much more reasonable percentage. He lives for this event and seems to always be fishing on the final day. He finished 10th in 2008 and sixth in 2015 in Classics on Hartwell. He is also stout with a jig in his hands, and can fish docks with the best of them. His skills and ability to navigate this type of event put him on my short list of potential champions – and repeat champions.
Can’t Forget: Casey Ashley
It’s hard not to pick him. He has an FLW Tour level win and a Classic win on Lake Hartwell. I’m just curious to see if the added pressure of defending his title will keep him from fishing all three days. If he does stumble, I’m betting Ike will be there to take his shot, and if he finishes below Ike, I get a big pay raise in points.
BUCKET B: REESE
My Pick: Skeet Reese
Skeet is another one of those who can’t seem to fall outside the top during Classic events. He has a Top 12 on Hartwell in 2008 and a 17th in 2015. He is comfortable on just about any body of water, and knows how to manage the Classic Bends. This Classic will be later in the year and so my guess is that the average bass will be slightly heavier. It will be important to pick guys who will be willing to fish for the right bites. They all get a paycheck, so having the fearlessness it takes to swing for the fences will be important. Skeet has got it.
Can’t Forget: Greg Hackney
Hackney has done well on this type of lake in the past. There might not be a more comfortable jig dragger on the circuit. He also is easily one of the best anglers to not to have a Classic title. This drives him hard. If he can have a good Day 1, he could make a solid run.
BUCKET C: HOWELL
My Pick: Randy Howell
When Randy Howell won the Classic on Guntersville, his game seemed to step up a notch. In his fifteen Classic appearances, nearly half of them, seven to be exact, have resulted in a 20th-place finish or better. And if that weren’t impressive enough, four out of the last five years, he hasn’t finished outside the top 16. He can deservedly be dubbed a Classic stud. He’s bringing some solid momentum from Lake Martin, a similar fishery, with a 21st place coming into this event.
Can’t Forget: Mike McClelland
Any time jigs, rocks and docks play, Mike McClelland is king of the playground. One of my buddies fished an Open with him as a co-angler years ago, and he said he’s never seen anyone more efficient at working a jig around cover as McClelland. This will definitely make him dangerous. He has mixed results here, but did score an eighth-place finish on Hartwell in 2015.
BUCKET D: PACE
My Pick: Cliff Pace
When Cliff Pace won the Classic on Grand Lake, he was fishing docks with rocks in relatively clear water. I can see him using the exact same logic to find the right bites here on Hartwell. He has six Classic appearances to his name and of those, four of them are 16th or better including a first and a second. His second-place finish happened to be on none other than ... yep ... Lake Hartwell.
Can’t Forget: Hank Cherry
Anytime there is the potential for a jerkbait bite, you can’t count out Hank Cherry. He hasn’t fished a B.A.S.S. event on Hartwell, but I can see it fitting right in his wheelhouse. He didn’t do great at Martin, missing a check by 4 ounces. I’m sure that’s got him fired up and ready to take on the Classic.
BUCKET E: HARTMAN
My Pick: Jamie Hartman
This bucket was difficult. There are no clear favorites, although the ownership percentage would say otherwise. Micah Frazier and Jamie Hartman own over 70 percent of the ownership. This leaves lots of room to make a move if you choose outside of these two. Inevitably, at least one or two of these guys will make a move toward the top. I’m jumping on the bandwagon and putting my money on Jamie Hartman. He has finished in the money 15 out of 22 times in his B.A.S.S. career. He is stellar in clear water and knows how to compete with the best. He proved that last season with five top 10 finishes out of nine regular season events!
Can’t Forget: Jacob Foutz
If you’re looking for a Cinderella story, keep your eye out for Foutz. This college angler is a fierce competitor and got here by beating the best in the college fishing scene. These days, that’s a huge accomplishment. All he needs is a few of the right bites and we could have another Brandon Palanuik in the making.