PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.—Charlie Hartley is easy to recognize at tournaments. Rain or shine, first or last place, you will always find a wide smile on his face. The smile is omnipresent and so is his upbeat attitude. Approach him at a takeoff, weigh-in or on the water, and be greeted by a hearty howdy from the man everyone likes.
Lately the smile is broader than ever. The tournament trail’s Mr. Nice Guy finally finished first. That happened after 30 years of trying in B.A.S.S. competitions.
Last month Hartley hoisted the trophy at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens event held on the James River in Richmond, Va. By fishing this week at the final Northern tournament of the season he qualifies for the 2017 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by GoPro.
Hartley, 52, has spent his life on the tournament trail in some way or another. Going backward, he’s a former Bassmaster Elite Series pro, fished club events with the Ohio B.A.S.S. Nation and once earned its top honor, Mr. Bass of Ohio. The native Ohioan’s love for organized bass fishing spans his entire life.
What he is most proud of is the high school club in his hometown of Westerville that bears his name. Hartley’s Hawg’s is the club and he beams with pride when asked about his role.
“The club is named after me and it’s the greatest achievement for me in my fishing career thus far,” he said. “I sponsor the club, pay for their jerseys, take my boat and go speak at their seminars.”
The story behind Hartley’s Hawgs is equally as interesting as the club’s namesake angler. Long before Hartley entered his first bass tournament he was already passing on his passion for the sport.
“I was 12 years old at the time and often went farm pond fishing with the football coach at my middle school,” he recalled. “Not big enough to be on the team I suggested we start a fishing club.”
The coach agreed to help. A meeting announcement got posted to the bulletin board at Walnut Springs Middle School. Sixty kids showed up and the club was born. That was 40 years ago. Hartley believes his club was one of the first of its kind.
Years later some of the teens from the Walnut Springs Fishing Club moved on to high school. They took their interest and enthusiasm with them, leading to the formation of a club at Westerville High School. Hartley also attended the school located outside of Columbus. That’s how Hartley’s Hawgs originated.
“They came to me and wanted to name the club in my name,” he said. “What a true honor that was for me.”
Last year the club produced it’s first high school state champions. Wade Pritsel and Joe Kavatch fished the 2015 Costa Bassmaster High School National Championship presented by TNT Fireworks.
Hartley’s Hawgs returned to the 2016 championship with Ohio’s top high school anglers. This time it was Colten Didion and John Hutson, who finished eighth on Kentucky Lake.
“We love him, he’s a real nice guy,” said Didion, 17, a senior at Westerville North High School. “He’ll come from out of his way to talk to our team at seminars.”
“He doesn’t hold back any secrets and will talk as long as you want him to talk,” added Hutson, 17, also a senior. “He’s an awesome guy and a great mentor to us.”
“If just one of those kids turns out to be a genuinely honest and grateful adult then I’m happy,” added Hartley.
Looks like it already is happening. A growing trend in the B.A.S.S. High School Nation program is for student anglers planning college enrollment to seek schools offering bass fishing scholarships or teams. Didion and Hutson both plan to follow that track.
“The club had everything to do with us really getting excited about going to college,” said Hutson.
The connection is especially impactful for Hartley, who does not have children of his own.
“I like to call fishing the magic sport,” he continued. “Folks don’t just do it to compete, although you can, but what’s truly rewarding about fishing is how it bonds people.”
Meanwhile, Hartley this week wraps up his Classic quest on Lake Champlain. This time, the smiles and good wishes will come from another direction.
“We all wanted Charlie to win on the James River,” said David Dudley, the FLW Tour’s all-time winner with $3.4 million in earnings. “I mean, who wouldn’t want a nice guy like him to win?”
Dudley, who finished third behind Hartley, basically echoed the thoughts of everyone in the Top 12 at the James River event.
Hartley will keep on fishing and smiling. It’s just in his nature.
“I love fishing, the people, and the kids,” he said. “I’m just grateful for all of it.”
So are the Hartley Hawgs, and every high school kid who gets treated like a pro from one of the sport’s most respected mentors.