Hartley's Classic Hartwell lead

For one tournament, Charlie Hartley set the fishing world on fire. Seven years later, Hartley calls his short-lived lead in the Bassmaster Classic the most exciting and most disappointing moment in his lengthy fishing career.

Hartley was the unlikely leader after Day 1 of the 2008 Classic on Lake Hartwell, the site of this year’s event. The arena in Greenville, S.C., was abuzz as the little known angler’s name topped the leaderboard, even if for only 24 hours.

“When they told me I was leading the Bassmaster Classic, it was the most exciting words I’ve ever heard in my life,” Hartley said. “I got more exposure and notoriety out of that.”

“There were 15,000 people who stood up on their feet and screamed like I was a rock star. I can’t explain that. I wish everyone fishing can get that feeling. That was mindboggling. The world spins. You almost fall over.”

See photos of Hartley in the 2008 Classic here.

A career changer

He did end up falling as Alton Jones won the title, but the grinder from Grove City, Ohio, said the attention he received for contending for fishing’s most coveted title meant the world to his career. 

“I’ll tell you how important it was,” he said. “I was always told sponsors will not call you. You have to seek out sponsors. But after you lead the Classic and you’re a fan favorite after a couple days, sponsors will call you.”

Bassmaster TV host Tommy Sanders said Hartley is an addicted competition angler who’s usually happy just to be there. His story caught the imagination of most everyone in the industry and even casual fishing fans.

“If you were going to draw up a better Cinderella story, you would have a hard time doing it,” Sanders said. “Charlie was the perpetual underdog, the happy warrior, but usually underdog in any battle against the top two tiers of that Elite series.

“He had the lead a couple of times, but something always seemed to happen. But here he was at the Classic, where it was looking like he was going to break through and do it; his first tournament win was going to be the Bassmaster Classic.

“To see him on stage, with the lead, shaking almost, was a moment we’d never seen. You were afraid he was going to explode.”

Hartley’s hot start

Starting with B.A.S.S. in 1993, Hartley has fished 198 events, cashing checks in less than a third. He’s had seven Top 10 finishes, including two seconds and a third, but has never won. On Day 1 of his first and only Classic, Hartley weighed 21 pounds, 1 ounce for a slim lead over Scott Rook (20-13) and Kevin VanDam (20-3).

“That was the big bag the first day, and it was a great day,” Hartley said. “It was a terrible weather day. I’ve always bragged about the Elite guys that even under the worst conditions they can catch a bag bigger than you would even think you could catch under good conditions. And we proved it that day.

“The weather was absolutely terrible. The water temp was like 39 degrees and the air temp was in the 20s and it was raining and sleeting when we left blastoff.”

It was a hot start for Hartley, who began on a bluff and put four 2-pounders in the livewell. Then he said he told his observer, ‘Those won’t win the Classic.’ And he goes, ‘No, they won’t.’ ”

His next stop was in a pocket with docks and visible brushpiles, and he said he flipped up two or three big fish right off, then went to another pocket and culled out the little guys before calling it a day to preserve the spot.

But the big boys were not there the next day. He came in with a limit weighing 13-12 and fell behind Jones, who bagged 18-11 for a total of 36 pounds.

“I thought I had blown it the second day, but when I got in Davy Hite said you’re still right there,” Hartley said. “I was only a pound and a half out of the lead heading out the last day.”

Day 3

Hartley later said his wife, Tracey, had lovingly nicknamed him DC for Disappearing Charlie, a bad trend in tournament competition, and it ended up painfully accurate on Day 3.

“I tried to milk those docks again but I knew pretty quickly I’d already pounded them to death … Probably spent a little too much time on them, but not too much,” he said. “I tried to go to some other areas, and with an hour or two on the last day, up in Beaver Dam Creek – it was muddy and cold the first days but it started warming – I missed a few key bites that would have put me back in the hunt.”

He only managed to weigh two fish on Day 3, and that 3-5 sack dropped him to a 15th-place finish. A bag with three more fish like he caught the first day might have made up his 11-5 deficit, but he was battling more than Jones anyway.

“The trick is to catch fish for three days and that’s the hardest thing in the world,” he said. “You have to fight human nature – how can you leave the place that that got you on TV and leading the classic?  … very hard to leave that situation.”

Bassmaster TV producer Jerry McKinnis said he fondly recalls watching Hartley catch fish off a brushpile, and how Hartley’s storyline was so bittersweet.

“I’m sure it had to be heartbreaking for him,” McKinnis said, “but it also did a lot for him.”

McKinnis wouldn’t say if he was pulling for Hartley, but a number of the competitors said if they couldn’t win they’d wish Hartley would.

“I would love to see Charlie Hartley win it. Even if he doesn't catch a fish, that's a splash,” Mike Iaconelli said at the time.

“He’s the New York Giants in the Super Bowl this year,” Byron Velvick said of the wild-card team that weeks earlier upset New England’s bid for a perfect season. “You really don't want to see the Patriots win. You want to see Charlie Hartley win."

Hartley said other pros rooting for him meant a lot. He knows his angling chops aren’t top-flight, but gaining respect from those pros is moving. He related a story when they still drew anglers for tournaments, and he got George Cochran for the third time.   

“I’ve never been a natural. I’ve always struggled to catch every fish and he’s watched me struggle a couple times already,” Hartley said. “And George looks up, ‘Are you still coming back?’

“Usually guys who get their butts kicked quit coming back. I don’t quit coming back, so I have a lot of fans for that reason.”

A groundswell of support

The Hartwell Classic earned him more fans, and just from leading one day he reaped more than the prize money of $22,750, which included $9,000 in bonuses.

“I was surprised how much sponsorship money that I got for leading the Classic the first day, wearing the right hat, or sunglasses,” Hartley said. “I was dumbfounded the checks that showed up the next two or three weeks and the phone calls I got.”

Hartley admitted he might have glossed over the fine print on sponsor contracts that awarded money for leading or having the big bag in the Classic. He said his loyalty to them garnered loyalty from them.

“One thing in this industry, I have been loyal to my brands,” he said. “Not that I can call any boat company or motor company and say I’m Charlie Hartley, I want a better deal, but they were good to me way before Charlie Hartley led that day.”

The fan support he received after Hartwell also touches his heart. Back home, there is a high school fishing club named after him. He may have $431,969 in career earnings over 22 years, but he wouldn’t change a thing.

“You cannot believe the positive feedback I get from this sport. I do not regret a penny or a dime spent fishing,” he said. “I cannot go anywhere, at the ramp today, on the lake, anywhere where the people don’t say, ‘Hi, Charlie Hartley, good luck.’ That means the world to me.

“You can say I’ve not won any big tournaments, but I’ve had great success in this industry. I always joke with my buddy ‘I wish I’d never led that darn Classic. And he laughs, ‘Like hell you don’t!’ It was a really great week for me.”