Editor's note: This article was written at the beginning of the Bassmaster Elite Series season, before Hartman won the Elite event on Guntersville.
Jamie Hartman recognized early on there would be hard knocks along the way when going up against the sport’s top anglers, but he could have never anticipated what happened on June 20, 2018.
At the Bassmaster Elite Series tour stop on the upper Mississippi River, Hartman was just three hours into the final practice day when his world turned upside down.
He laid down on his front deck with excruciating pain shooting from his lower back, down his leg and into his foot.
It was the sciatic nerve, the single largest in the human body.
“I knew it wasn’t getting much better, but thought I could spend three of the tournament days fishing around the launch, at least picking up points,” he said of that fateful day of his sophomore season.
He never made it to Day 1. The pain was so bad that Hartman summoned a friend to drive his boat back to the ramp. He called B.A.S.S. Tournament Director Trip Weldon and withdrew from the sixth event of the season.
“My worst nightmare was waking up on the first tournament day back home in Arkansas,” he recalled. “Everything I worked for, the successes of 2017 and then 2018, was gone.”
There is more to come on the heartbreak and injury. Hartman had every reason to feel dejected. He had completed a phenomenal 2017 season and nearly won the Bassmaster Rookie of the Year title.
He did it with an uncanny commitment after accepting the Elite Series invitation via the 2016 Basspro.com Bassmaster Northern Opens. In December of that year, Hartman quit his job as a truck driver, sold his house, put all of his personal belongings in storage and hit the road. He spent the winter scouting unfamiliar fisheries in the upcoming lineup. He stayed for two weeks on a given lake and then moved on to the next, living out of his truck along the way.
“I knew I had to do it to catch up because I’d never fished before in the South,” he said. “Most of the events were during the spring, and I had never fished a spawning cycle lasting three months long.”
He continued, “It was a tremendous learning curve, because I had to anticipate where the fish would be in prespawn or postspawn several months after scouting the lake.”
In New York, the spawn comes and goes in a matter of weeks. Not so on southern impoundments like Toledo Bend, where the cycle takes much longer. Hartman made the most of the time, adapting his preferred offshore structure fishing to the shallower conditions.
On Toledo Bend, it worked exceptionally well. Hartman finished third and finished the season with five showings inside the Top 10, while finishing 13th in the points race for Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year.
“It was all unknown to me and fell into place,” he recalled. “But I knew that diversifying and being a more versatile angler was a must.”
What he also learned was that every fish counts, no matter the size.
“I hate fishing for just a paycheck, I want the trophy,” he said. “I didn’t back off to catch 2-pounders that could have helped me even more. There were probably times when I should have done that.”
Those lessons he learned were the focus of his 2018 season. Hartman finished eighth on Lake Travis and moved on to the Sabine River, looking forward to the northern swing and his comfort zone. He left Texas in pain, and an emergency room visit confirmed the sciatica nerve was the probable cause.
Hartman pressed on and drove to Lacrosse, Wis., where he endured two days of practicing near the launch ramp. After the disheartening call to Weldon, he went home. MRI results proved the real cause of the pain was a ruptured disc. Surgery and allowing the disc to heal over time were the options. He chose the latter, following a strict diet of anti-inflammatory foods, intense exercise and lots of patience, the toughest of all to follow.
Ignoring the remaining events was impossible, and especially on the St. Lawrence River, where he finished seventh in 2017.
“I watched every minute of Bassmaster LIVE, thinking of what might have been on all those lakes where I previously fished or had practiced for the season,” he said.
Eventually, the pain began to subside. He worked even harder, applying the same dedication that rewarded him during the 2017 season. Ironically, Hartman spent the offseason scouting more unfamiliar lakes but with a more open mind. The pain is more annoying than noticeable.
“I can feel the nerve, but not the pain, and it’s a constant reminder for me to maintain the diet and exercise regime,” he added.
Hartman began the 2019 season with renewed confidence while eager to unleash a lot of pent-up competitive energy.
All he needs to do is just pick up where he left off.