Most wide open Classic ever?

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Catch up with the 2015 Classic winner Casey Ashley as he prepares for Wednesday's official practice.
Garrick Dixon
Catch up with the 2015 Classic winner Casey Ashley as he prepares for Wednesday's official practice.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — This tournament harks back to first Bassmaster Classics, when Ray Scott would fly the anglers to a mystery lake. How can that be, when the GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods has returned to Lake Hartwell for the third time in 11 years? This is a different lake under dissimilar weather conditions than any of the competitors have seen before.

“When this lake comes up and it gets warm, there’s no local knowledge,” said 2015 Classic champion Casey Ashley of Lake Hartwell, which is his home lake. “The field is scratch as to who has got the upper hand.”

Interestingly, three anglers in a quick, random sampling of the competitors assembled here Tuesday offered a similar take, predicting the eventual winner on Sunday hasn’t got a clue about the success awaiting him.

“I honestly think somebody is going to end up winning who has no idea right now that he’s going to catch ‘em,” said Hank Cherry.

Echoed Jason Christie, “I think the guy that wins is going to say that he had no idea after practice.”

The three-day practice period began last Friday and ended Sunday. The anglers will get another day of practice Wednesday before the three-day tournament starts Friday. Lake Hartwell filled to the brim in late February in conjunction with some historically warm weather for this area. Colder temperatures have been the norm for the last few days, leaving water surface temperatures in the lower to mid 50s.

“Things are changing so much that anybody could win this,” Christie said. “It may be all of the sudden – boom – where a guy (previously) caught just a couple of little fish. The reverse of that is possible too, where somebody that had a really good practice, that’s dialed-in, is going to fall apart.”

Both Ashley and Steve Kennedy predicted it will take an average of 18 pounds a day – 54 pounds total – to win the Classic. In 2015, Ashley won at Hartwell with 50 pounds, 1 ounce. In 2008, Alton Jones won at Hartwell with 49-7. But both of those tournaments were held the third week in February.

“Usually 17 pounds a day wins every multi-day tournament here,” Ashley said. “It’s the same fish, they’re just as big as they’re going to get right now, so you can add a pound a day to them. When we were here in 2015, you still caught a lot of fish that were skinny. The ones you’ll catch now will look like their eyeballs are about to pop out they’re so fat. They’re ready to go.”

That’s “go” as in spawn. But with the water temperatures where they are now, that’s not going to happen this week, even with some warmer weather forecast for the tournament. There will still be a lot of fish caught shallow. And some anglers will concentrate on bass that are still deep and haven’t begun to move up yet.

Jason Williamson’s home lake is Clarks Hill, located about an hour south of here. Williamson saw a few bass on spawning beds there after the warm spell in February, but not many big females. He thinks all options are open this week at Lake Hartwell.

“There are a lot of changes that are going to happen, in my opinion, between now and Sunday,” Williamson said. “The biggest thing here is to get the sun back out, the wind calmed down and the water temperature back up. When that starts happening, a lot of things will start changing. It’s that time of year. The fish want to spawn.

“You’re going to start seeing a trend of shallow fishing, whether it in that eight- to 12-foot range or two to four feet. It’s going to progressively get better as the week goes on.”

And that opens up many possibilities on how bass will be caught.

“This is going to be a tournament where somebody has got 10 rods on the deck, and they’re going to catch five bass a day doing five different things,” said Jacob Powroznik.