Oklahoman Toby Hartsell qualified for the 2018 Bassmaster Elite series by finishing third in the 2017 Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Central Opens AOY standings. While this would be a dream-come-true for many anglers, Hartsell opted not to fish the Elites.
A year later, he again finds himself in third place in the Central Opens AOY standings. He could well qualify for the Elite Series for the second consecutive year at the upcoming Bassmaster Opens Championship. If that happens, he may be more inclined to take advantage of the opportunity. One thing is certain. Should he earn a berth to the 2019 Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods at the Championship, Hartsell will snap it up. The Classic is on the 47-year-old angler’s bucket list.
Hartsell opted not to fish the Elite Series in 2018 because of work. He had no choice but to stick around and help partner Ron Branum run their business, Branum Upholstery, which is located at Grand Lake, Okla.
Branum Upholstery makes custom boat covers they installed in boat slips at Grand and several other lakes in the region, including Table Rock, Beaver and Tenkiller. Press a button and a Sunbrella cover automatically drops down over a boat that is secured in its slip.
“We’ve put covers on million dollar boats to protect from the sun and winter elements in Oklahoma,” Hartselle said. “We’ve also done ski boats, pontoons and bass boats.”
There have been many twists and turns in Hartsell's life, but bass fishing has been a constant since his father, James, got him hooked on it early in life.
“I was in a boat as far back as I can remember,” Hartsell said. “My dad fished a lot of tournaments back in the 70s. I started fishing tournaments with him when I was 9 years old. I still crappie fish with him when I can. He and my mom [Linda] live in Livingston, Texas.”
After graduating from Missouri’s Walnut Grove High School in 1989 Hartsell worked in his family’s timber business and began fishing tournaments on his own. The same year Hartsell graduated, he fished a Central Pro Am Tournament Association event at Beaver Lake and claimed the winning purse of $8,000. It was a huge payday at the time.
“Brian Snowden, Randy Blaukat, Mike McClelland, Brent Chapman and other pros got started on that circuit,” Hartsell said. “I fished it and pretty much whatever else I could get into.”
In the mid 1990s a job in the oil field pulled Hartsell away from tournament fishing for few years. He got back into it in 1998 with serious intentions. He competed in FLW events at every level, including a three-year stint on the FLW Tour from 2005 through 2007. His FLW winnings total just under $200,000.
“I did fairly well, not wonderful, but I learned a lot,” Hartsell said. “It made me a lot better fisherman. I had to fish outside of Missouri and Arkansas. I learned how to fish grass at Sam Rayburn.”
Hartsell moved from Oklahoma to Texas in 2001 and spent the next 10 years working with the family timber business. During the last four years of this period he drifted away from bass tournament fishing. When he returned to Oklahoma in 2011 his tournament itch recurred, and he began competing in buddy events.
It was Japanese angler Kenta Kimura who lured Hartsell to fish the Bassmaster Opens. The two met in 2005 while fishing an FLW tournament at Lake Okeechobee. Hartsell was fishing as a pro and Kimura as a co-angler. They struck up an immediate friendship and have been best friends ever since.
“Kenta lives in Japan, but he stays with me when he comes to fish tournaments over here,” Hartsell said.
Early in their friendship Kimura would stay with Hartsell for six to eight months a year. He now comes to America when he competes in the Bassmaster Opens. In 2013 Kimura wanted to sign up as a pro to fish the Central Division of the 2014 Bassmaster Opens. He asked Hartsell to enter as a co-angler so he could be assured of getting into the tournaments. Hartsell agreed.
Hartsell’s first Bassmaster Open was on the Red River. He finished third as a co-angler. He was victorious at the next event on the Arkansas River and won a boat. These successes got his competitive juices flowing again. He fished the following year as a co-angler and stepped up to the pro division of the Central Opens in 2016.
Hartsell obviously possesses serious bass fishing skills. He claimed that he catches 85 percent of his bass on homemade jigs and that he loves to fish boat docks. When fishing docks he scores mainly with a 5/16-ounce jig.
“I don’t have any paying sponsors but South Winds Marina helps me with a Nitro boat and Garmin electronics,” Hartsell said.
If he qualifies for the 2019 Elites at the Opens Championship on Table Rock Lake, which he is very familiar with, Hartsell will need more sponsorship support to make the leap to the Elites.
(Hartsell and his father have been collecting all manner of crankbaits, topwater plugs and other hard baits for more than 40 years and have amassed 400,000 lures, which they keep in storage. The entire collection is up for sale. Interested buyers may contact Hartsell at grandlakeboatcovers.com.)