The pros' approach to Classic practice

Aaron Martens’ December scouting trip to Lake Hartwell wasn’t his first time to see the sprawling 56,000-acre fishery and its 962 miles of shoreline.

But in some ways, the trip felt like a new experience.

“The lake is a lot bigger than I remember it being when we were there for the Classic that Alton Jones won (in 2008),” Martens said. “I don’t think I even saw half of the lake back then. It’s got a lot of acreage, and the amount of fishable water in that acreage is pretty large. There’s a lot of stuff to fish.”

Plentiful possibilities

Narrowing down all of those possibilities will be the main challenge for the 56 professional anglers who will be competing for the $300,000 first-place prize in the GEICO Bassmaster Classic Feb. 20-22. Daily blast-offs will take place at Green Pond Landing in Anderson, and weigh-ins will be held at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville.

The sheer size of the lake and the variety of fishing structure it has could make it tough for anglers to settle on a game plan that’s likely to withstand three days of the area’s often-erratic weather. The lake has a little bit of everything – from long, sloping points and underwater islands to standing timber, rocky banks, man-made brush piles and deep underwater channels.

Those fishing only the third Classic ever held in South Carolina will likely ascend on the Palmetto State prepared for just about anything.

“There’s so much to look at – a little bit of everything, everywhere,” Martens said. “You can catch them shallow to deep. You have to be ready for it all, but that’s what we do. I think the fish will bite. But depending on the weather, it could be hard to present certain techniques to them. You could be ready for one particular thing, and it could change in the blink of an eye.”

Learning from 2008

That’s what happened when the Classic was held on Hartwell in 2008.

Prior to the event, many anglers were dialed in on shallow patterns they believed could produce a victory. But temperatures dropped into the high 20s just before competition began, and much of the shallow bite came to a halt.

Eventual winner Alton Jones, who bested the field with a three-day weight of 49.7 pounds, said he was successful, partly because he started deep and stayed there. He targeted bass on the inside edges of standing timber in 25-35 feet of water.

To catch his winning weight, Jones used a Booyah Pigskin jig, a Booyah AJ's Go-To jig, both rigged with a Yum trailer, and a Cotton Cordell CC Spoon.

“I wanted to fish deep, but as shallow as I could be, so I moved to the shallowest edge of the timber," Jones said after the tournament. “Out to 25 feet, it was a moonscape. Then it looked like forest.”

Cliff Pace of Petal, Miss., finished second in that event with 44.5, and world-famous pro Kevin VanDam of Kalamazoo, Mich., was third with 43.8.

Spotting the ‘spots’

One drastic difference between this year’s Classic and the 2008 event could be what some anglers are referring to as “the spotted bass effect.”

Spots were introduced into Lake Keowee many years ago, and they’ve been making their way downstream to Hartwell for more than a decade. But during the past four or five years, after feasting on Hartwell’s abundant populations of shad and blueback herring, they’ve started growing large enough to sometimes bolster an angler’s tournament catch.

While largemouth often provide more weight, spotted bass are much more aggressive and often easier to catch as long as current is being generated. So competitors will have to decide how much time they want to devote to spots – if any.

Classic angler Casey Ashley, who lives just 35 minutes from Lake Hartwell in Donalds, S.C., believes they could be a game-changer.

“It could possibly be won off spots,” said Ashley, who won an FLW Tour event on Hartwell in March 2014. “The 3- to 5-pound spots are there, and there are a lot of them. I’ve just now gotten to where I’ll actually target spots. I wouldn’t in the past because for years, you just couldn’t win with spots. That’s just not the case anymore.”

Arkansas pro Stephen Browning, who will be appearing in his 10th Classic, isn’t sure the event can be won with spotted bass. But he believes they could make for an excellent “Plan B” if the largemouth prove too stubborn.

“Personally, with the exception of the Coosa River (in Georgia and Alabama), I’ve never seen a lake where a guy can win a multi-day tournament exclusively on spotted bass,” Browning said. “But mixing five or six of them in with largemouth may help you survive. I feel like if a guy gets to struggling, those will definitely be the fish to turn to.”

Pros prohibited

The official off-limits period for the Classic began on Jan. 1, and anglers are prohibited from fishing the lake again until the three-day practice period Feb. 13-15.

Some anglers – like popular New Jersey pro Michael Iaconelli – took full advantage of the time prior to Jan. 1 to map the entire lake and mark potential hot spots. He’s since occupied his down time in a variety of ways, including an ice-fishing trip to Minnesota.

Martens, who also gathered valuable strategic data before Jan. 1, has been working hard on his physical conditioning since the off-limits period began. He’s been doing sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups and running 30-40 miles a week.

Two boats fish Lake Hartwell on a December morning.

Other anglers – like Oklahoma pro Jason Christie – chose not to practice before Jan. 1 for fear that what he learned simply wouldn’t apply two or three months later.

“I’ve fished two Classics before,” Christie wrote in a recent column for Bassmaster.com. “Both years, I put in a lot of pre-practice time. But I feel like during the actual tournaments, I was fishing for fish I had found pretty far in advance. When things changed during the event, I should have been fishing more current patterns.”

Christie is hoping Mother Nature might actually play a little defense for him. He’s hoping for some kind of weather event that will poke holes in the strategies other anglers have been forming for months. 

“Actually, I’m hoping for something weird to happen,” Christie said. “I’m hoping it really warms up or the lake gets a lot of rain – just something to throw a wrench in many game plans. Guys who spent a lot of time on Hartwell before the cutoff will probably bring plenty of ideas from pre-practice, and guys with prior experience on the lake will do the same.”

Heavy rain could change Lake Hartwell drastically if it causes runoff from the red-clay banks on the shoreline.

“If we get some stained water pushing in, that will even things out,” Christie said. “We can throw out all the pre-practice ideas, throw out all the traditional winter stuff and just go fishing.”