GREENVILLE, S.C. – The final day of practice for the GEICO Bassmaster Classic Presented by Dick’s Sporting Goods is often about fine-tuning and subterfuge more than actual fish catches. The competitors don’t want to be seen on their best areas, they don’t want to give any hint of what they’re going to do, and they’re more likely to throw shade on what they’ve found than to brag about their chances of winning.
For those of us in the media, it presents a challenge: How do you garner any meaningful information from the pros’ words and actions when everything they do is likely to send you down the wrong path, intentionally or not?
This is the ninth Classic that I’ve worked on the water for B.A.S.S. and I’ve learned that rather than cursing the darkness of the practice period it’s more productive to light a candle. The best way to do that is to read between the lines and to learn from a composite picture of a bunch of scenes what factors will be critical. Photographer Thomas Allen and I might not have seen the winning bait or the winning spot during our time on the water this morning, but I came away from the boat ride with a sense of what some of the puzzle pieces might look like.
Here are ten things I think I learned:
1. The lake is going to fish big – Hartwell is much higher than it was in 2015 or 2008, the only two times I’ve been here previously. In fact, it was only when our boat driver pointed out that we were in the cove where Casey Ashley did much of his damage in 2015 that I recognized the place. I’d spent hours there watching Casey, but it looked totally different. Places that had been dry then are now underwater. I don’t know how many more acres of playing field we have, but it should give the field and opportunity to spread out.
2. But not TOO big – These anglers are the best in the world, and if there’s a “best” school on the lake, or a key piece of juice in the best area, you can bet that more than one of them will find it. Today we rode by an offshore spot early in the morning and saw one top pro camped on it. When we came by again an hour later, another hammer was there, set up exactly the same way, fishing it similarly.
3. Bluebacks may play – We saw several anglers fishing around diving gulls and loons which no doubt were chowing down on the lake’s abundant blueback herring population. An angler who dials in (or lucks into) an aggressive school of bass feasting on bluebacks can get healthy in a hurry. At the same time, depending on those roaming baitfish to be in the same place day after day after day might burn someone’s chances of repeating that success.
4. Spotted bass giveth and taketh away – Hartwell’s numerous spotted bass are apparently easy to find and easy to catch, per the reports of multiple pros, but there’s a decent chance you can fish for them all day and only cull up to an 8 or 10 pound limit. They can be limit-fillers for the largemouth hunters, but spend too much time on them and you take yourself out of the running, unless you can find the scarcer magnum spots.
5. Shoreline grass – Our boat driver pointed to the newly-flooded hay grass (aka “straw grass”) that lined many banks and said he believes it will be the key to finding the quality largemouths. Fishing a tournament this past weekend, he and his partner lit them up with a spinnerbait and chatterbait dirt shallow around the grass that had grown up in little shoreline drains. There wasn’t vegetation here for either of the prior Classics, so it remains to be seen if this can hold up. Also, it’s a rabbit hole that’s easy to go down, and surely some stretches and configurations of grass will be better than others.
6. Get ready for spectators – The 2008 and 2015 Classics were marked by incredibly cold weather, which kept many would-be spectators at home in their recliners. This time around it should be much more temperate (even 39 at takeoff this morning was 30 degrees warmer than 2015). The winner this year will likely have to manage spectators in a way that Casey Ashley didn’t have to. He camped on key areas and they kept their distance. There’s no reason to believe that they won’t be equally respectful this time, but their numbers might be overwhelming, and they’ll be especially impactful if the leaders are fishing shallow.
7. It’ll be more of a “pattern” tournament than a “spot” tournament – Don’t expect any of the leaders to put their trolling motors down at their first spot and not pick them up until it’s time to head to the weigh-in. In order to have a chance heading into the final hours, given the variables of spectator traffic, changing conditions, and fishing pressure, an angler is going to have to be ready to move on a moment’s notice. Fortunately, Hartwell looks as if it was taken from the “Bass Fishing 101” textbook – it’s tailor-made for a true pattern fisherman to ply his craft.
8. In fact, it could require multiple patterns – Anglers who are depending on their fish in 30 feet or their fish with bellies in the dirt to bite consistently for three days are probably in for a rude awakening. Things are changing day by day, even hour by hour. Locals told me that the fish were ready to spawn a few weeks ago before a cold snap knocked them back. Now the water is in the low 50s. The anglers with the proven ability to adjust – think KVD, Skeet, Iaconelli, among others – from dirt-shallow to mid-depth ranges to outside, might not win, but nor will they die on the vine.
9. Timing will be key – With cold mornings and warm afternoons, and multiple anglers hitting key areas sequentially, you could see someone with nothing on BASSTrakk at noon come to the scales with a massive bag. Conversely, someone who lights up the blueback bite at stop number one could spend the rest of the day spinning his wheels. Picking the proper rotation and establishing yourself in key areas early in the tournament will prove crucial.
10. Get ready to ride the roller coaster – With so much at stake, and so much in flux, this tournament will be determined not only by an angler’s ability to find the winning fish, but also by the likelihood that he doesn’t get spun out when things don’t go exactly according to plan. That’s a truism for any tournament, but it’s particularly apt when they’re operating on little sleep, with fishing immortality on the line. When Casey won in 2015, he had 50-01 versus 2nd place finisher Bobby Lane’s 46-15. When Alton Jones won in 2008, he had 49-07 to Cliff Pace’s 44-05. Those are fairly substantial winning margins, but really they come down to one extra 5-pounder, or the ability to have your fish average just a few more ounces apiece. Lane was hampered by the fact that he only weighed in four fish on Day 1. In a small field with huge consequences, an angler’s chances of winning is increased, but each misstep is magnified, and there’s no guarantees you’ll be back next year. This year’s winner will earn the title by conceiving and executing a game plan that allows for adjustment on the fly.