5 things to watch at Lake Hartwell

Anglers will have plenty of options this week at the final St. Croix Bassmaster Southern Open at Lake Hartwell presented by Mossy Oak Fishing. Opening the year by crowning Jason Christie as Bassmaster Classic champion, Hartwell has had one of its most productive years in memory.

After a couple of high water years that provided good spawning habitat, Hartwell is several feet below full pool this year and is showing off how healthy the spotted bass and largemouth populations have become in those years. Not only is the bass population strong, the blueback herring and shad populations have exploded as well. 

This event is a couple weeks later than the 2020 Open that Patrick Walters won with 44 pounds, 5 ounces, and while some of the same tactics could play, anglers will likely be able to fish towards their strengths this week. 

With multiple Classics as well as Elite, College and High School events taking place every year, there are very few secrets on Lake Hartwell anymore. But with anglers competing for three Elite Series bids from the Southern Opens standings on the line as well as a potential Classic berth, expect anglers to swing for the fences this week and that could result in some unique strategies and impressive bags. 

Fall is officially here

Last week, Hurricane Ian was the topic of conversation and while it unfortunately caused massive devastation in Florida and other areas of South Carolina, it largely missed Lake Hartwell aside from a couple passing rain showers. 

While it didn’t cause the lake to rise or muddy up, Hurricane Ian did bring cool nights that have dropped the water temperature and those cold nights are forecasted to continue through the rest of practice and into the foreseeable future. The forecasted temperatures for tournament days are as follows:

  • Thursday: High of 80, Low of 49
  • Friday: High of 83, Low of 50
  • Saturday: High of 71, Low of 44

This should get the fall feed started on Hartwell in a big way, but with temperatures falling rather quickly it could also turn the lake over in many areas, something that will have an adverse effect in those areas. 

Does Hartwell’s hot year continue?

7-pounders have been a rare sight on Lake Hartwell in years past, but in the past two years plenty of giant bass have hit the scales. During the 2022 Abu Garcia Bassmaster High School National Championship presented by Academy Sports + Outdoors, Destin Morales and Samuel Cobb Jr. from Louisiana wrangled a 7-8 largemouth to win the Big Bass of the Tournament.

On the local trails, 20-pound bags haven’t been uncommon this year and 9-pounders have made their way to the scales. 

It’s not only the largemouth that has been growing bigger. In a regular season College Series event in 2021, Auburn’s Tucker Smith landed what was the lake record spotted bass that clocked in at just under 6 pounds. 

All of this is to say Lake Hartwell is fishing the best it ever has, or close to it and big bass with their brains on feeding up for the winter will surely cross the stage this week.

Spotted bass vs. largemouth

This year, both spotted bass and largemouth have played in tournaments. According to Open pro and local stick Jamye Rampey, you can win one-day tournaments with 19 pounds of spotted bass just as easily as you can catch win with 19 pounds of largemouth. 

That opens up a lot of options for what anglers will be able to do this week. The main lake bite will be likely centered around where the blueback herring are set up and they’re always a major factor during any Lake Hartwell event. Big topwaters, drops shots and swimbaits will all play for anglers targeting herring chasers. Both spotted bass and largemouth will chase the herring. 

Meanwhile, the shallow water bite is just as good. Before the hurricane the water levels were around 3 or 4 feet lower than normal and with the lack of rain from that storm, a major rise in water level is not expected. So docks and laydowns will be the main targets up shallow for largemouth.

The High School Championship was dominated by shallow largemouth, with Reece Keeney and Bryce Moder winning with 14 largemouth and 1 spotted bass over the three-day event. 

Where will it be won?

With the lake fishing so well, the entire lake could play depending on if and how the turnover affects Lake Hartwell. That is good news for the 195 boat field, many of whom have fished in close quarters a lot this season. 

Will the herring chasing spotted bass lift an angler to victory or will pockets way up the Tugaloo or Seneca Rivers produce the biggest bites? Maybe it will be somewhere in between. 

And how big will the biggest bag be? An average between 15 and 17 pounds will have an angler in contention more than likely, but can an angler break the 19 or 20 pound mark to set themselves apart? It is a possibility, but only time will tell. 

Anglers to watch

As it stands, Joey Cifuentes III and Brandon Lester are tied for the lead in the Southern Opens standings at 380 points with Bryan New just behind with 376 points.

The standings behind the Top 3 are just as close, with John Hunter Jr., Jon Canada, Tom Frink and Coop Gallant all within 21 points of the top spot. 

While three invites to the Elite will be extended at the end of this tournament, it is a crucial tournament for those in contention of the overall Opens AOY title. Red River champion Keith Poche leads that race with 1170 points, with John Soukup in second with 1093 and David Gaston in third with 1091 points. 

Here are a few anglers to keep an eye on this tournament.

New: The Saluda, S.C., resident has a long history on Lake Hartwell and finished in 9th at the Bassmaster Classic earlier this year. With four Top 12 Elite finishes in 2022 and a second at the Cherokee Open earlier in the season, New would love to wrap up his season with a victory and a Southern Opens AOY title.

Jayme Rampey: Rampey nearly won the last Open on Lake Hartwell in 2020, finishing in second behind Patrick Walters. The Hartwell native will likely be dialed in and if the lake does turnover, he will know where to go to maximize the bite. 

Coop Gallant: Gallant has logged four Top 30 finishes in 2022, including a win at Cherokee and third at Oneida, but a 123rd-place finish at the James River and a 109th at the most recent Open at the Red River have hindered his points standing. But with a strong showing at Hartwell this week and then Sam Rayburn, he could easily work his way back into the Top 3 in the overall points standings. Gallant won the Cherokee Open by using his LiveScope offshore and that strength will most definitely come into play this week. 

Bradley Hallman: The Okie has sort of flown under the radar this season, but Hallman is squarely in contention in the Overall AOY race in 7th-place and with a solid finish at Lake Hartwell, Hallman could have a real chance to claim an Elite bid at Sam Rayburn. With a shallow water bite likely, don’t be surprised if Hallman is in contention. 

Gerald Swindle: Swindle had his best season on the Elites since returning in 2020, qualifying for his 20th Bassmaster Classic with a 11th-place Progressive Insurance AOY finish. G-Man has looked extremely comfortable on Hartwell in the past, with a 10th-place finish at the 2018 Classic and had a strong start to the 2022 Classic before his big bites vanished on the final day. Redemption could be in store for Swindle this week.

Logan Parks: Parks has held his own in his first year as an Opens pro and is sitting 8th in the overall standings. There are a couple reasons to watch Parks this week. He and college partner Tucker Smith won the Bass Pro Shops U.S. Open in the fall last year catching spotted bass that were chasing bait on Table Rock. Although a different time of year, the duo also logged an eighth-place finish at Hartwell in 2021.