2015 Bassmaster Classic
Greenville, South Carolin11th Place / 15 fish, 38-07
My fourth Bassmaster Classic didn’t pay off with a win, but I managed to salvage a sub-par practice and improved my weights each day as the tournament progressed. I was never on the fish to win, but after practice I never would’ve expected to finish as well as I did, so I’ll take that as a source of momentum leading into the 2015 Elite Series season.
The only time I’d been to Hartwell prior to my pre-practice was for a family reunion when I was 10 or 12, so that doesn’t really count. I went down in December and spent a couple of days on the lake. I had planned to stay for three days, but I got the flu and the trip got cut short. During that time I graphed quite a bit, but I also fished a fair amount. You can’t see an entire lake that big in just two days, but I got an understanding of how it was laid out such that I’d be comfortable when I came back for the official practice.
I watched the weather carefully, and while it wasn’t necessarily a mild winter, it wasn’t quite as harsh as last winter, either. I expected that when I arrived the water temperatures would be in the upper 40s or low 50s, and that’s pretty much what I found. The fishing seemed to be decent, and I felt like I’d be able to go to the backs of creeks and catch some keepers, but when I saw the forecast of extreme cold I felt like those areas would be impacted the most, so I vowed to avoid them. That turned out to be a good call, because those areas got hurt. In fact, according to some of the other competitors some of them even iced up.
On the first day of the official practice my first bite was a 5 pounder. I was pursuing a classic wintertime pattern and hoped to build on that one bite but it turned out to be a pretty poor day. I spent most of it on the lower end of the lake and probably had a half dozen fish, but only four of them were keepers. The bite was sporadic and I never found the group of fish I was looking for.
I started the second day of practice up the Tugaloo arm and only managed two fish there – one small one and a 3 pounder. Things were cooling down and the water temperatures were 43-44, with the potential to get worse. At 11 o’clock I loaded up the boat and went back down the lake. Once I was back in the water, I picked up a Shad Rap and on the first rocky point I lost two fish and then caught two. On the next point I caught another fish. On the third point, I caught two more on a jerkbait. I’d figured out a little pattern on that end of the lake and things were starting to make sense. In about three hours I caught a dozen or so fish. There was a 3 pounder and a couple of 2 ½ pounders, but no big ones, on the Shad Rap and the new Shadow Rap. I felt like those techniques would give me a chance at some 4 to 6 pounders, but I couldn’t be sure.
On the final day I put in down lake close to the campground and it was probably my worst day of the three. The temperatures were very cold and I only managed to catch two fish all day – one about 2 ½ pounds on a swimbait on the corner of a dock and another on a shakey head under a deep dock. That was it.
After practice ended on Sunday, we couldn’t get out on the water again until Wednesday, and by then the nasty cold had settled in over the lake. On the final practice day I started off down the lake in some areas where I’d marked deep fish on Sunday but had been unable to get them to bite. They weren’t all bass, but I’d dropped a camera down and confirmed that some of them were. I checked out two or three of those places on Wednesday and couldn’t get a bite. I did that until 10 or 11 o’clock at which point I decided to run up the Tugaloo arm to see if I could still get bit up there. Earlier I’d felt like I could catch 12 or so pounds up there pretty reliably, but on Wednesday it took three hours to get the first bite. That had me a little worried.
On Thursday they announced that the Friday blast-off would be delayed due to safety concerns. After a tough practice, that had me worried. I was struggling for bites and didn’t know if I’d be able to catch a limit in 6 ½ hours. On the other hand, there was a positive way to look at that change. If I managed to have a good day it would provide a huge leg up over those who struggled.
As I pulled down to the ramp on Friday the temperature gauge on my truck read 15 degrees. I’d fished in low temperatures before and with good gear like my ArcticShield I knew that I could get through it, probably better than most. I wore my motorcycle helmet as I drove from spot to spot and that was a lifesaver, too.
My first stop during the tournament was a ditch leading into a pocket, the type of place that is supposed to hold fish on Hartwell in the winter, but after 30 or so minutes I hadn’t had a bite. I moved to a bank with some docks on it and caught a keeper on a Shad Rap. It felt like a wet rag when it hit and I’m not sure which one of us was more surprised. When I went to put him in the livewell, one valve was frozen open and one of my pumps was frozen, too. It turned out not to be an issue, but it took a few minutes of messing around with them to get them working properly.
I didn’t catch fish number two until about 11:30. I was up the Tugaloo fishing the Shad Rap and Shadow Rap on points, but they weren’t producing the way I thought they would. As I was going across a pocket I saw some timber sticking out of the water on a high spot in about 25 feet of water. I threw my Terminator Football Head Jig to it and on my first cast caught a 2 ½ pounder. After another dry spell, I started moving around, hitting brush, docks and other cover, but once again struggled. It was frustrating because I’d expected to catch a lot of keepers.
One bank just looked perfect but after fishing it with the Shad Rap it finally hit me that I needed to go to the little Gulp Minnow that had produced a 5 pounder in practice. It was after 1 pm, but within 5 minutes I caught a 3 pounder, my best fish of the day. I’m not sure why it took me so long to switch, but I’m glad that I did, because with about 90 minutes left the bites started coming. I moved to a rocky point and quickly lost a keeper halfway to the boat. Two minutes later I lost another one. Those would’ve been fish number four and number five. Then I caught a keeper and lost another, which left me with four fish with 30 or so minutes left. On the next point, where I’d caught one during practice, I landed number five.
With 5 minutes left to fish, I went back to a point that I had fished with the Shad Rap and caught one that culled out my smallest keeper. Just by changing my presentation to something with a little bit more finesse I’d salvaged my day. At times it felt more like fishing for crappie than for bass, but my 10 pounds 6 ounces had me in 22nd place, and that felt pretty good considering how tough it had been.
Heading into Day Two, I knew I’d put a lot more emphasis on tight lining that little Gulp Minnow. In fact, I only had one rod out for half the day, and that’s the only thing I caught fish on. I started off down the lake in the pocket where I’d caught the 5 pounder in practice. In the first 90 minutes, I caught three and lost one. None of them were big, just solid keepers. After that I bounced around. The key was finding places where the water had a little bit of color – instead of 6-10’ of visibility, my best areas were more like 3-5’ of visibility. In those areas, you could catch fish on docks, brush or even clean banks. The other key was that the banks had to be slightly steep than average. Most of them were channel swings, a pretty traditional winter pattern. I keyed on those areas all day on Day Two and caught about a dozen keepers. The best five weighed 13-01 and even though I figured that weights would go up with the longer day and better weather, I didn’t expect that I’d stay in the same place in the standings.
I knew that I needed a big bag to have a shot on the last day. Hartwell doesn’t have as many big fish as a lake like Guntersville, but they catch some 23 pound bags there and that would give me a shot at the top three. If I could put together a 25 pound limit I might even win. Last year Randy Howell was 9 pounds off the lead after Day Two and managed to come back. This year all of us who fished on Sunday were within that range.
The Gulp Minnow had produced most of my fish, but even though I’d caught a 5 pounder on it during practice, I felt like it wasn’t likely to produce a big bag. In order to move up, I needed to fish bigger baits and look a little bit deeper. In my first pocket, I caught a 3 pound spotted bass on a swimbait. Mike McClelland was fishing close to my next spot, and while I caught a 3 ½ pounder there on a fish head spin, I never could catch any more, despite watching Mike catch a pile of them.
Next I visited the area where I’d caught them well on Day Two, and I found schooling fish – stripers with some bass beneath them. I caught a few stripers but couldn’t get the bass to bite and ended up wasting too much time there. There was one particular dock where I’d caught a keeper the day before, and once again it produced a fish on the Gulp Minnow.
After that, I went out deep, just looking with my Humminbird graphs and my Lakemaster Chip. There was a flat bay with a defined ditch and using my Humminbird 360 I saw a brush pile ahead of me. I threw a fish head spin past it, reeled through the brush, and once it came clear I caught a 3 ½ pound largemouth. My limit fish was a spot and soon I culled it with a largemouth. After that I caught number seven on a jig. That made four fish on that one spot, and after that despite trying some different angles I couldn’t catch any more. I looked for more places like that but couldn’t find any.
With 45 or 50 minutes left I came back and caught three more fish, culling a few times more. The best fish came on the fish head spin and a Terminator jig. I felt like everybody would have good days and indeed some of them like Bobby Lane, Jacob Powroznik and winner Casey Ashley did, but I was surprised that my 15 pounds moved me up 11 spots into 11th place. That was very satisfying.
Most of my fish in this tournament came with a technique we call “tight lining.” A friend of mine showed me how to use that little 3-inch Gulp Minnow on a 1/8 or 3/16 ounce homemade jighead. You hold the rod at 10 o’clock and bounce the tip to make it swim and you slowly retrieve it. Once you get a feel for it the bait just kind of hovers a little off the bottom. Every so often you pause it and allow the bait to swim back. It’s great in tough conditions because it’s extremely natural. I fished it on a Fenwick 6’9” medium action Elite Tech Bass spinning rod with a Pflueger Supreme XT (30 size) and 6 lb. test Trilene 100% fluorocarbon (XL formula).
My second most productive bait was a homemade ½ ounce fish head spin. A friend had tied some white bucktail with a little bit of green in it, which often works better in extremely cold weather than soft plastic. I fished that on a 7’ medium heavy Elite Tech Bass rod with a Pflueger Supreme XT (7.1:1) spooled with 10 lb. Trilene 100% fluorocarbon.
My third key bait was the new Rapala Shadow Rap jerkbait, the deep version in a color called “Bud.” I fished it on a 6’8” prototype medium action Fenwick rod that will be released later this year. I paired it with a Pflueger Patriarch (7.1:1) spooled with 10 lb. test Trilene 100% fluorocarbon. This bait is going to win a lot of money for a lot of anglers. It is flat-sided, which makes it move side to side more widely than other baits in its class. You twitch it and it shoots back and forth without much forward motion. Out of the package it suspends perfect in 40-42 degree water. In 45 degree water it sinks slowly. The “fadeaway action” has to be seen to be believed.
One other new piece of equipment in this tournament was my new Nitro Z21. I thought that they couldn’t improve upon the Z9, but this boat is incredibly impressive – it handled rough water well on the windy days and the fishability is tremendous. My new ONIX graphs from Humminbird made my job much easier, too. With 360, side-imaging and down-imaging, the clarity is just incredible. I can see fish sitting in places where we never saw them before. I’d start in 38 to 40 feet at the end of a ditch and I didn’t have to graph it first to catch fish – instead I’d just see the fish and the cover out in front of me or to the side of me. There’s no reason to miss anything. The final addition to my boating setup is my Bluewater LED lights, which are not only extremely functional, but look pretty cool, too.
While it wasn’t the Classic victory that I crave, this tournament provided a good start to my season. My weights got better every day and I expect that this will be one to build on. Next up is the season opener on the Sabine River in Texas. I didn’t do too well there on our last visit, so it’s time for a little bit of revenge.