2018 Bassmaster Classic
Greenville, South Carolina
6th Place | 15 fish, 42-13
This year’s Bassmaster Classic marked my seventh in a row, and my second time fishing one on Hartwell. I was excited because they’ve moved it back a few weeks, which meant that the fish were likely to be mostly shallow. On top of that, the lake has come up around 7 feet since the first of the year, so I went into practice with no real intentions of looking deep. Unfortunately, the weather threw us a curveball and all of those fish that were looking to move up and spawn got knocked back by a series of cold fronts. That meant I’d have to spend at least a little bit of my practice offshore as a safety net.
Overall, practice was kind of a struggle. I caught a 3 pounder the first day and a few in the 2 to 2 ½ pound range, but no really good bites. I knew that the water had been near 60 a few weeks earlier, but now it was in the range of 49 to 54.
After spending half of the first day shallow, I spent all of the second day shallow. I had 12 or 15 bites, but there was no quality and I had to work for each of them. That led me to spend the entire third day out deep and/or in clear water looking for a place to start and catch a few in the 2 ½ pound range. I found one big group that had a lot of white bass, but it also produced a 2 ½ pound spot and a 3 pound largemouth. While I wasn’t thrilled with my practice, I felt like it ended on a high note and after a few days off we’d have one final day to dial things in. That final Wednesday practice day was really windy, and I spent the first few hours deep without really finding anything good. Then I moved shallower, alternating between some really shallow water and some in the 6-8 foot range. That’s where I found my best fish, but I still wasn’t completely sold on it.
Practice left me open-ended. I had a few places I intended to hit early, but I wasn’t married to any of them or to any particular area. After thinking it over I decided to fish a few deep spots early and then go shallow after two hours, regardless of whether I had 15 pounds in the livewell or nothing at all.
Six and Twenty Creek is one of the biggest tributaries on Hartwell, and even though I’d never been in there before in my life, I knew that it had bridges, riprap and docks – all sorts of places that would hold the shallow fish I’d target later in the day. I figured I could go in there for two hours and figure something out deep. That’s how I started my day, out in 10 to 30 feet of water, hitting a handful of deep places. I had a few bites, including one spot that was exactly 12 inches, but I decided not to keep it. It probably only weighed 12 ounces and I figured that if it died I’d have an 8 ounce bass that I couldn’t cull. You can’t win the Classic that way.
At about 9:30 or 10 I ran to the back of the creek, hitting all of the bridges as I went. I had one bite, and didn’t land it, which left me truly shocked. In fact, I still don’t understand it. It seemed so easy when Randy Howell did it at Guntersville.
With that out of my system I went shallow looking for dog fennel and docks to fish with my bladed jig. The longer arms produced nothing, but in a shorter pocket I finally landed my first keeper at 11:30. It weighed around 3 pounds.
I looked at the map and found another short pocket nearby. The inside of it didn’t produce any bites, but when I got to the dock on the point coming out I caught a 3 ½ pounder. I figured at that point that it made sense to fish every dock on that row. There were about 30 or 35 of them and I’m not joking when I say that I didn’t get bit until the next to last one. Once again it was a good fish – about 4 ½ pounds – and at 12:30 I had three good ones in the well. I just needed to finish out a limit to be in good shape.
Past that row of docks there was a big flat with lots of dog fennel. I’d marked a point back there on Google Earth and when I arrived I caught number four and five there on the new Storm Arashi lipless crankbait. They were about a pound and a half each, but now I had two hours to cull them.
Moving back out to the docks, I couldn’t really figure out any pattern to what made some better than the other. With 45 minutes I went back into a pocket that had a mud line blowing into it. I fired my bladed jig to a really shallow dock, retrieved it almost to the boat, and as I was about to pull it out of the water a 2 pounder smoked it. On the next point I caught one about 2 ¼ pounds off of a dock. With about 10 minutes left to fish, about another four docks down the line, I cast to a super-shallow dock (maybe 10 inches deep). It was windy, and I missed my mark but as I started winding a 3 pounder hit it and started coming at me 100 miles per hour. That was three culls in the last 45 minutes.
My first day catch of 16-08 had me in 5th place, about where I figured it would. I thought there’d be a 22 pound bag but no one hit that mark. Jason Christie was the only one to top 20.
I headed out on Day Two with the understanding that I was going to totally discount the deep bite. I was in the second flight, which would give me an extra 20 minutes of fishing time when it mattered most, and I was going to spend the whole day in the back of Six and Twenty. I had seen some other competitors fishing there, but I didn’t feel it had been beaten up, and there were likely more fish pulling up each day.
I started fishing on the shallowest bridge, but it didn’t produce. Nor did the point where I’d caught the 4 pounder the day before. Finally, when I got to the back I caught one around 2 ¼ pounds on a Terminator Spinnerbait. Another good one climbed all over it shortly thereafter, but somehow didn’t get hooked. Then I caught a few more small keepers on it.
Heading back to the docks, I missed one around 3 pounds off a dock, but then caught keeper number four off of a piece of wood – the only fish I caught off wood all week. At that point I headed to the little pocket where I’d caught my second fish the day before. It was narrow at the mouth, then opened up, and there was a defined drop at the edge of the dog fennel in the bottleneck. I caught number five on my first cast. It weighed around 3 pounds. Then I caught one that wouldn’t help before catching a 2 ½ pounder that culled. It was still early but I only culled once more that day, with a 3 pounder at around 1:30. In fact, I didn’t catch a fish that helped in the last two hours of fishing.
My catch of 13-05 that day dropped me to 10th place, but I was still only 7-07 off the lead. Jason was totally in the driver’s seat and none of us expected him to fall short.
I wanted to run the same program on Day Three, but after the previous afternoon I felt like the back of Six and Twenty had succumbed to the pressure. I was going to start back there, but I wasn’t going to stay. I started at the cut where I’d caught three the day before, dropping my Talons down in perfect position. I made 15 or 20 casts across the gap, with a green pumpkin bladed jig, a white bladed jig, even a Carolina Rig. I could see the water boil, but they wouldn’t eat. I picked up my spinnerbait and after a few casts finally caught a 2 ½ pounder. Hopping back to the point, I added another keeper on the bladed jig. Then I went back to my Day Two spinnerbait spot and started to feel that it was post-frontal, so I needed to slow down. I pulled out a Texas-rigged Bass Pro Shops Bull Hog and soon thereafter added my third fish, a solid 2 pounder, but nothing else.
After that I moved way back in the creek, but couldn’t help myself there, and then moved back out of the cut by the mouth. I didn’t catch anything on the drop, but as I eased in I added fish number four, a 2 ¼ pounder, on a bladed jig. I hit a few more docks, then left.
At that point I needed to call an audible so I went up to a creek with the dirtiest water I knew of on the lake. It was sunny and dead calm and I felt that gave me the best chance to upgrade. I caught my fifth keeper out of some dog fennel on the bladed jig, then moved to the back of a pocket and culled again before missing a few. Finally I culled again in the far back on a real shallow dock. It turned out to be a really good decision.
Even though Jason stumbled a little, my 13 pounds wasn’t enough to overtake Jordan Lee. I have no regrets about this one. I did everything I should have – I just didn’t get the bites. Any cast could’ve produced a 5, 6 or 7 pounder. Last year I came away from the Classic angry, knowing that I’d had the bites to win, but this time I left reasonably content. I adjusted well after a tough practice and fished relatively cleanly. If they don’t bite your cricket, there isn’t much you can do about it.
In one of my earlier Classics I might’ve used a wacky worm when things got tough to try to scratch out a limit and avoid embarrassment, but there was no contingency plan this time. I was all-in.
Every fish I weighed in during the tournament came on the same rod, reel and line combination – a Bass Pro Shops CarbonLite 2.0 7’ medium-heavy baitcasting rod paired with a CarbonLite 2.0 reel (7.5:1 gear ratio) and 17 lb. test XPS Fluorocarbon. The majority of my fish came on a ½ ounce Bass Pro exclusive green pumpkin bladed jig with a matching trailer. I used both the Sassy Sally and the Bull Hog, and while they both produced about the same number of bites, the Bull Hog skips better so I relied on that more heavily. One spinnerbait was a ½ ounce Terminator Stainless with a white and chartreuse skirt. I swapped out the factory blades for white and chartreuse willowleaf replacements. The other one was a Terminator Titanium model, also ½ ounce, also double willow, but it had a hot olive skirt.
My Lakemaster mapping made adjusting on the fly a breeze. I was targeting flatter pockets and by setting everything under 5 feet to red it was easy to see where I should be going. My Mercury-powered Nitro was also a game changer. During practice I didn’t go as far as the Hartwell Dam, but I did go all the way to the Keowee Dam as well as almost to the dam up the Tugaloo. The speed, security and fuel efficiency allowed me to cover water on a big lake.
Next up is the second Elite stop of the year: The Sabine River. We’ve been there twice and I haven’t cashed a check either time. On top of that, last fall’s hurricanes have changed the composition of the fishery and we won’t be allowed to fish in Louisiana waters. I normally don’t pre-practice, and I didn’t this year, but if there was ever one I wished I’d scouted – or even flown over – this would be it. I’m viewing it in a positive light, as giving me a clean slate to start over. I’m not tied into any particular area or technique so I won’t be distracted. I’ll be able to fish the conditions. Coming off two good tournaments to start the year, and riding high on the tremendous support of my family and sponsors at the Classic, I feel that I have a lot of momentum working in my favor.