In a regular tour event, sandbagging's a given. But at the Bassmaster Classic, it reaches mythic proportions. In fact, it's hard to find any Classic pro with something positive to say about his practice.
Sandbagging makes sense, though. Nobody wants to be pegged as the guy who's on fish before the event even starts. That adds pressure, and a potential spectator
armada. It also sets up possible disappointment if (or when) things change.
Two pros who seemed to deliver the straight scoop after the final practice day this afternoon were Aaron Martens and Kevin VanDam – a duo that happens to be favorites in every Classic they fish, no matter what.
Martens said if he gets 15 bites he'll catch 18 pounds. Ten bites will deliver 14 or 15 pounds, while five bites will back him down to 10 or 11 pounds.
VanDam simply feels a lot of guys are going to catch them. "The lake's too good – there are too many fish not to," he said. "I'll have my chances. Every place you go that's 40 feet or deeper, there are tons of fish suspended in the trees. It's going to be a great Classic."
All of which means a lot of the field must be holding back on describing their practice. There does remain the wildcard of the shakeoff – where the pros don't hook fish during practice – so much of the field truly may not know what they're over. But in all, it's looking like 17 to 18 pounds a day will win the thing.
Before more about the bite, plus notes from individual competitors, here's more about the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Hartwell
> Type of Water: Lowland reservoir
> Surface Acres (full pool): 56,000
> Primary structure/cover: Standing timber, points, humps, creek channels, brushpiles, some docks
> Primary forage: Shad, blueback herring, crawfish, bream
> Average depth: 45.6 feet at full pool
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass
> Minimum length: 12 inches
> Reputation: An expansive, quality fishery with excellent average size. But unpredictable since fish move a lot day-to-day in relation to blueback herring. Contains some bruiser spotted bass.
> Weather: A warming trend will end with potential heavy rain in the forecast for Friday. Nighttime lows in the high-30s to low-40s expected for the event.
> Water temp: 46 to 50 degrees
> Water visibility/color: Main lake is clear with up to 8 feet of visibility. Clarity varies all the way to muddy in the backs of creeks. Since water level is low, there's a distinct mudline along many banks.
> Water level: 12 feet low (very significant)
> Fish in: All depths, but majority of fish are from moderately shallow to deep
> Fish phase: Winter (shallow fish might be prespawn, or just up feeding)
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, topwaters, jerkbaits, jighead spinners, jigs, some plastics deep
> Winning weight: 56 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 25): 26 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Hartwell
> Biggest factors: The morning bite – there's a good one in a few spots that everyone knows about, so boat draw's important. Also the weather – it'll probably affect the shallow bite more than the deep one. Lastly the lucky bite – there's some junk-fishing happening up shallow.
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow? Also, whether to stick with an area and fish it slowly, or run a series of spots.
> Wildcard: The weather. Nasty conditions could turn the deep fish on, but make boat position difficult. Also the "glory school" – one probably exists.
Cold, miserable conditions last week gave way to a warming trend with partly cloudy skies. Today's final practice day was quite windy, but there was intermittent sun and balmy temperatures.
However, a blast of nasty weather, with precipitation and possible thunderstorms, is due by Friday. Nighttime lows are expected to stay cold, which should hold the water temperature where it is right now – in the mid-40s on average.
But if heavy rains do come, they could easily blow out shallow bites in the backs of pockets. With the water 12 feet low, the clay banks are exposed around the lake. Heavy rain just takes that sludge and runs it straight into the lake.
That happened last Sunday, and the shallow flats in the backs of the pockets have yet to recover. If Friday brings heavy rain, the shallow backs might not play at all.
The Deep Bite
Overall, the majority of the field seems to think the deep bite will dominate the event. Even for those who split time shallow and deep, they expect their deep fish to be the bigger ones.
The best deep bite right now is in the trees. The fish are suspended there, with plenty of bait around. The problem, most say, is that the tree bite's sporadic, and the fish generally feed just once, maybe twice a day, and only in certain spots.
There are deep bites too on long, tapering points and humps, but timber seems to be the main deal.
Timber also complicates hookups, because it presents the classic conundrum: You need to fish light line to coax the negative fish into biting, but you need heavy line to coax them out of the trees once you do hook up.
The event could very well come down to whoever strikes the magic balance between line weight and presentation - the one who converts on every single tree bite. And wind, although not in the forecast except perhaps Friday, could further complicate the tree bite. It's just darn hard to maintain boat position and fish the trees slowly with significant wind (even though wind can get the fish going).
The Morning Bite
Like every other event along the Savannah Chain, the morning bite's important. Fish generally bust on blueback herring first thing in the morning, and once the light gets up, they go back down and digest.
There's something happening with the morning bite, but none in the field will address what it is exactly. It seems there's a can't-miss morning bite in a select few areas, and everyone in the field knows exactly where those areas are. So boat order is key there, because the first 10 or 15 boats out will have the pick of the morning litter, which could mean two or three solid fish toward an 18-pound limit.
But again, while the morning bite's important, it generally only contributes to Savannah Chain wins. The more important factor is to buoy a good morning with a solid afternoon, and overall, the afternoon bite's been more reliable for the field (typical of winter-pattern fishing).
Kevin VanDam says the field is full of it – a lot of fish are being caught, and it's going to be a great event.
Current: Will It Matter?
Current is often the deciding factor in the Classic. Two recent standout examples include Jay Yelas' 2002 win at Lay Lake, which was based solely on current. And then there's VanDam's Pittsburgh win in 2005, which he won in large part because the current turned completely off on Sunday, and he was the only angler near the top who practiced for that factorial.
The field hasn't said much about current – whether it plays a role in their bite or not. Those who did mention current tended to reference it toward their shallow bite. So current could be key in the ditches (creek channels). Then again, maybe it's what triggers the deep fish on their sporadic feeding cycles.
There's just not enough intel at this point to peg current as a major factor.
The Shallow Bite
None of the pros BassFan spoke with plan to fish exclusively shallow, although many are clearly leaning on that bite as their strength.
And there seem to be two forms of shallow attack. One is to target-fish docks, brush and other cover. And since the lake is 12 feet low, a lot of "deep brushpiles" are now shallow ones. And there are enough docks around that some will certainly hold isolated fish.
The other approach is to just flat-out cover water with a reaction bait.
Either way you slice it, the shallow bite isn't a numbers-game. It's a way to look for five or six key bites of size. It's hands-down a gamble.
The Mid-Depth Bite
What appears to be emerging is the presence of a mid-depth bite – that zone between shallow cover and the drop. There are a lot of fish swimming in that zone, but they don't seem to be holding to anything in particular. They might be feeding, they might be early bloomers looking to get a head-start on the spring ritual, or they might be there solely for water temperature.
Hard to say either way, but a significant portion of the field is tying a mid-depth bite to their deep stuff. This is a wildcard of sorts, because although the mid-depth fish appear difficult to pattern, someone could very well figure out how to score in this depth range across the 3 days.
Hartwell, overall, is a clear-water lake. And since fish are in their winter mode (or at least toward the tail end of it), finesse can matter.
The problem there is this is the Classic, so it's hard for most to dink around with the nagging feeling that there's a hero hardbait bite around the next point.
In fact, what many in the field seem to be struggling with the most is how to mentally pare down their expectations and fish slowly enough to be effective.
There are, however, tremendous finesse sticks in the field. Count among them Kota Kiriyama, Mike Iaconelli, Kevin Wirth, and of course the consummate finesser himself, Martens.
Lake Hartwell includes countless cuts and creeks, and the field seems spread out across the lake – from the dam to up into the rivers.
The Big-Bait Bite
Swimbaits are becoming a bigger and bigger deal each year, and there are plenty in the field itching to throw caution to the wind and throw the big stuff – or even a downsized swimbait.
Solid in theory, since five swimbait bites a day could probably win this thing, but more difficult in execution, since fish aren't aggressively feeding. And it's a longshot that one of the contenders could get enough of a bead on fish position to run a swimbait pattern either shallow or in the trees.
The possibility's there, but the swimbait likely hasn't matured enough as a tour-level tool to be the major factor some think it might.
The Bottom Line
Although the above information includes plenty of speculation, a few grains of apparent truth did emerge after today's final practice:
What follows are notes from several of the pros about their final practice day this afternoon.
"I got on something else today. Mike McClelland and I fished Lake Lanier (this week). We caught them pretty good over there and learned a little something. I tried it here and got some bites on it. I had a fair amount of bites today and I feel good. I did better today than I did the other 3 practice days.
"I'm mixing it up – deep and shallow – but my bigger fish will come deeper. I think if I can catch 14 pounds the first day, I won't be out of it, but I'd need to catch 20 pounds one day. What I don't want to do is catch 11. I think with 14 I'd still be in it. Anywhere from 14 to 18 and I'll be satisfied."
Note: Baskett, from Salem, Ore., qualified via the BASS Federation Nation.
"The thing that changed for me today was I caught fish – I had a pretty good day. I shook most of the fish off, but I stuck a few and I was impressed. I think I finally figured out that what I'm used to doing (fishing shallow) didn't work for me. So I just tried something different.
"I slowed down a little bit. It's easy to get caught up and go too fast when the fishing's tough. But I figured out what they're holding on, and I could go from spot to spot. So I'm very pleased with what I found.
"I'm fishing deep. This warmth isn't going to hold, but I think my fish will stay right where they're at."
"Nothing really changed for me today. The size I've been catching is still there, so it's just a matter of getting the bites. The whole point of fishing the Classic is catching the best five you can, and I haven't caught any small fish – they've been bigger ones.
"I hope that doesn't hurt me in the long run, where I only catch three or four. But I spent my time looking for big fish. I didn't fish much today, but I had two bites. One was 5 1/2 and the other was a 6.
"I'm not fishing deep or shallow – I'm in-between. I'm trying to catch prespawn fish right now.
"I'm jacked up. This is the Bassmaster Classic – my first one ever. I'm excited and ready to get out there. The weather's a little colder than what I wanted, but I'm going to have the overcast that I need. I'm fishing for five bites, and if I get those five bites in, it's going to be a good feeling."
"I had to change up today – all my stuff for the tournament. I checked the stuff from last week. It was not good. I did not get a bite until 10:00. After that I changed up and caught five keepers. It's totally different than what I've been doing. I have a lot of work to do on my tackle.
"You have to be open-minded and do whatever it takes."
"My morning fish did move a little. Once I found them, I was able to get them to bite. Then I went to all new places. The fishing did change up a little bit – it seemed like the water was 2 degrees colder.
"I think it's going to be good real early on the blueback deal, then trying to figure out where fish move up shallow in the afternoon is probably how it's going to play out. I'm prepared for both bites.
"I didn't go to my two best deep places today. That's probably where I'll start the first day to see how the schooling fish go, then start my milk run."
Chris Lane seems to be on big weight – he just needs to convert every bite he gets.
"I'm using a Jackall Flick-Shake. I tried a little different stuff today. Every one was okay, but nothing super.
"I'm doing both deep and shallow. Today I have more confidence in deep.
"The bass move fast and you need to adjust. That's all it takes. I think everyone has one or two things to do. What makes the difference is adjusting for certain conditions."
"I ran all new stuff today and they changed a little bit. I caught some – it was the best day I've had since I've been here. Maybe because I think the past 3 days have been, I'd not say warm, but decent. But 40-degree rain is not going to help anything."
"Today was par for the course. I got enough bites to keep my confidence up, but I didn't catch any big ones. I fished all new water, but it was in an area I wanted to fish.
"I'm not really going to pick a single area though. There are a couple of patterns going, and I'm going to run them."
"I struggled today. But I looked at all new stuff. I didn't check anything where I think I can catch them. I tried different, off-the-wall ways to catch bigger ones.
"It was different today than last week, and it'll be different in the tournament. I'll try to scratch it out, and I'm going to fish slow. If I get the bites, I could have weight, but seven or eight bites would be a good day. I know where a bunch of good fish have been hanging out."
"Today was decent. I've got one area that I was disappointed in. I'd found a creek way up the river that had a lot of fish. But we had an inch and half of rain on Sunday that muddied it up real bad. It was absolute dirt. So I eliminated that deal.
"I changed it up a little bit. I had about half my fish deep, and half shallow. The bigger fish came shallow, but with the weather coming in, I tried to spend today searching for more deep fish. I think the shallows will get muddied up."
"Today was rough. I had a hard time getting bites. I was checking out new water. I did figure out a couple spots today that should help me in the tournament, hopefully. So even though I didn't catch many, I think today helped me.
"I'm fishing fairly shallow. I'd be happy to have a 3-pound average."
"It was pretty slow out there today. I really didn't have anything to recheck. I just kind of went out fishing. I had a little gameplan trying to fish treetops, but it never really panned out. I got a few bites throwing a jig around.
"Hopefully I'll find them the first day of the tournament. That's kind of been the plan all along."
"Today was good – the best day I've had so far. I really don't know why. I was just running new stuff, and I'm going to start on that other stuff I found. I'm kind of excited to have the stuff I was already excited about, plus the new stuff I'm excited about.
"I'm doing both deep and shallow, and catching fish in 4 feet and 40 feet.
"I think the tournament's going to come down to a couple of key bites – a couple of big fish. But I think a lot of fish will be caught. So it'll be a little bit about luck, and a little bit about decisions – making the right decisions at the right times."
"I accomplished most of what I wanted to today, which was to figure out how to get the fish I'd found to bite. I knew where they were, but I couldn't catch them. I figured out how to do that. And I also expanded the places I had already. So all in all it was a successful practice day.
"The pattern I found last week was dead-on today. There was no change at all. It doesn't matter what the weather does. Clear lakes are slow to cool and slow to warm, so I don't think things will change much either way.
"I think the tournament's going to come down to somebody being on a spot where they can get a couple days of limits off one place – having that sweet spot. That's really the key. I feel like those fish are grouped up and there to be caught. But you have to fish slow to find them, and you can definitely overfish the bite right now."
"Honestly, today was probably the same as every day I've been on the lake. There wasn't a lot of change.
"I spent a little more time in one area of the lake for a little while this morning, then I just ran new water the rest of the day. I covered a lot of water and fished pretty fast.
"I tell myself every day that I'm just going to go fishing and do what I've been doing, and however it turns it, it turns out. I'm not going to fish for something I'm not on, like I've done in the past.
"I've got a feeling it's going to turn out a lot like last year, where it's going to be that guy who gets a couple of big bites to separate himself.
"I'm fishing probably more the mid-depths and I'm throwing hardbaits. It's really kind of junky. I have two or three deals and I can catch fish on all three, but one's not going to get me through the week."
To read Murray's final practice-day report, click here to go On Tour With the BassFan Big Sticks.
Anglers will launch at 7:15 a.m. each day from Portman Marina, located at 1629 Marina Rd. (off Hwy. 187) on the north end of the lake on the point that separates the Seneca River from Six and Twenty Creek. Weigh-ins start daily at 3:30 p.m. at the BI-LO Center (650 N. Academy St.) near downtown Greenville.
The Classic Outdoors Expo will be held at the Carolina First Center (formerly the Palmetto Center) Friday through Sunday, with doors opening at 12 p.m. on Friday, and 10 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Here's the forecast for the tournament days. For updated weather info, including satellite images and radar, visit OutdoorsFanWeather.com.
> Fri, Feb. 22 – Rain/Thunder – 50°/48°
- Wind: From the E/NE at 10 mph
> Sat, Feb. 23 – AM Clouds/PM Sun – 65°/41°
- Wind: From the W/SW at 13 mph
> Sun, Feb. 24 – Partly Cloudy – 61°/39°
- Wind: From the S/SW at 5 mph
Below is the day-1 boat order. Positions reverse for day 2. Day-3 boat order is determined by tournament position.
1. Skeet Reese
2. Boyd Duckett
3. Tim Horton
4. Alton Jones
5. John Crews
6. Kevin Wirth
7. Brent Chapman
8. Todd Faircloth
9. Takahiro Omori
10. Brent Haimes
11. Scott Rook
12. Gerald Swindle
13. Kevin VanDam
14. Jeff Kriet
15. Mike Baskett
16. Kelly Jordon
17. Derek Remitz
18. Ishama Monroe
19. Chris Lane
20. Jared Lintner
21. Kevin Short
22. Jeff Freeman
23. Kotaro Kiriyama
24. Matthew Sphar
25. Jay Fuller
26. John Murray
27. Gary Klein
28. Casey Ashley
29. Fred Roumbanis
30. Edwin Evers
31. Terry Scroggins
32. Richard Watson
33. Michael Iaconelli
34. Jeff Coble
35. Charlie Hartley
36. Greg Hackney
37. Peter Thliveros
38. Chris Loftus
39. Mike McClelland
40. Todd Auten
41. Clark Reehm
42. Cliff Pace
43. Jamie Laiche
44. Mike Wurm
45. Tommy Biffle
46. Bobby Lane
47. Aaron Martens
48. Dave Wolak
49. Stephen Browning
50. Steve Kennedy