There's an X-Factor in every Bassmaster Classic. Last year, BassFan named Boyd Duckett the X-Factor, and he won the whole darn thing.
This year's Classic at Lake Hartwell along the Georgia/South Carolina border's a little different, though, since Hartwell's a new Classic venue – and darn hard to break down before day 1.
So in essence there are several X-Factors. One's a competitor - Casey Ashley, a local who knows more about the lake than anyone else in the field.
But the other X-Factor is more abstract. For now, let's call it experience. As BassFan noted in its scouting report, what will likely decide this Classic is one or two crucial on-the-water decisions.
Few in the field are capable of making the right pressure-laced decisions more often than not. That's why veterans tend to win Bassmaster Classics. Sure, there are a list of exceptions, but taken as a whole, experience matters big-time in the Big Show.
To break things down a little further, below are several of the factors BassFan believes are in play right now. Following that is our recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event.
Savannah-chain fish are notorious for two things. One is their roaming nature. That becomes more prevalent in warmer water temperatures, but they still move year-round in relation to the blueback herring.
The fish are also well-known to bite at only one or two select times each day – again often in respect to the blueback herring.
That makes timing crucial, and timing is where decision-making comes in. Anglers have to learn their rotation if they're going to fish schoolers, and there are several pros – Mike Iaconelli, Aaron Martens, Kevin VanDam and Boyd Duckett among others – who excel in that category.
But overall, lake knowledge plays a major role in timing, because there are traditional spots where fish feed at semi-predictable times. So that's where Casey Ashley's apparent advantage comes into play. If others have a three- or four-spot milk run, he might have 10, 15 or 20 spots to hit.
But only one angler has ever won the Classic in his home state – Boyd Duckett – so the gambler's odds are against Ashley.
Those with some significant experience on the lake in addition to Ashley include most notably Duckett, Todd Auten, Gerald Swindle and Steve Kennedy.
Overall, the field is surprisingly light on true veterans and legends. That's in part because a few years ago, several marquee BASS pros like Larry Nixon, George Cochran, Mark Davis, and Jay Yelas moved over to the FLW Tour. It's also because some veterans, like Rick Clunn, Zell Rowland and Denny Brauer, struggled last year and failed to qualify for the Classic.
Casey Ashley possesses an immense knowledge of the lake.
Those considered true tour-level veterans in this year's field are: Tommy Biffle, Gary Klein, Peter Thliveros, Alton Jones, and Kevin VanDam.
Of them, Klein and VanDam have the most storied past. But Klein has never won a Classic in his 25 attempts. Nor has Biffle in his 13.
Of all the true vets fishing this week, VanDam's the only past Classic champion. He's won two of them.
The BassFan World Rankings presented by Tru-Tungsten are a statistical measure of 2-year rolling performance, so they're the leading indicator in the sport of who's the best angler right now. Sure, the Classic is a standalone, winner-take-all event, but it's a big factor in the Rankings too, and anyone inside the Top 10 is usually a good pick for a potential Classic winner.
Among the Top 10 anglers in the world fishing this event are: Kevin VanDam (1st), Skeet Reese (2nd), Steve Kennedy (3rd), Aaron Martens (4th), Peter Thliveros (9th), and Boyd Duckett (10th).
Will Gary Klein's Classic drought end a few days from now?
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here's BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at the Hartwell Classic.
1. Kevin VanDam – He's the No. 1-ranked angler in the world, a two-time Classic champion, and the greatest angler of the modern era. He's a threat to win every event he enters, but here, he seems to have something wired. He has that look in his eyes like he's got something good. If not the all-out winner, then he should land somewhere in the Top 3 or 4.
2. Aaron Martens – He's one of the favorites in every Classic he fishes simply because he's that good. He's never won the Classic, but he did finish 2nd three times in a row. This is also his type of lake – there are lots of suspended fish that are tough to figure out. That's a rock-solid lock for his type of fishing, not to mention the fact that he said he's on about 15 to 18 pounds a day right now.
3. Casey Ashley – The lone true local in the field, Ashley knows the lake and seems to have things wired. His problem might very well be local traffic. In that regard, the bad weather in the forecast might help him, because it'll cut down the spectator traffic. He's young, and the spotlight's on him. Will he come through?
4. Steve Kennedy – Kennedy grew up in Georgia and has fished Hartwell plenty, as well as the whole Savannah Chain. He's been pretty quiet prior to this one, and complained about his practice last week (lots of fish, little size), but he's too good not to make the list.
5. Mike McClelland – Has shown he's a closer the past few years with some key wins, one of which was downriver at Clarks Hill last year. He's also been fairly quiet – call it secretive – but if he can get the jig working, he could have a big event.
6. Skeet Reese – He finished 2nd in last year's Classic, which launched him into an unforgettable hot streak and an Angler of the Year (AOY) title. The big question is whether he's still hot. With an AOY title under his belt, the Classic's his new primary goal. But he's a longshot given history – only one reigning AOY has ever won the Classic (Mark Davis in 1995).
7. Chris Lane – Here's a good dark-horse pick. He's on size, not numbers, which means he's gambling. But that can win Classics. And he finished 2nd last year at Clarks Hill. Others might be on size and not talking about it, but there's clearly a buzz around him.
8. Tim Horton – Horton's accomplished a lot in a relatively short time, but has yet to win a Classic. Something says he's got enough to hang around until the final day, and that's big this year, because the final day will probably be the deciding factor. A good, solid pick.
9. Mike Iaconelli – He's won a Classic, but suffered DQ incidents in two others. Ike makes the list because he's finished in the Top 10 in four of the eight Classics he's fished. Strong.
Jeff Coble's lurking under many radars, but watch him – he's that good.
10. Jeff Coble – Fishing his third Classic, and he's made it through the grassroots each time. He's crafty, and word is he's on something good – the benefit of doing solid homework on the lake. Deadly with a crankbait, and that bite might be on big-time.
Others To Watch
> Stephen Browning – Rumor is he's on fish.
> Bobby Lane – Fishing his first Classic, but the elements aren't in his favor.
10. Boyd Duckett – If he could win, he'd be only the second ever to repeat, but he overcame history last year when he won in his home state. He's a thinking-man's pro, which makes him stand out this year too.
> Brent Chapman – Had a good pre-practice, and Wednesday's practice was his best day so far. Seems to have an improving bite.
> Peter Thliveros – With so much offshore activity, Peter T. could have a great event.
> Kota Kiriyama – He's fishing finesse, and he's one of the best with the small stick.
> Gary Klein – Noted for his nasty-weather prowess, this could be his year.
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 – 48°/46°
- Wind: From the NE at 9 mph
> Sat, Feb. 23 – Partly Cloudy – 65°/37°
- Wind: From the W/SW at 14 mph
> Sun, Feb. 24 – Partly Cloudy – 60°/37°
- 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