By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The 56 anglers who'll compete in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic collectively have a great deal of time on the water under a myriad of conditions. Nonetheless, many have never seen what they'll encounter when the tournament gets under way Friday at Lake Hartwell in South Carolina.
This will almost assuredly go down as the most physically and psychologically challenging Classic that's ever been staged. Yeah, it was really tough to catch keepers in Pittsburgh a decade ago, but at least the competitors could feel their hands and feet and didn't have to worry about an accidental slip into the water becoming a life-threatening situation.
Conditions are so brutal in the Palmetto State right now that some in the field are planning to sit out today's final practice session. Those who garnered at least a bit of confidence during the three previous practice days (last Friday through Sunday) would like to hold onto it – they feel they have little to gain by returning to the now-chillier lake and discovering that the situation has changed.
Following are some reports from the initial practice period.
"It's gotten awfully cold and that's changed a lot from pre-practice (in December) for me. I've got one little area where I feel like I can do decent. The fish are just here and there – you can cover a lot of water without a bite.
"When it gets below freezing I usually don't go fishing, so this is going to be new for me even though I've been doing this for 30-something years. It's going to be hard to make a cast because everything's going to be iced up. It's going to be interesting, but you know these guys are going to catch them. It's a good lake and it's got a lot of fish.
"I'm thinking positive. I've caught some good fish, but I'm just not getting a lot of bites. If I can put five bites together, I'll be okay."
"It's been slow for me. I've caught a few decent fish, so that gives me some hope. I pre-practiced for this pretty heavily back in December, and I located quite a few schools. I'm not finding the schools right now, though; it's very random, but there have been a few good ones.
"There's got to be some fish schooled up somewhere. I've done a lot of looking and I haven't found concentrations of bait or concentrations of (bass). Somewhere, somebody has to be on them.
"If the weather had stayed consistent I think I could've run a pattern to catch five, then run another pattern to try to catch big ones. Now that it's colder I might only be able to generate two or three bites and I'm concerned about that.
"I don't have that warm and fuzzy feeling like I'm going to go out there and it's going to be easy. I like slugfests, and I don't think this is going to be one by any means."
"The deal with my practice is I've been trying to focus on what I think is going to be happening after we've had this weather rather that what was actually happening on the practice days. Now the question will be, was I right? I got a few bites, but not a lot. I've prepared for what I thought was going to work and now the hay's in the barn, so to speak.
Matt Herren said he attempted to practice with an eye toward how the fishery would change with the arrival of the frigid weather.
"Some guys might've had a great practice so far, but I can't help but think things are going to be different for them on the first morning of the tournament. All this 30-degree water running off into the lake and the nighttime lows just frigid – who the heck knows? I've got a couple of deals where I think I can catch a couple. I'm not saying I'm really on anything, but I think I know what to do and I'm optimistic that I can adjust.
"If the forecast stays the same, it's going to be a challenge just to launch this tournament. It's going to be extremely dangerous for the anglers. We're pros and we know how to handle ourselves out there, but things can happen.
"Whoever wins this one is going to earn it."
"These are about as bad of conditions as we've ever been faced with. I do feel like I've found enough to be able to fish the way I want to fish and to be confident doing so. I'm not saying I'm going to set any records or set the world on fire, but I'm looking forward to the opportunity to see what I can make happen.
"I feel like that based on what I've found, the weather conditions can't completely wipe it out. I think I can continue to catch fish in the places I've been catching them. The weights might not be what we thought they were going to be two months ago, but I do believe it'll take 15 to 17 pounds a day to have a shot to win. The biggest thing is how effectively we're going to be able to fish – if it's below freezing for more than half the day, that affects your ability to fish properly.
"We're probably only going to be making one cast in the amount of time it'd take to make five on a normal day."
"It's been hard, and I think you're going to end up seeing guys call audibles like you can't believe. I'm trying to keep an open mind and the day I caught my best stringer I was doing something that I'm really confident doing. That was only one day, though, so literally, who knows? I'm just hoping to keep my fingers from falling off my body.
"If we'd had sunshine every day that had kept the water in the 46- to 50-degree range, it would've been set up to at least catch them in the afternoon. But now that we've got brutal cold, clouds, snow and sleet, it's not going to be that way. We're not going to get that warming effect.
"The good thing is this lake is deep and clear and there are going to be catchable fish."
"I think 'random' has been the key word for me. I can't seem to find anything I can hang my hat on and I don't know what to attribute that to. This is one of my favorite times of year to fish and it's always been good to me, and when the fish aren't too funky I can usually figure out where I need to be to get quite a few bites. This one, I'm not getting many bites – I've caught a few, but each one has been from a different location.
David Walker said few anglers will be able to rely on past experience to deal with the conditions at Lake Hartwell this week because most have never seen anything like them.
"I've been doing this full-time for 15 years and you always think you can fall back on your past experiences, but these are conditions we don't fish in that often and you don't have that experience behind you. It makes it a little more of a puzzle. It's definitely going to take some mental toughness.
"I don't feel like I've got a place or a way of fishing that I'm really excited about and I feel like I could do bad, but I could do well, too. You don't want to win practice, anyway. Some of my worst practices have led to some of my best tournaments and hopefully that'll be the case here."
"I had a very rough time, to be honest, except for the last 3 hours of the last day. I still think it's going to be won deep. My goal is going to be focusing on putting 10 to 12 pounds in the livewell and then trying to improve on that.
"I've never fished under these kind of conditions before. It's almost like a survival test. I'm trying to keep a positive attitude even though I've got a frozen brain."
"Practice was rather difficult. I was expecting to catch a few more fish than I did, but I wasn't expecting to have freezing line and all that good stuff.
"I found four deep spots that look like they could be pretty consistent, but I don't know if those fish will move or change with all the cold weather. If they do, I'll have to try to find some more. My best pattern was actually a shallower bite – there was better size – but I'm afraid that's going to dwindle.
"This feels like back home in Missouri – I didn't think they had this type of weather out here. We had a tournament on Lake of the Ozarks years ago and the fishing was great in the snow, but the fish here don't seem to like it as much. Either that or I don't know where to go to catch them."