By Todd Ceisner
Lake Hartwell was a regular early-season stop on the FLW Tour between 2011 and 2016 as the circuit held four tournaments there during a six-year span. All four events took place during the month of March, which make them easy reference points when trying to nail down how this year's Bassmaster Classic might play out.
As it happens, this year's Classic will have a slight reunion feel to it as the winners of those four events are in this year's field – Jason Christie (2011), Brent Ehrler (2012), Casey Ashley (2014) and John Cox (2016) – along with the winners of the two Classics held at the lake - Alton Jones (2008) and Ashley (2015).
While Christie competed in the 2015 Classic at Hartwell, Ashley was the prohibitive favorite going into that tournament and came away victorious. This year, Ashley will be among the favorites rather than the favorite. That's no slight to the Donalds, S.C., native, but even he's acknowledged he doesn't expect to hold a big advantage this time around, especially with the conditions shaping up how they are.
BassFan examined the results of the four FLW Tour events and found the numbers to be fairly similar across the board. The winning weights for the four-day tournaments ranged from 67-06 to 74-13. The average daily weight for the winner was 17 1/2 pounds, which basically matches what it took to win each of the three-day Classics at Hartwell.
There were a total of 14 bags over 20 pounds caught during the FLW Tour events with the biggest (22-04) coming 2011. The biggest bag in a Hartwell Classic was 21-02, caught in 2015.
Here's a further breakdown of the two Classic and four FLW Tour events held at Hartwell along with some reflections from each of the winners:
Alton Jones – 2008 Bassmaster Classic
> Dates: Feb. 22-24
> Winning weight: 49-07
> Day 2 leading weight: 36-00
> Top 25 weight after day 2: 23-08
> 20-pound stringers: 3
> Heaviest stringer: 21-01
> Besides the win, what do you remember most about that tournament?: "What stands out most to me was putting together the right patterns on the first day of practice. That allowed me to spend my entire practice expanding on it. That was a big advantage and it made me more efficient. It's not often you figure out the right deal on day 1. Usually, it's a piece here and a piece there and by the end of practice you have something to go on and it develops. This was different in that it all came together."
> What was the most important decision you made during that tournament?: "It goes back to practice and sticking with the deep bite all through practice, and spending time finding those magic deep-water casts and making the same cast over and over."
> How difficult is it to avoid fishing history at a place where you've had success?: "At Hartwell, it won't be hard because it will be like fishing a different season. It's gotten warm and the water is coming up and it was so cold last time. I think the water was 25 feet low when I won and I was catching them in 35 to 50 feet. There's no way I'll fish 55 to 70. I'm going to fish my strengths in shallow water and power-fish. I'll love it if there are sime sight-fishing opportunities, but we might be a bit early."
> How did he do it? Click here to read more about Jones' winning pattern.
Jason Christie – 2011 FLW Tour
> Dates: March 24-27
> Winning weight: 70-11
> Day 3 leading weight: 55-14
> Day 2 leading weight: 42-08
> Top 25 weight after day 2: 27-13
> 20-pound stringers: 4
> Heaviest stringer: 22-04
> Besides the win, what do you remember most about that tournament?: "I've seen it where I felt the lake was on the verge of busting loose. In practice, it wasn't that good. If you ask other guys who fished, they'd say the same thing. I think it really busted loose during the last 2 to 3 hours on the last day of practice. A lot of guys didn't see that. I was just fortunate to find them on the last day of practice. I got in the right area and was fortunate only two guys found it."
> What was the most important decision you made during that tournament?: "Before that tournament, I'd led a couple of events after day 3 and we had a lot of rain the night of day 3. I'd found a spot in practice that was in my area that I hadn't used yet. It didn't look good, but when I got to my area on day 4, it was blown out muddy. At about 10 a.m., I was ready to leave, but I went over and hit that spot and caught 15 pounds in a short amount of time. I was about to bail and run around and if I'd have done that, I wouldn't have won. I guess that's the stubbornness I'm known for."
> How difficult is it to avoid fishing history at a place where you've had success?: "It is hard, especially where you've won. Everybody knows or has seen the TV show about where I won at. You want to go back so bad, but you know there will be so many boats there. One thing I've learned is it never happens the same way twice. Knowing that, I won't get within 2 to 3 miles of where I won at. History makes you feel comfortable with something, either an area or a bait and you don't practice with an open mind like you should because you feel like in the worst-case scenario you can go back and fish where you won. It never happens that way."
> How did he do it? Click here to read more about Christie's winning pattern.
Brent Ehrler – 2012 FLW Tour
> Dates: March 8-11
> Winning weight: 74-13
> Day 3 leading weight: 54-09
> Day 2 leading weight: 36-15
> Top 25 weight after day 2: 28-15
> 20-pound stringers: 7
> Heaviest stringer: 21-14
> Besides the win, what do you remember most about that tournament?: "I had multiple areas where I felt I could win on any one of them. It's pretty rare to go into a tournament feeling like you're going to win and that was one of them. It's usually a shock when it happens."
> What was the most important decision you made during that tournament?: "I had an area I was saving that I barely dabbled with every day. I managed my fish very well to where I was able to do a lot of things. Predominantly, I caught fish deep, but people don't know I caught some shallow every day. I was able to save stuff and that was a big key. I felt like I was in control the whole time because I had stuff saved. It was never a struggle for me. Again, that's also very rare."
> How difficult is it to avoid fishing history at a place where you've had success?: "It won't be that hard because I won't have my waypoints. Everything will be different this year. I will fish some of the same stuff, but whether the fish are going to be there, I won't bank on it."
> How did he do it? Click here to read more about Ehrler's winning pattern.
Casey Ashley - 2014 FLW Tour
> Dates: March 6-9
> Winning weight: 68-05
> Day 3 leading weight: 52-11
> Day 2 leading weight: 37-04
> Top 25 weight after day 2: 24-02
> 20-pound stringers: 1
> Heaviest stringer: 21-07
> Besides the win, what do you remember most about that tournament?: "It was cold, rainy, windy - just how I like it. The lake was high and there were a few fish up, enough to where it kept guys from exploring out deep all that much. It was typical Hartwell."
> What was the most important decision you made during that tournament?: "My local knowledge helped me on that deal. The fish were deep and I was dialed in. The places I was fishing, I didn't seen many boats and we had twice as many boats as we do in an Elite Series."
> How difficult is it to avoid fishing history at a place where you've had success?: "Living here and knowing how these lakes work, you don't fish history unless you get a couple bites somewhere. Then you're ahead of the game because you know 50 places like it. That's what makes guys from here so versatile. You can't spot-fish because the lake is constantly changing with the water levels and weather. You can't say, 'There will be fish here regardless.'"
> How did he do it? Click here to read more about Ashley's winning pattern.
Casey Ashley - 2015 Bassmaster Classic
> Dates: Feb. 20-22
> Winning weight: 50-01
> Day 2 leading weight: 31-11
> Top 25 weight after day 2: 22-03
> 20-pound stringers: 2
> Heaviest stringer: 21-02
> Besides the win, what do you remember most about that tournament?: "It was cold, wet and nasty."
> What was the most important decision you made during that tournament?: "I'd won the FLW Tour fishing a jig and I thought that's how I'd win the Classic. That didn't happen. It stayed overcast long enough and it was cold enough and there were already some fish shallow. That's how Dean (Rojas) and Skeet (Reese) smashed them on day 1. I thought I could catch them shallow, but I never made it happen. On day 3, I knew I'd bust them on the underspin because it was overcast and gloomy. Sticking with that underspin and not going with a jig was the biggest decision I made there."
> How did he do it? Click here to read more about Ashley's winning pattern.
John Cox – 2016 FLW Tour
> Dates: March 17-20
> Winning weight: 67-06
> Day 3 leading weight: 52-09
> Day 2 leading weight: 37-01
> Top 25 weight after day 2: 28-03
> 20-pound stringers: 2
> Heaviest stringer: 20-06
> Besides the win, what do you remember most about that tournament?: "I remember having high expectations, but I had no idea what was going to unfold. When Casey won the Tour event in 2014, I was in 2nd the whole time and zeroed on day 3 and fell back. I realized I needed 14 pounds and I would've caught him. That bothered me. Casey wasn't in the one I won, so I didn't have to worry about him."
> What was the most important decision you made during that tournament?: "Giving up on the sight-fish because there weren't enough of them."
> How difficult is it to avoid fishing history at a place where you've had success?: "It's hard. It gets you a lot, but it can also help you if you know what lives there. You also have to realize things change and the fish might not set up the same. Every time I've been there I've never fished the same spots. I'm going to try to stay super open to whatever seems like is going on."
Here's a tournament-by-tournament breakdown of the six major events held at Lake Hartwell since 2008 (scroll right for additional info):