By David A. Brown
Special to BassFan

When the Bassmaster Classic returns to Lake Hartwell next week local favorite and 2015 winner Casey Ashley will shake hands with a familiar old friend. That might sound like an advantage and the Elite Series pro from Donalds, S.C. agrees to that, albeit not in full measure. However, considering Hartwell's current status and what is likely to come, Ashley knows he and his 52 competitors will fish a very different lake than the one that played to his favor three years ago.

More on that in a moment. First, a snapshot. With 56,000 surface acres and an average depth of 45 feet, Lake Hartwell was created in 1962 at the completion of its namesake hydroelectric dam. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake straddling the border of Georgia and South Carolina, Hartwell is located on the Savannah River, seven miles below the juncture of the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers.

Ashley offered his analysis, along with some insight into how things might go down.

Where's the Water?

If you'd asked Ashley about Hartwell's water level a month ago, he would've had a smile on his face. That's because the lake was about 10 feet low - a point that would've taken a lot of shallow cover out of play and moved the advantage needle more in his direction.

"The water is level is right where I don't want it to be," Ashley groaned. "The last I looked, it was about three feet down and rising fast. It was down 10 feet at the beginning of February, so the lake has come up more than 6 feet.

"I'm sure the water's warm and it's probably going to be full by the time we get there. I think (the lake managers) are trying to fill it up for the Classic; most times it doesn't come up that fast."

Also different this time around is the weather. Starkly contrasting the February event that saw temperatures as low as 9 degrees and anglers dealing with ice in places they don't often find it, the 2018 Classic will arrive on the heels of a welcomed warming trend.

The reason Ashley's bummed about a rising, warming Lake Hartwell is that it minimizes the local knowledge that served him well in his 2015 win. Essentially, low water moves much of the game offshore, where familiarity with some of the lake's sneakier honey holes shifts the odds in his favor.

The current situation certainly does not ail him - he'll enjoy it just as much as the rest of the field. And that's really the point here: Hartwell is shaping up to be one of the most exciting and entertaining Classics in many years because the fishing could be off the chain.

Glancing back to the 2015 Classic, images showed anglers heavily bundled - many struggling with iced trailers, boat boxes and rod guides. Fish remained deep; comfortably lethargic in their winter patterns, so the shoreline stuff went largely untouched.

"Last time, the shallow cover didn't play, but this time it will," Ashley said. "Now, all the bank grass that grew when the water was low will be flooded and the fish will be up there in it. Also, Hartwell's lined with docks, so they will play. And there's stumps and brush piles. They'll have some shoreline cover, but whether it was full or low, with the water temperature rising, those fish are going to be shallow.

"Hartwell is a textbook example of all you've read about fish behavior. They set up on secondary points, main-lake points, docks. They do exactly what they're supposed to do. The lake is so big that whatever you want to do - deep water, clear water, dirty water - you can find it."

The Kitchen Sink?

Asked about his expectations for the bite, Ashley grins: "It's going to be good. If the lake's full, you can catch fish top-to-bottom, any way you want to catch them. Hartwell is so big and it offers so much, with it being full in the spring, there's no telling how it will be won. Everybody's going to catch them and it's going to be a slugfest."

David A. Brown
Photo: David A. Brown

Spotted bass could play an big role in this year's Classic, especially if blueback herring have moved shallow.

Indeed, that means a full menu of shallow patterns from crankbaits to jigs to spinnerbaits, bladed jigs and swim jigs. It's unlikely that this year's Classic winner will sack up all of his weight on a single bait; and most certainly not from a single area.

"The lake offers so much; you can do whatever you want to do. If you want to fish the dirty water in the rivers and pitch a jig and throw a square-bill crankbait, you can find that. You may not be able to win doing that, or it may very well be the winning pattern.

"That's the thing about Hartwell that makes it so good and so diverse; you never know where a tournament could be won. It could be won anywhere from behind the Keowee Dam, it could be won in Six and Twenty Creek midway down. You just never know because you're going to catch them everywhere.

The Wild Cards

While largemouth bass will probably dominate the show, Ashley made an interesting observation.

"With what the weather is doing, I wouldn't be surprised to see a giant bag of spots weighed in. Even though it's getting warm, these largemouth bass are programmed not to spawn before a certain date because they know that if they get up there too early, (a weather change) might happen. But the spots spawn a little bit earlier and they spawn deeper because the weather doesn't affect them as much. They'll be up looking and trying to do their thing.

"The spots will be the biggest they're going to be all year and they'll be accessible; you won't have to fish 30-40 feet deep."

Ashley suggests power-fishing with jerkbaits, spinnerbaits and crankbaits; but he said the overzealous angler can easily wear out their spotted-bass welcome.

"Once you find them, they tend to get a little more finicky as you fish for them," he said. "So, as the tournament goes on, you may have to drop to finesse fishing. They won't leave the area, but they do get in tune to baits pretty quickly."

Another notable point: Hartwell complements its shad, bream and other typical southern forage with a healthy population of blueback herring. Nomadic in nature, these hefty baitfish can lead bass - and the anglers who seek them - on promising, yet potentially futile pursuits.

If warming weather starts to pull bluebacks toward the points and shoals over which they spawn, anglers fishing shallow patterns might find sporadic flurries of schooling activity. Planning a day around these unpredictable occurrences is largely a fool's errand, but it's also unwise to completely ignore the potential. That said, anglers will want to keep herring-relevant baits handy - jerkbait, underspin, Super Fluke and even big topwater walkers.

"If the weather keeps getting warmer and warmer, the topwater deal could come into play," Ashley said. "That's the one wrench that bluebacks throw into the equation. You always have to keep them in mind because if they do spawn of if they get close to spawning, the spots are so in tune to bluebacks.

"No matter what else is going on, if they can eat them, they'll hold their eggs for a little while longer. They'll get them when they're readily available and the shallower they are, the easier they are to catch."

Time Management

If there's one piece of advice Ashley would offer those seeking Classic glory, it's this: manage your time wisely. Classics are rarely won with conservative game plans; it's usually that gut-trusting decision to try something chancy, make a big run or throw something different in the last 20 minutes (Takahiro Omori's final-day flurry in 2004 comes to mind). All good stuff, Ashley says; just don't let Hartwell's size bite off too much of your time.

"The fish to win live everywhere; it's just a matter of weather conditions and how it all plays in," he said. "If we get a lot of wind, Hartwell can get rough. It doesn't really get dangerous, but it will definitely slow you down. That plays a big role for guys who want to run and gun. Where you might be able to fish 50 places a day, if the wind blows, you can go ahead and cut that in half - maybe more.

"On your best spot, if the wind blows, you may not be able to fish it effectively. A lot of times, you just have to write it off and wait until the next day."

The good thing about Hartwell is that there's always another option - especially in this year's rising, warming scenario.