By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
There are lots of lakes spread across the southern tier of the country that would surrender heavier bags of fish than Lake Hartwell if the Bassmaster Classic were contested on them during the second half of March. There aren't too many, however, that offer anglers so many options for compiling a stringer that'll keep them in contention to win the sport's flagship derby.
Spotted bass or largemouths. Deep water or shallow. Natural cover or manmade stuff. Fast-moving baits or bottom-draggers. The choices are numerous.
Many competitors spoke of how this year's Classic could be won many different waves on the eve of day 1, and that wasn't just hyperbole. Those who fared best took a variety of routes to reach the upper echelon of the standings.
Eventual 3rd-place finisher Jason Christie topped the field after days 1 and 2, but the three other anglers who ended in positions 2 through 5 all came from well off those marks on the final day as competitors such as Edwin Evers, Micah Frazier and James Elam took big tumbles down the leaderboard due to a suddenly sluggish moving-bait bite. It wasn't easy to give up on a pattern that had been highly productive for the previous 2 days, and the victory chances of Christie and his three compadres died along with it.
Here are some pattern details for the four anglers who came closest to unseating back-to-back Classic champion Jordan Lee.
2nd: Brent Ehrler
> Day 1: 5, 17-08
> Day 2: 5, 12-05
> Day 3: 5, 16-04
> Total = 15, 46-01
Brent Ehrler, who's been a top-3 finisher in both Classics that Lee has won, did more work in deep water than any other top finisher. He believes he would've claimed the trophy and the $300,000 winner's check had he stayed offshore and fished for spots for the entirety of day 3 instead of spending a couple hours near the bank pursuing big largemouth bites.
"Watching what Christie was doing and with how warm it was getting, I thought they were going that direction," he said. "I thought I needed to catch 20 pounds to win.
"I should've stayed (out deep). There were plenty of them out there."
The winner of a 2012 FLW Tour event at Hartwell, Ehrler said the lake contained too much water this time to make his program from 6 years ago effective. He caught a lot of offshore fish in that tournament, too, but supplemented them with some from around docks. Those particular boat-mooring structures were too deep for that pattern last week.
He fished secondary points and drains in the 20- to 30-foot depth range with a small swimbait on an underspin, a nail-weighted Senko and a jig.
"The first day I caught so many on the (underspin/swimbait rig) it was ridiculous. Then the second day they wouldn't bite it, and they wouldn't bite it (on day 3), either, so I had to go with the jig and the Senko."
His technique with the underspin was to let it sink to the bottom and slow-roll it in. With the jig, he either gave it short hops or just crept it through rocks or brush.
> Under-spin gear: 7'3" medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula rod, Daiwa Tatula SV casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 12-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce Super Fish Pro Underspin, unnamed 3 1/2" swimbait or 4" Yamamoto Senko (white) trailer.
> Senko gear: 7'3" medium-heavy Daiwa Tatula Brent Ehrler Signature Series dropshot rod, Daiwa Exist spinning reel, 12- and 8-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon (main line and leader), size 1 Gamakatsu B10s Stinger hook, 5" Yamamoto Senko (green-pumpkin) with 3/32-ounce Eagle Claw nail weight inserted.
> He skipped the Senko on the same set-up under docks for shallow-water largemouths, but without the nail weight.
> Jig gear: 7'4" Daiwa Tatula Ish Monroe Signature Series frog rod, Daiwa Steez A casting reel (6.3:1), 16-pound Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon, 3/4-ounce Boss jig (brown), 5" Yamamoto Twin Tail Grub trailer (green-pumpkin).
Main factor in his success – "The first morning of practice I fished shallow and caught them decent, but not great. They were random bites and I didn't see fish swimming around. I concentrated on deep water for the rest of practice."
Performance edge – "The Lakemaster mapping, for sure. When I got on a pattern, I could use it to run right to where the fish were at."
Jason Christie's day-1 bag was the heaviest of the tournament.
3rd: Jason Christie
> Day 1: 5, 20-14
> Day 2: 5, 16-06
> Day 3: 4, 8-11
> Total = 14, 45-15
Fishing for Hartwell's deeper spotted bass never entered Jason Christie's mind – not before, during or after the tournament.
"I was committed to fishing shallow the whole time, even before I got there," he said. "The Classic that Casey (Ashley) won, even though the water was really cold leading up to it, I was really confident fishing shallow way before the fish even thought about spawning.
"I knew a guy could win shallow and I thought with the conditions we were going to have, (that bite) would've been even better."
He employed some skinny-water, power-fishing staples (a spinnerbait, two different bladed jigs and a flipping jig) to pull away from the field over the first 2 days. He then suffered heartbreak on day 3 for the second time in the last three Classics when his action dissipated, likely due to several factors – including a lack of wind and fish transitioning further toward the spawn, when eating is no longer their top priority.
"One thing from practice that was a negative for me was I never found one area that had a ton of fish – I had to cover a lot of water. I felt like (on day 3) if I'd had a really good area, I could've really slowed down and figured out how to catch them. I didn't have that kind of confidence in any area and I felt like I needed to keep moving.
"I never thought I wasn't going to catch at least 15 pounds until it was time to check in – even on my last few casts, I thought I was going to catch a 5-pounder. Grand (the 2016 Classic) doesn't bother me like this one because this time I was doing the right thing to win and I had the bites to win. I lost a couple the second day and a couple (on day 3). It was one of those deals where I had a little bit of bad luck, but I wouldn't do anything different."
Most of his stuff was in the Tugaloo River, but he also spent significant time fishing the mouth of the Seneca. His primary target was dogfennel (a type of grass), which he'd usually cast to from about 30 feet away.
The fish were 4 or 5 feet deep, on the outside edge of the grass when the tournament started and continued moving up as it progressed.
He had high praise for the fans who followed him on the water.
"I've never seen any that were more respectful of where I was fishing than that group – they were awesome. I wish there was a way somebody could've taped it and we could make kind of a how-to video out of it."
> Spinnerbait gear: 6'10" heavy-action Falcon Cara Head Turner rod, Team Lew's Pro Magnesium casting reel (6.8:1 ratio), 22-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 1/2-ounce prototype Booyah spinnerbait (chartreuse/white with single No. 4 1/2 Colorado blade), YUM Pulse swimbait (white) or unnamed trailer (white).
> Bladed jig gear: Same rod, reel and line, 1/2-ounce prototype Booyah Melee bladed jig (river killer) or unnamed 1/2-ounce bladed jig, YUM Pulse swimbait trailer (shad).
> Flipping gear: 7'3" heavy-action Falcon Cara swimbait/pitching rod, Lew's Super Duty casting reel (8.3:1 ratio), 1/2-ounce Booyah Bankroll flipping jig (wildcard), YUM Craw Chunk trailer (green-pumpkin/purple).
Main factor in his success – "Just being all-in on the shallow water – I spent no time out deep. I feel like a guy has to be fishing his strengths to win the Classic because you're going to come across some adversity and if you don't have 100-percent confidence in what you're doing, it's easy to get off track and start second-guessing yourself."
Performance edge – Everything I have is critical for what I do, but one thing I figured out the first day was the fish were set up on the outside edge of the dogfennel and I could run around with my (Garmin) Panoptix and fish those places like an outside hydrilla line. I'd put the grass edge 30 feet from me and fish that edge. That's where the big ones were at in practice and on the first day."
Matt Lee caught the top stringer on the final day to move up 14 places.
4th: Matt Lee
> Day 1: 5, 14-01
> Day 2: 5, 12-08
> Day 3: 5, 17-06
> Total = 15, 43-15
Matt Lee went with the same game plan on each of the three days of the event – he fished for spotted bass for the first 3 hours, then pursued largemouths around docks or grass for the next 5 hours.
He caught a solid stringer on the first day, then faltered a bit on day 2 when he didn't catch any kicker largemouths. He rebounded big-time on day 3, however, and made a 14-place jump in the final standings.
"I started every day deep, fishing for spots in 20 to 30 feet," he said. "Most of them were on isolated brush and I had about 12 of those places.
"After I went shallow, the first day I caught them off docks, then the second day I ran up the Tugaloo and fished with a swimjig and a vibating jig and didn't catch any good ones. I had some bites doing that in practice, but I never got it dialed in."
He went back to dock-fishing on day 3 and it resulted in the heaviest bag of the final round. He had a chance to improve it considerably in the last hour, but a 6-pounder he'd gotten a look at wasn't interested in his bait and another big one he'd seen emerge from a dock along with one he caught was being pursued by Aaron Martens when he returned after giving it a rest.
Martens informed Lee in the media room afterward that he'd caught that fish – it weighed 4-11. Martens had seen it during practice.
"Of all the thousands of docks on the lake, what are the chances that Aaron would be fishing the exact one that I wanted to go back to? That's when I was reminded of how good these guys are."
He caught his spots with a small swimbait and his biggest largemouths with a wacky-rigged Strike King Ocho.
"It took me awhile to figure out that (swimbait) bite. I had to stay off them and cast and not just drop down to them. I couldn't be where they could see me."
> Worm gear: 7'4" medium-heavy Quantum Team KVD rod, Quantum Smoke S3 size 30 casting reel, 15-pound Seaguar Smackdown braided line (main line), 12-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon leader, No. 1 Owner Straight Shank hook, 4" wacky-rigged Strike King Ocho (green-pumkin/candy) with 3/32-ounce nail weight inserted.
> Swimbait gear: 7' medium-action Quantum Smoke S3 rod, Quantum Smoke S3 casting reel (6.1:1 ratio), 12-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon, 3/8-ounce Owner round-head light-wire jighead, 3.75" Strike King Rage Swimmer (ayu).
Main factor in his success – "Staying open-minded and having good enough spotted bass to start on and catch a decent limit."
Performance edge – "My Garmin Panoptix. I never wasted a cast, even 50 feet from the brush. I could spin the trolling motor (which held the transducer) and hit a limb with a cast. It was legit."
A decision to focus strictly on shallow fish paid off for Jacob Powroznik.
5th: Jacob Powroznik
> Day 1: 5, 15-04
> Day 2: 5, 13-00
> Day 3: 5, 15-00
> Total = 15, 43-04
Jacob Powroznik fished with a wacky-rig throughout the week and it produced all of his weigh-in fish except for two that were enticed by a topwater on the final day. He'd originally planned to go with a deep/shallow combo pattern, but that changed on day 1.
"On the first day it took me 3 hours to catch a limit that weighed 7 or 8 pounds and I knew they were going to the bank," he said. "I caught every one I weighed that day up shallow.
"On day 2 I fished docks most of the day and even though it was cloudy, I still caught them. I just never got a 5-pound bite."
He used the topwater to catch a couple of schooling fish early on the final day, then refocused his attention on the docks. He also sight-fished a bit and that produced a 3 1/4-pounder.
"I fished out deep a lot in practice, just looking for that one glory hole. I knew enough docks I could run and with the weather we had, it was time to go and skip them."
> Worm gear: 7'4" medium-action Quantum Prism rod, Quantum Smoke S3 casting reel (6.1:1 ratio), 15-pound Hi-Seas braided line (main line), 10-pound Hi-Seas fluorocarbon leader, size 1 Mustad TitanX Wacky/Neko Rig hook, V&M Baits Chopstick (green-pumpkin).
> Topwater gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Quantum Team KVD rod, same reel, 20-pound Hi-Seas copolymer line, Livingston Lures Walking Boss II (sexy shad).
Main factor in his success – "Getting off that deep stuff and going shallow."
Performance edge – "My Ranger boat and Mercury outboard. I ran about every pocket on that lake before it was over."
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