(Editor's note: This is part 1 of a 2-part story in which Bassmaster Classic pros talk about what they found during the 3-day official Classic practice.)
Bassmaster Classics come in all shapes and sizes. There have been small-weight events, slugfests, contests decided by ounces and those by pounds, but the best any BassFan
could hope for would be a Classic that puts the premium on savvy.
That's why the Hartwell Classic might go down as one for the ages – one that's decided not by who's camped over the biggest school of fish, but by who makes the best on-the-fly, instinctive decisions.
That's what creates uncertainty, and the excitement that comes along with it. And if reports from the official 3-day practice hold for next week, this baby could go right down to the final hour.
What follows are highlights from several pros about their 3-day practice.
Auten Trying To Make Things Work
Todd Auten, who lives up the highway in Lake Wylie, S.C., doesn't like what he's seen so far. He's a shallow-water fisherman, and the bite he wants just isn't there. He's not too stoked about what he's found deep, either.
"It's real slow for me," he said. "It's not really happening. I'm catching a few fish – getting a few bites – but I'm trying to shake off everything I can get to bite, so it's hard to say what kind of practice you're getting.
"I'm doing a lot of looking – trying to find the right water," he added. "I actually put in different places every day, and fished different areas of the lake, instead of running around everywhere, trying to find where I might want to concentrate."
He reported water temperatures that ranged from 46 to 50 degrees, and noted that sun could possibly push water to 54 degrees back on the shallow flats. That mid-50s mark is still dreamland at this point though.
Todd Auten's one of the pros who's trying to make the shallow bite work, and so far it hasn't.
"I think most of the fish are probably still deep," he said. "I'm a shallow-water fisherman. I've got some deep stuff, but I'm just trying to make what I like to do work. It's not working real well. I'll probably have to drop back and punt."
He added: "I don't know if I can catch five deep or not. It's slow out there for me too. I think it's going to be one of those tournaments were you just find a good area, then stay around in there and hope you catch a decent limit."
Ike Thinks Deep
Mike Iaconelli's pretty determined in his feeling that the tournament will be won deep. What he's not so decided about is the method by which it'll be won deep. Meaning, whether it'll be about somebody sticking with an area, or somebody running around on a pattern picking off good keepers here and there.
"I think it could be both," he said. "Somebody can find the right, key area, or figure something out that's a little bit different and load the boat quick. There are probably a lot of places you can do that. The other option is to stick with your deal – put your head down, fish hard all day, get a couple of real key bites every day and maximize those bites.
"The one thing about these fish right now is they're not really tuned into feeding. The flipside of that is there's a lot of fish somewhere. I haven't found that yet, but there are a whole lot of big fish somewhere. When they're in their winter mode, they're grouped up somewhere."
Overall, he characterized his practice as "extremely tough."
"Honestly, I have to tell you it's probably one of the hardest, toughest Classic practices I've ever had," he said. "It's just tough. It's not that I'm not catching fish, but the ones to win this tournament – I'm having a hard time finding that type of fish. But a lot can change quick here."
Jordon: Fish 'Not Right'
Kelly Jordon's clearly puzzled by what he found during his 3 practice days. He came down in December prior to the cutoff, when the water was 60 to 62 degrees, but the 46-degree water he saw this week was sort of like turning off the light switch. He's largely been poking through the darkness trying to figure out what the heck's going on.
"It's different than I thought it would be," he said. "It's freezing, and the fish don't seem to be acting really right. I heard somewhere that they might be trying to hold water for the Classic, and the water's a couple feet higher than it was (in December), so that might be why. That might have the fish messed up too.
"To me, they're not acting right and I'm kind of disappointed. I've caught a few nice fish, but it's a grind for me, and the few guys I talked to as well. Maybe some guys are out there whacking them. But even if that's the case, we're still a week from the Classic, and that's an eternity as far as I'm concerned."
He added that because "the Classic is so dynamic" – a 3-day winner-take-all event – you have to "fish by the seat of your pants."
Hartwell's an expansive fishery that offers a lot of diversity and countless pockets. Official launch is at about mid-lake. Anglers can run south toward the dam (where the water's the clearest), north into one of the two major rivers (Tugaloo or Seneca), west into Flat Shoals Creek, or east into Six and Twenty Creek.
"I'm not saying some guy can't find the mother lode school this week, but this is the time when the gamesmanship, the chess playing, begins. You've got to go with your hunches, develop a feel of how you'll fish, and try to project what you'll do when this or that happens.
"So I think this is a great Classic lake. What better scenario could you ask for in a Classic? It's crazy, and I think it's going to be a lot of fun to watch."
Lintner Struggling Too
"I've been kind of searching and trying to find either schools or packs of fish that are pre-spawn or thinking about moving up," said Jared Lintner, one of the better deep-water fishermen in the field. "So far to this point, it's just been one here, one there. It's kind of a random bite for me. It's just tough to get bites."
He noted that, even though it's tough, when he does connect, it's usually with a good one. His fish have weighed up to 4 1/4 pounds.
"The whole trick is to figure out if I can catch five. It's a grind. I see the fish on the graph, and I'm just trying to figure out how to make them bite."
He's spent time both deep and shallow, and marked plenty of suspended fish. What might hurt him, he said, is that he started by trying to fish it like a California lake. The water clarity's similar, but the food chain (blueback herring) puts everything off his map. "The fish act totally different. But we've still got a week, and if it warms up even a couple of degrees, I think some guys are going to whack them."
Steve Kennedy's catching a lot of fish, but doesn't think he's on winning quality yet.
Kennedy Has Numbers, Needs Size
BassFans might remember that Steve Kennedy's brother recently won two Fishers of Men events at Hartwell, one of which was a regional. And he won them both in the same creek.
The two checked out that magic creek prior to the cutoff, and Kennedy checked it again this week during practice. "I caught three in there (on Wednesday)," he said. "But none were over 2 pounds."
And that's about how his whole practice has gone. He's catching a lot of small fish, but the key 4- and 5-pounders remain elusive. He summed up his bite as "fair."
"A lot of the fish I found in the fall, where I caught 4s and 5s, when I go back, there don't appear to be as many, or maybe they're lethargic from being cold. I'm not sure which. Then again, I'm not trying to work them over, but generally, the quality's not as good."
> The lake's currently about 8 1/2 feet below average pool.
> Several of the pros reported catching a spotted bass or two, but none of any size.
> It took 22-05 for seven fish to win a recent Five Lakes Tournament Trail event at Hartwell. The 2nd-, 3rd and 4th-place teams weighed more than 20 pounds, and 19.75 took 5th.
–End of part 1 (of 2) –