By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
FLW Tour anglers who've been around a for a few years are highly familiar with Lake Hartwell in the early spring, as the circuit is making its third March visit in the past 4 years this week. What they're not real familiar with is the slow bite they've encountered.
Remnants of the frigid winter that the region endured have returned to South Carolina in recent days, putting a damper on action that was heating up just a week earlier. Water temperatures have dropped several degrees, which is never a good thing at this time of year, and this event will likely be in the books before the all-important weather factors start heading in a positive direction again.
Finding fish isn't the issue – there seem to be plenty in both deep and shallow locales. Getting them to cooperate is the challenge, and umbrella rigs (having been outlawed for Tour competition this year) will not be an option.
The lake is full of water, bringing a tremendous amount of shoreline vegetation (which grew prolifically during the drought of a few years back) into play, and many largemouths moved into that stuff when the weather was warmer in late February. There are also large schools of deeper-dwelling spotted bass to be found, and they could be critical this week if the conditions shut down the skinny-water fish.
This is the second stop on the six-event circuit and competitors who tanked last month at Lake Okeechobee will be desperate to post a strong finish, lest their chances of qualifying for the Forrest Wood Cup fade to near-black. The set-up is just about a polar opposite of what they were faced with in Florida last month, so that'll give hope to some who are currently mired at the bottom of the points standings.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's some intel on the fishery itself:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Hartwell
> Type of Water: Lowland reservoir
> Surface Acres (full pool): 56,000
> Primary structure/cover: Standing timber, points, humps, creek channels, brushpiles, docks
> Primary forage: Shad, blueback herring, crawfish, bream
> Average depth: 45.6 feet at full pool
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass
> Minimum length: 12 inches
> Reputation: An expansive, quality fishery with excellent average size, but unpredictable from spring through summer, since fish move a lot day-to-day in relation to baitfish. Contains some bruiser spotted bass.
> Weather: Chilly, windy and sometimes rainy this week, with a much more pleasant weekend anticipated.
> Water temp: High 40s to low 50s
> Water visibility/color: Mostly clear, with a fair bit of stain in the creeks
> Water level: Full pool
> Fish in: All depths
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Deep – dropshots, spoons, deep-diving crankbaits, swimbaits; Shallow – plastics, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, swimjigs.
> Winning weight: 64 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 30 pounds
> Check weight: 24 pounds (2 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Hartwell
> Biggest factors: Water temperature – things won't pick up much until it starts climbing again
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow – or a combination of both.
> Wildcard: 4-pounders – getting a couple a day will likely put an angler in serious contention
More Like '11
Brent Ehrler is the most recent winner of a Tour event in Hartwell, as he prevailed in 2012 when the water level was considerably lower. He employed various baits, including umbrella rigs, at depths ranging from 2 to 50 feet en route to a 74-11 total and a 3-pound margin over runner-up Micah Frazier.
The year before, under high-water conditions similar to the current scenario, Jason Christie notched his first tour-level victory by flipping willow bushes. He boxed more than 22 pounds the first day and went on to outdistance Ehrler by exactly 10 pounds with a 70-11 aggregate.
It should be noted that Christie's victory occurred in late March, when the water was warmer than it is now and the fish were further along in their seasonal progression.
In the 2008 Bassmaster Classic, which took place in late Feburary, Alton Jones used jigs and spoons to pull the winning fish from creek-channel timber in 28 to 35 feet of water.
Any or all of the previous winning patterns could be repeated this week – in part or in whole. Deeper tactics would seem more likely to hold up, since fish with more water over them are generally less susceptible to temperature changes, but enough hefty largemouths had previously moved up to make them viable.
The shallower fish aren't likely to return to head back out in light of the current conditions. They may just go into a sulking mode and become very difficult to catch.
"I think there'll still be a ton of fish out there deep," said local stick Kerry Partain. "There's some better largemouths in all that grass that's grown up, but that might not be something that you can do for 4 days. I think the deep bite will prevail in a 4-day tournament.
Here's a look at how Lake Hartwell is laid out.
"You can catch some fish shallow, but you might have to run about 20 places to put together a good bag. If you can find (offshore) places like Ehrler's found in the past that have a bunch of 3-pounders and you can catch five of them, then you can spend the rest of the day in the main-lake pockets and on the secondary points in the creeks trying to get those 4- and 5-pound largemouths."
He expects the winning weight to fall somewhere in the neighborhood of 68 pounds.
"Over 4 days, I think you're going to need a 17-pound average, and I think you'll see a 20-pound bag every day. I'll be interested to see what guys do – whether the deep bite prevails or if somebody finds enough shallow fish to get them through the whole tournament."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from several of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It's different than it's been in the past, no doubt about it. Whether it's ahead or behind, I couldn't tell you. I'm assuming it's behind just because they've had so much cold weather here.
"It seems like there's fewer fish. The last two times you could catch a lot of fish in practice and you could pattern them easier – when you got on something, you could run it anywhere on the lake. You can do that a little bit this year, but I don't think the size is as big. Maybe I'm on the wrong grade of fish, but I don't know where the bigger ones are. Every year I've caught quite a few big ones in practice, but this year it seems like the smaller fish are biting.
"I think it's going to take a little less weight than last time – it has to. I've fished from a foot to 60 feet and I just can't get that 5-pound bite as easily, or the numbers of 3-pounders. It's just tougher."
"It's been one of the worst practices I've ever had. I haven't done real well here in the past, but even those times I've caught them in practice. It's just really hard to catch them this week.
"The water temperature's been warm enough to catch them, but I think they're just way behind because it's been so cold. I'll just have to go fishing and cover a bunch of water and keep my head down. Usually I'm pretty sure I can catch five a day, but that's been tough this week."
"Practice started out pretty decent for me. It's gradually gone downhill, but I haven't been just beating on the same stuff, either. I'd hate to say I'm confident, but I think I can get a few bites and with any luck, I can catch a halfway decent bag. Some guys have been talking about big bags, but I haven't seen anything like that.
"The whole country's been cold and we're not here on the right moon phase and these fish aren't ready to really make a move. On the positive side, the lake should fish big – people will spread out everywhere and it won't be congested. It's always good when you don't have everybody in one area beating on each other."
"It's not the Hartwell I've seen in the past. We're dealing with high water and cold water and snowmelt – there's a whole lot of things working against it.
"I think I can catch a limit, but I don't know if I can get any weight. It's been real hard for me to catch five that'll (combine to) weigh over 10 pounds.
"There's no doubt that it's way behind. The blueback herring don't like cold weather and the water temperature falling off fast makes the shad back out.
"I'll just go out and work as hard as I can. I think I know what I need to do to catch some fish, but it's been really difficult to catch the good fish."
"It's been pretty terrible for me. Honestly, I'm just going to go fishing and scrap my practice and approach it as a new lake for the tournament. I thought I had some stuff figured out the first day, but that's all died away.
"I think the fish are wanting to move up, but the problem is we're not getting enough warm days in a row to keep them active. Every other day another front comes in and keeps stirring them up. Whoever can adjust is going to end up doing the best.
"I hope the weights are lower this time, but I wouldn't be surprised if it still takes the normal 12 pounds a day to et a check. I'm hoping it'll be more like 10 pounds a day. It's going to be very interesting, no doubt."
"My first 2 days were pretty good. I had a big first day and then I caught maybe 15 pounds (Monday), then (Tuesday) got pretty tough. I'm thinking maybe it was an area deal – I caught some really good ones shallow the first day, but I haven't found anything like that since.
"I've got a couple shallow areas where I think I can catch some. The deep deal, you just have to go and go and get a bite here and a bite there. You might have to fish 100 places to get 10 bites and you don't know if they'll be 3-pounders or 13-inchers.
"I think 12 pounds a day will be real good and 15 a day might win. Somebody's always going to catch them no matter what, though."
"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate my practice about an 0.3. Honestly, it's just been terrible for me. I've gotten a few bites, but they've all been really small. I'm still kind of open about what I'm going to do because I don't see things changing a whole lot during the tournament. Somebody's probably going to get on a deep hole and really catch them.
"You can get around them and see them everywhere, but it's hard to get a bite. The shad are so small, and I think that's what they're keyed in on. I've pulled in a few of those little bitty shad throwing a jerkbait and you can't hardly get your fingers on them.
"I want to think the weights will be down, but guys always catch them. You think it's tough, but then you get to weigh-in and you find out it wasn't as tough for everybody as you'd thought it was going to be."
Top 10 to Watch
Based on the above factors and more, here are BassFan's recommendations for the Top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Brent Ehrler – He has a win and a runner-up finish to show for his last two visits, and the conditions were substantially different each time. He flat-out owns places like this during the pre-spawn.
2. Andy Morgan – We're tempted to point out that the reigning Angler of the Year has fared extremely well at Hartwell (9th in 2012, 15th in 2011), but those marks are simply on par with what he does everywhere. You have to pick him anytime, anywhere.
Dave Lefebre is in need of a good finish after a dismal showing at Lake Okeechobee.
3. Dave Lefebre – He's in desperate straights after a last-place finish at Okeechobee that included severe mechanical difficulties. His Hartwell ledger is strong (11th and 8th the last two outings), so a rebound is more than likely.
4. Bryan Thrift – A 65th-place showing at Hartwell last time notwithstanding, he's a superb March performer. He could certainly use a high placement after a 59th at Okeechobee.
5. Brett Hite – He's a guy who tends to ride momentum hard, whether it's good or bad. He's coming off a win at Okeechobee and he has a good record here (10th and 23rd), so look for him to continue the roll.
6. Tom Monsoor – The swimjig master has made it to the final day at Hartwell on both of his two previous visits – and then caught one fish on Sunday each time. He logged a triple-digit finish at Okeechobee following an off-season that included an emergency heart operation, so this could be a make-or-break outing.
7. Randall Tharp – The reigning Forrest Wood Cup champion continues to pile up high finishes (4th at Okeechobee, 5th at the Bassmaster Classic). The water being up in the willows this time certainly doesn't hurt his chances.
8. Jacob Wheeler – His career is still in its formative stage, but he's already proven to be one of the most adaptable competitors on the circuit. He can change right along with the environmental conditions and the fish, and that will play big at Hartwell.
9. Jay Yelas – He seems to have ways of finding and connecting with quality shallow fish that befuddle the majority of the field. He was a contender in the last high-water event at Hartwell (he ended up 6th) and nobody would be surprised to see him in the mix again.
10. Mark Rose – Somewhat of a stretch pick, as he's finished 98th and 68th on his last two visits, but the offshore maven seems due for a good finish at Hartwell. He'd welcome it after a 58th at Okeechobee.
Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. EST on the first 3 days of competition from Clemson Marina (150 Clemson Marina Dr., Seneca, S.C.). The Top 10 will launch on the final day at 7:30. Thursday's and Friday's weigh-ins will get under way at 3 p.m. at the Marina. Saturday's and Sunday's weigh-ins will be staged at the Walmart in Seneca (1636 Sandifer Blvd.) beginning at 4 p.m.
> Jay Yelas thinks he could make the 20-cut if he gets a break or two and lands a couple of big bites. Luke Clausen isn't quite so confident – he feels like he's fishing for a check, but hopes to develop a stronger pattern on day 1. To read their practice recaps, click here to visit BassFan's Pro View Reports.
> Thurs., March 6 – P.M. Showers - 48°/40°
- Wind: From the NE at 16 mph
> Fri., March 7 – Showers - 57°/41°
- Wind: From the N/NE at 12 mph
> Sat., March 8 – Partly Cloudy - 71°/45°
- Wind: From the W at 8 mph
> Sun., Feb. 23 – Partly Cloudy - 71°/41°
- Wind: From the W/NW at 9 mph