By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor

Catching quality keepers at South Carolina's Lake Hartwell last week was no easy task. Fish that just a week before had thought that spring was coming on like gangbusters were beamed right back into mid-winter conditions as a major storm pulled in just prior to day 1, sending water temperatures plummeting as much as 8 degrees.

The scenario wasn't real comfortable for the human element of the equation, either, as competitors were forced to fish in cold, windy and wet conditions. That situation had improved a great deal by the time the weekend rolled around, but the fish still hadn't recovered from the shock to their systems and weren't in a real compliant mode.

The entire field ate a big mouthful of dust from wire-to-wire winner Casey Ashley, but those who notched a Top-5 finish persevered, going about it a lot of different ways. They were in the right places at the right times – at more often than most.

2nd: Andy Morgan

> Day 1: 5, 14-15
> Day 2: 5, 14-13
> Day 3: 5, 11-13
> Day 4: 5, 12-04

Morgan's numbers were indicative of just how big of a blowout this derby was: Ashley caught more than 15 pounds on all 4 days, but the runner-up and top-ranked angler in the world never achieved that mark even once. Nonetheless, as usual, his average was considerably better than just about everyone else's.

He plied his usual M.O. – doing whatever he felt like whenever it suited him.

"It was junk-fishing at it's finest," he said. "I just rotated around fishing for schooling fish or fishing channel seams, sticks in the backs of pockets in 3 feet of water, dirty water, pitching underneath docks or whatever.

"The first day I got four out of one brushpile in 12 feet of water and one on a shaky-head from a point. After that it was a real hodge-podge – I just fished whatever was in front of me at the time."

As for gear, he used a bunch. The list of baits included War Eagle jigs and spinnerbaits, a Sworming Hornet Fish Head Spin, a Livingston Lures jerkbait and a shaky-head with a Zoom finesse worm. He employed Zoom Super Chunk trailers on his jigs and all of the baits were tied to Gamma fluorocarbon line (8-, 10-, 12- or 16-pound).

Main factor in his success – "It was one of those deals where I just kept moving and I knew not to rely on anyplace or anything I'd fished the day before. The main thing was just to try to stay patient, but also stay on the pedal all day. If a fish was in one place for the moment, an hour later it'd probably be gone."

Performance edge – "I signed with iRod this year and I'm definitely impressed with those rods – they've done an excellent job for me. They're really parabolic and they load up good, and the more they load, the fewer fish you lose."

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

Clent Davis focused on boat docks and ran dozens of them each day.

3rd: Clent Davis

> Day 1: 5, 16-14
> Day 2: 5, 17-00
> Day 3: 5, 9-03
> Day 4: 4, 7-08
> Total = 19, 50-09

Davis was a man on the move throughout the event. He focused his attention on flat-lying boat docks that tapered out into 10 to 15 feet of water.

"I had over a hundred of them," he said. "I have no idea how many I ran each day."

He got onto that pattern pretty much by accident.

"I fished deep for half a day (during practice) and I just happened to be close to some docks. I eased over there and started pitching around them and I was getting bit pretty well.

"I'd start on the back quarter and pitch back under there as far as I could. Then I'd go to the front quarter, and then come back to the middle."

Eighteen of his 19 weigh-in fish were enticed by a weightless, wacky-rigged Mister Twister Comida (a Senko-style bait). The lone exception was a brush-pile fish that fell for a jig.

> Worm gear: 7'4" medium-action Phenix rod, Shimano Stradic CI4 spinning reel, 10-pound Sufix 832 braided line (lime green), 8-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon leader (6 to 8 feet), 1/0 straight-shank Gamakatsu hook with weed guard, Mister Twister Comida (green-pumpkin).

Main factor in his success – "Just keeping an open mind in practice."

Performance edge – "That rod I was using is just unbelievable. It's got the perfect tip for setting the hook on a wacky rig and it loads well. It's got a lot of backbone to it."

FLW/Kyle Wood
Photo: FLW/Kyle Wood

Cody Meyer turned in his second straight Top-5 finish of 2014.

4th: Cody Meyer

> Day 1: 5, 16-04
> Day 2: 5, 10-14
> Day 3: 5, 12-14
> Day 4: 4, 9-14
> Total = 19, 49-14

Meyer got onto some good deep-water action in practice, but that began to peter out during the second day of the tournament. He switched to docks at that point and went on to post his second straight Top-5 showing of the campaign.

He's just 2 points behind Brett Hite in the Angler of the Year (AOY) race going into the middle third of the season, but isn't thinking about the points title at this still-early juncture.

"I'd love to win it, but I'm not going to worry about it unless I'm right there going into the last event," he said. "My focus right now is just on making the (Forrest Wood) Cup."

His offshore program centered around points that contained either brush or scattered rock at depths from 18 to 35 feet.

"I found the deeper stuff in practice," he said. "I fished some docks then, too, but the fish weren't there yet. Things kept changing and they eventually moved back up there."

He alternated between a jig and a finesse rig throughout the event.

> Jig gear: 7'2" medium-heavy Shimano Expride rod, Shimano Metanium HG casting reel (7.4:1 ratio), 12-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, 3/4-ounce G Money jig (brown/purple), 5" Yamamoto Twin Tail trailer (cinnamon/purple/black flake).

> Worm gear: 7'2" medium-action Shimano Cumara rod, Shimano Sustain 2500 spinning reel, 10-pound PowerPro Super 8 Slick braided line, 6-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon leader, 1/8-ounce Jackall Wacky Jig Head, 5.8" Jackall Flick Shake worm (watermelon candy).

Main factor in his success – "Adapting to the conditions, because they changed every day. I had to fish really open-minded."

Main factor in his success – "That Flick Shake is a deadly little bait."

FLW/Brett Carlson
Photo: FLW/Brett Carlson

John Cox finished among the Top 5 despite a one-fish day 3.

5th: John Cox

> Day 1: 5, 18-13
> Day 2: 5, 15-11
> Day 3: 1, 1-00
> Day 4: 5, 13-06
> Total = 16, 48-14

"Unpredictable" is as good a word as any to describe Cox, who's now in his 4th year of tour-level competition. The young season has been the epitome of that as he turned in a 175th-place stinker in his home state of Florida, then was in contention all the way in this chilly-weather event.

If not for a dismal day 3, his final placement would've been even higher. He wouldn't have contended with Ashley, but he easily could've ended up 2nd.

He did the vast majority of his damage from a transition area to a spawning flat. It was a place where two creek channels came in close proximity to each other and the fish were holding on scattered rock.

"There were times when I could pull in and catch like 10 fish in 15 minutes," he said. "I tried some similar creeks, but I never got a bite in them."

He used a rattlebait and a spinnerbait to catch fish at depths ranging from 2 to 12 feet.

> Rattlebait gear: 7'6" medium-heavy MHX rod, unnamed casting reel, 15-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon line, XCalibur Xr50 (foxy momma).

> Spinnerbait gear: 7'3" medium-heavy MHX rod, unnamed casting reel, 20-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon, 1/2-ounce Rattle Head spinnerbait (chartreuse/white).

Main factor in his success – "I think I just got lucky finding those fish that were coming in there to spawn."

Performance edge – "The rods, for sure. I didn't miss any fish. Even when it was so cold that I couldn't feel my hands or my face, I could still make a full cast and I could still feel the bites. The sensitivity is incredible."

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