By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

You want to bring out the best in Casey Ashley on the water? Easy, just schedule the following years Bassmaster Classic at one of his favorite lakes in South Carolina say, Lake Hartwell.

After B.A.S.S. announced the 2015 Classic was headed to Hartwell, Ashley finished 10th in Elite Series Angler of the Year points during the 2014 season, his highest finish since 2011 when he was 7th. He then went on to win the Classic at Hartwell in a tournament many will remember for its record-breaking low temperatures.

He also competed on the FLW Tour in 2014 and finished 12th in points, posting a win at Hartwell almost a year in advance of his Classic triumph. The 2014 Forrest Wood Cup was at Lake Murray, another Palmetto State fishery he excels at, and he finished 4th there.

So it stands to reason why Ashley turned in a career-best 6th-place finish in Elite Series points in 2017. The 2018 Classic is slated for you guessed it Hartwell in March.

Hes always been a consistent performer hes finished outside the top 50 in Elite Series points just twice in 11 years but theres something different about him when hes laser-focused on a specific goal.

Knowing the Classic was coming to Hartwell (in 2018), Im not saying I tried harder, but when you have a goal, you dont want to just make it, Ashley said. You dont want anything to worry about in the last two events. This year, it just worked out. I didnt fish differently.

He said he caught breaks at opportune times throughout the season and it kept him in contention for the AOY title right to the end.

Like a magic day on the water, it was a magic year, he said. Its not as though I blasted them all year, but when I needed a fish Id catch a 3-pounder or a keeper. Ive had years where Id need a keeper and Id catch nothing but a bunch of shorts.

When you have a goal like that it can drive you south. A lot of people overlook the mental aspect of this game more than anything. Its hard to explain. Take a major league baseball player. They go through slumps and Im not saying I had a slump, but I didnt change my swing. Its a mental thing. You just have to keep plugging away.

Stressful Start

In order to put himself in position to not have anything to worry about points-wise entering the final two tournaments, Ashley knew hed have to get off to a strong start and carry it through the heart of the schedule.

A 61st-place finish in the season opener at Cherokee Lake was not what he had in mind, but he bounced back with seven consecutive top-40 finishes, including a 4th at Toledo Bend and an 8th at the St. Lawrence River. He said the Cherokee tournament ramped up the stress level, though.

Id only been there once for a PAA (event) in the fall, but I knew how it would set up, he said. I showed up for practice and caught smallmouth on an underspin. On day 1, I had to be in at 3:15, but at 1 oclock I had zero. I scratched around and ran up the river and caught five. The only thing is I didnt learn anything.

On day 2, I did the same thing. At 11:30, I still had nothing. I went back up the river and scratched out five. I missed the cut, but I salvaged the tournament. Fans look at standings and see you didnt do well, but they dont know you put a limit together in two hours. Where someone might see a 68th, I see a silver lining.

By the time the schedule shifted to smallmouth country up north, Ashley was up to 4th in points. Making the Classic was nearly a done deal. Despite having a good cushion and ample room for error, he didnt take anything for granted.

I watched the points toward the end because I knew I had a chance (to win AOY), he said. I knew smallmouth are not my thing so I really had my work cut out for me. I feel like I steal something when I get a check up north.

He started the northern swing with a top-10 at the St. Lawrence and salvaged a check with a 19-pound effort on day 2 at Lake Champlain. He arrived at Lake St. Clair for the regular-season finale tied with Jacob Wheeler for 2nd in the AOY race, 40 points behind leader Brandon Palaniuk. His path to Hartwell was locked up and it allowed him to gamble in situations that he wouldve played more conservatively under different circumstances.

Being in that position that late in the year it allows you to make moves you normally wouldnt be able to do, like go fish for largemouth on day 3 (at Champlain) rather than grind it out and stay where you are, he said. Sometimes that can work to your advantage big time.

Wont Be The Same

Ashley doesnt think hell enjoy the same degree of advantage at Hartwell come March as he had in February of 2015. The pressure to do well will still be there, but the wild card this time around again will be the weather.

In 2015, I knew it would be cold and I expected to win, he said. This one, I have a good chance, but being that its a month later and fish will be on the bank, itll be anybodys game. I have no advantage really going into this thing unless its cold. Ill be praying for a cold front.

He expects the lake to fish significantly different in mid-March compared to mid-February.

It depends on the weather, but in normal yeas, itll be way different, he said. Depending on the winter, there could be some fish spawning already and if it gets warm every fish in the lake will be spawning.

He hadnt yet formulated a plan on when hell start spending time at Hartwell in preparation for the Classic, but hell be a frequent visitor when he does.

I will spend a good bit of time there, but not yet, he said.