By Todd Ceisner
John Cox eases down the hill as the line of trucks nears the launch ramp at Green Pond Landing. It’s Wednesday, March 15, the lone official practice day for the 48th Bassmaster Classic, and Cox is wishing he could’ve slept in a little longer.
As I lean in the passenger window of his truck, he tells me he doesn’t have a rope to tie up to the dock.
It’s been three years since I’ve been to Green Pond and the work put into the facility since the 2015 Classic is apparent. It’s a first-rate launch with more-than-ample parking, lighting and as sturdy a dock system as you’ll find anywhere. Maybe there’s a rope somewhere.
It’s brisk at the water’s edge with temperatures hovering in the mid-30 and a forecast high in the mid 50s with bluebird skies and a slight breeze, yet another notch in the cold-front belt that has clenched its grip around the Anderson, S.C., area over the past week or so.
It’s just before 7 a.m. and today will serve as a rehearsal for how logistics will work at the launch/retrieve facility during the tournament. Anglers will go out in two flights (7:30 and 7:40 a.m.) and return at two separate prescribed times (3:30 and 3:40 p.m.). Eight hours to figure out how to get off on the right foot in the sport’s premier event.
I specifically requested to be Cox’s marshal for the practice day because I knew his schedule leading up to the Classic would be the most challenging of any of the 52 anglers in the field, and I wanted to see how he broke down a lake like Hartwell, where he’d won an FLW Tour event two years ago to the week.
The Classic marked the fourth tournament in as many weeks for Cox, who missed the first day of the unofficial three-day Classic practice session the previous Friday because he was competing in the Lake Lanier FLW Tour. A 40th-place finish at Lanier netted him a $10,000 payday and allowed him to scurry up I-85 to get two days’ worth of practice in at Hartwell.
Privately, I was rooting for him to make the top-10 cut at Lanier, meaning the official practice day would’ve been his only look at Hartwell prior to the Classic.
I drop my camera case and gear bag in the floor of Cox’s Crestliner and he pulls up closer to the ramp. A volunteer tosses a couple bagged lunches on the deck of the boat. Cox, wearing a hoodie over top of foul-weather bibs, backs the truck down toward the water before I hop in the driver’s seat to finish the launch process.
After parking the truck, I hitch a ride in a golf cart back down the hill to the dock. Everything seems to be running smoothly so far.
After a bit of searching, I locate Cox. He’s not tied up to the dock (remember, no rope) and once I come aboard, he backs away from the dock and trolls off to the side. He tells me we’re going to move a lot. I’m not surprised, as I certainly didn’t think he’d be trying to dial in an offshore brush-pile pattern.
Cox came into this Classic with one thing on his mind – sight-fishing for pre-spawn and spawning fish. With conditions as cold as they are, his strategy will become a race against time that he has no control over: Will the lake warm up in time and trigger enough fish to push toward the bank to give him enough material to work with for the tournament?
“On Sunday, I pulled into one pocket and found a bed and it was like an orgy,” Cox says as we wait to blast off. “There were four males and two females and the water was so cold.”
Cox spent much of the final practice day in this pose – intently scanning the backs of pockets in search of bass.
He was encouraged by what he saw three days ago, but also knows any significant warming could prompt other competitors to go looking as well. By the end of the day, I will discover that Cox is all-in on his plan to let his eyes be his fish-finder.
Just before the national anthem, I notice Cox hadn’t put his Classic boat number (35) on his windshield like other competitors had.
“We’re supposed to do that?” he asks.
He then tells me he only put a few rods in the boat at the last minute because he didn’t have any firm intentions of fishing a whole lot. He was 100 percent geared toward looking in as many pockets and creeks as he could to mark areas where fish had already moved up. He has no interest in setting a hook on this day.
He surmises that the fish are further ahead of schedule than others think, evidenced by the 40 3-pounders he waypointed over two days of practice.
“I really hope it warms up because some places will get warmer quicker,” he says.
What follows is a recap of a day in the boat with the 2016 Forrest Wood Cup champion as he prepared to compete in his first Bassmaster Classic:
> 7:42 a.m.: Dave Mercer introduces Cox and he glides past the starter dock and demonstrates his kill switch for officials before re-firing his outboard and heading out toward open water. The first stop is a pocket directly across from Green Pond, near Portman Marina. He pulls out a custom rod he built with components from Mud Hole Tackle, his title sponsor. He ties on a Dirty Jigs swimjig in an Alabama bream pattern and pairs it with a Berkley PowerBait Maxscent Meaty Chunk trailer in watermelon candy.
It’s the only bait he’ll use all day.
He then buries the hook point into the beefy end of a rubber peg so if a fish does inhale the jig, no damage would be done.
“My goal is to not to go to the (Expo) on Sunday,” he says. “I have to make the top 25.”
There are several covered docks in this pocket, but the light isn’t quite yet right.
“I can almost see,” Cox says. “I was tempted to sit in the truck for a while because I won’t be able to see for about an hour.”
Cox rehashes the story about how he injured his left foot a few weeks ago, an injury that has him moving gingerly around the boat (click here for more details). He’d hoped 2018 would be the year he would escape the nagging health issues that have plagued him before. In 2016, he competed while dealing with a hernia near his belly button. Last year, he had to have a vein removed on the side of his leg.
“This year, I was good to go and now this happens to my foot,” he says. “It’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
> 7:55 a.m.: Cox leaves the first pocket without seeing anything. He idles under a bridge and talks about how he happy he is that day 1 of the tournament is supposed to be much warmer than today. The second pocket he pulls into has two big docks and he points his boat into the area between them.
He talks about adjusting to the logistics of the Classic, where competitors’ boats are kept at a secure location near the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, a few miles from where many of the anglers are staying.
“It’s hard to sleep knowing my boat isn’t with me,” he said. “You should’ve seen some of the looks I got when I brought my rod-building equipment into the Hilton.”
This swim jig was the only bait Cox had tied on during the final practice day.
He starts recalling how he caught fish at Lanier, which in some regards is similar to Hartwell.
“I caught ‘em on beds, but the fish were so lethargic I had to go with a weightless presentation because the fish wouldn’t clamp down quick enough on the bait,” he said. “When (the water temp) hit 60, it was unbelievable. I’m not sure it will get there here, but when it does it’ll be the best the lake is all year.”
As he speaks, the water temperature in this pocket is 52 degrees, not ideal for what he’s hoping will happen. He wants to look at new areas today and plans to focus on the mid-lake section.
“If the water gets to 55, I can’t wait,” he said, adding he had a day at Lanier when he could’ve had close to 30 pounds had he caught everything that bit.
> 8:10 a.m.: Cox pulls into a third pocket and speed-trolls the outside line of the flooded grass called dog fennel, of which there is plenty around the lake.
I ask why this time of year excites him more than other seasons.
“Because I stink the rest of the year,” he says with a chuckle. “Winning the Cup – that was a miracle. This excites me because I know what’s fixing to happen. Once the spawn thing is over it gets boring for me.”
He notes the water clarity is better than Sunday when “a lot of people were out here fishing.”
Cox volunteers what it was like for him to be at the Classic angler briefing Tuesday afternoon. He said it was a challenge to stay focused as the gravity of being in the Classic set in.
“I walk into the meeting and Kevin [VanDam], Skeet [Reese] and Ike are there,” he said. “I felt like I did something wrong. All I did was win an Open to get in this thing.”
He reveals he’d never spoken to VanDam prior to the meeting.
He’s now in the fourth pocket of the morning and a trend is developing – he does a cursory scan along the outside of the dog fennel, mostly with the rod laying at his feet. He’s keenly focused on water clarity.
He motors to a fifth spot, a short pocket off the main lake.
“Last time I was here, they’d be in these pockets,” he said. “It happened quick. I haven’t seen it yet this week.”
He points out he’s visiting pockets he’s not been to before on any previous visits to the lake.
> 8:50 a.m.: Cox eases into the back of another pocket. The dog fennel is pretty thick and there’s some debris hung up in it, including what looks to be an old pontoon boat seat. He flips his jig toward it and feels a bite.
“Oh,” he says. “I don’t know what that is, but there’s something living under it. It bit like it’s 53-degree water.”
He hits another pocket and goes to the back, easing through more dog fennel. He makes a couple casts along a washed out bank before pointing the nose of his boat out toward the lake.
He moves to another pocket and by now it’s apparent this is how he’s going to spend the day. It’s impressive to watch someone so committed to one game plan. Were it a points tournament, he’d probably be looking for plans B and C, but it’s the Classic and often nobody remembers who finishes 2nd.
“I just don’t want to get sucked into something else,” Cox says, before predicting that the outer edge of the dog fennel could wind up being a key thing to target. He badly wants this tournament to play out how he imagines it could.
“That’s the best chance for me,” he says. “I don’t want to get stuck catching keepers on the outside edge. I want to be the guy on the inside when it happens. I just want to run into five through the course of the day. When they do come in – that first wave – it could get pretty stupid. I’m just going to take my chances with it.”
> 9:30 a.m.: Cox zooms into yet another pocket. I ask if he’s encouraged that he hasn’t seen any other competitor doing what he’s doing.
“Yes, but the thing is there are so many pockets on this lake and only a few are good ones,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what makes them different by trolling around. That’s what makes it exciting.”
He spots “a good one,” but quickly realizes it’s a carp. There are beds in this pocket, but no bass occupying them. It’s easy to tell spring hasn’t fully sprung yet here – most of the trees still don’t have buds on them.
“I saw some fish rubbing in practice,” Cox says. “All it takes is two beds. It doesn’t take much. They’re in a little bit of a funk, but they want to go so bad. I could troll all day and look. It’s more fun for me.”
> 9:51 a.m.: Cox pulls into a short pocket and has a 3-pounder eat his jig on the first cast.
“Oh, oh, oh,” he says with a sly grin.
The water is 55.1 degrees here and Cox notes how finicky this lake can be.
“It’s like they only live in certain parts of the lake here,” he said. “It’s weird.”
He’s back behind the steering wheel and starts to run south toward Green Pond Landing. There are whitecaps in the middle of lake as the wind has picked up.
After a 15-minute run down lake to another pocket, Cox sees a bass shoot off a bed, but he wasn’t able to get a feel for its size.
> 10:53 a.m.: The water is 53.7 degrees and he sees a big one sunning itself along with some bluegills. “At least I’m starting to see some stuff,” he mumbles.
At the next stop, an old roadbed is visible coming off the bank and there’s a tired pontoon boat tied to a tree nearby. Cox says boats were lined up in here during the weekend practice.
Cox was constantly on the move, visiting at least 30 areas over the course of the eight hours on the water.
I ask if he thinks other competitors view him as a threat this week based on his success at Hartwell.
“I doubt they’re too worried,” he said. “Maybe if it were a little warmer. You don’t get too many chances to take a chance like this in a Tour event, let alone the Classic. I just know what can happen here in that short timeframe. It’s hard to tell where they’re sitting with all the stuff in the water.”
> 11:12 a.m.: Cox observes that the fish don’t seem to be in amongst the dog fennel, which became flooded when the lake level came up in January and February.
“On Saturday and Sunday, you ‘d go into it and they’d shoot out everywhere from it,” he said.
> 11:34 a.m.: Cox cracks open a can of Monster Energy and runs into another pocket. He comments how cold it still is. I check the weather app on my phone and see it’s still 43 degrees despite the sun being out for almost 3 1/2 hours.
“I’d have been totally happy with the fish that were up on Saturday and Sunday, but I’m pretty sure they’ll move back up once it gets warmer,” he says.
The pocket he’s in now brings back memories. He fished it during his FLW Tour win in 2016. He remembers a specific log that he caught a few fish off of, but says the water is lower now than it was then.
He surmises that a wobble-head jig could be really productive in the drains of these pockets, but isn’t sure he wants to get distracted with that. Again, he’s focused on fish just moving up.
“I think I’d rather go up the river and throw a ChatterBait than do that,” he adds.
> 11:41 a.m.: Cox has seen two spotted bass that were fat, but the most recent one spooked at the sight of his jig.
> 12:07 p.m.: I ask Cox for a mid-day update on what he’s found so far. He’s been on the water for 4 1/2 hours.
“What I’ve discovered is that it might stink worse than practice – at least the shallow bite,” he said. “I’m not losing hope. I think it can still happen, just as long as it doesn’t gt any colder.
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to sight-fish, but if I can come in here and swim a jig or pitch a Senko, we’ll know they’re here.”
> 12:15 p.m.: He’s in the back of another pocket and sees several fish up shallow, including a pair on a bed.
“How do you not wait for them when there are clear spots like that up on the bank,” he says, before turning out to look at the lake. “I can’t go out there and throw a Fish Head Spin around.”
> 1:15 p.m.: Cox is starting to move with more urgency and purpose now. I get the sense that he knows time is ticking down. He eases into another pocket that seems familiar.
“I don’t even remember this spot,” he says.
Moments later, he spots a big fish just hanging out.
“Gosh, that’s a 6,” he said. “A couple of those on Friday and I’ll be happy.”
He chats about his busy schedule over the previous month – he competed at the Harris Chain FLW Tour, then the Lake Seminole FLW Series, followed by the Lanier FLW Tour before moving onto the Classic. He’s looking forward to getting home, but not before he takes a big swing at his first Classic.
He mentions how he wished some spotted bass would move in to spawn because then he’d have move targets to look at.
> 1:30 p.m.: He’s found what will prove to be the best pocket of the day. He spots several big fish and bait. He says he thinks he can flip to these fish, similar to how he might fish flooded bushes in Texas.
“I was going to sleep good tonight, but after seeing that I’m going to be on edge,” he said. “There’s just enough to keep me looking.”
> 1:53 p.m.: After telling me about the Crestliner 1850 Basshawk with a 200-hp Mercury Verado he has at home in his garage – it’s for big water up north, he says – Cox leaves another pocket after spotting an above-average fish.
“I should be able to flip those fish or swim something by them,” he says, almost trying to convince himself he’s onto something now.
The next pocket has fresh runoff pouring into the back of it – it’s the second one we’ve seen today – and he quickly backs out and sees a sailboat marina he wants to study.
> 2:15 p.m.: He didn’t find anything noteworthy near the marina and has pulled into yet another shallow main-lake pocket and sees a big spotted bass up shallow.
“Man, if they’re in these kinds of pockets, there are so many of them and they’re easier to run,” he says.
He hops to the next pocket and marks another fish. He notes that these pockets only seem to have one fish each in them. He likes that because if there were more, he thinks more guys would be targeting them.
Cox points out that how a fish swims off when it gets spooked can tell a lot.
“If it hauls ass, that means it was just caught or just got there,” he said. “If it eases off, that means the eggs are there or it’s waiting for another fish.
“A fish in the right mood will take off, but think about it – the trolling motor prop is right in their face. If they’re in their zone, they won’t move.”
> 2:50 p.m.: With a 3:40 check-in time, Cox has 50 minutes left. He goes under a small overpass into what amounts to a big pond that looks very fishy. He’s been in this spot before, but he says it looks better than it really is.
“I need to stop coming back here,” he said. “It looks so good, but it’s only been good once.”
He passes under the bridge on the way out and fires three casts to some dog fennel on the left side. A minute later, he’s behind the wheel, headed to another pocket.
> 3:20 p.m.: He’s now back in the area across from Green Pond Landing. We can see the launch ramp from here.
“Oh my gosh, they’re all over here,” he says. “Almost every hole. I had a feeling they’d do that on the main-lake stuff.”
> 3:25 p.m.: Cox pulls into a small creek arm adjacent to Green Pond Landing, but a quick scan yields nothing. He powers up the big motor for the last time, idles out of the creek and around the corner before checking in 10 minutes early.
Later, Cox texts me two photos of his left foot to illustrate the severity of the damage. Neither are worthy of publication – they’re that gnarly.
Cox’s sight-fishing fantasy didn’t pan out how he’d hoped. The lake just never warmed up to the level that would’ve triggered a massive wave of fish to flood the bank.
“After practice and seeing all those fish pulling up late in the day with the warming trend, I thought it’d be wide open,” he said after finishing 20th, a satisfactory outcome since he didn’t have to work the Expo on Sunday.
He started the tournament cycling through the pockets where he’d seen fish on Wednesday, but quickly noticed there had been no additional push of males or females.
From there, it was a scramble before he decided to make a long run up a river arm to fish some dirty water. He tallied 12 pounds in roughly 30 minutes of fishing.
On day 2, he ran to the dirty water first in hopes to get a quick limit, but only managed one keeper. He hustled back to the lake and saw some fish moving up. He bagged enough weight to make the top-25 cut.
On the final day, he decided to run every spawning pocket he knew of. He was looking for a certain type of pocket that might’ve been ahead of the others.
“I found some with 30 2-pound makes, but the females were out in the middle,” he said. “I could see them cruising. They were 4s and 5s.”
He had one 12-incher and ran the pocket game plan until the bitter end. With about an hour to go, he decided to pick off a few males to tally 11 pounds and move up to 20th.
“I might dump back in when I leave here because they’re so close,” he said Sunday in the media room after coming off stage.
He’s still committed to sight-fishing even though the event is over. If the tournament were this week, he’d no doubt be in his glory and likely a favorite.
“I know when that happens I feel like I can win,” he said. “Every time when that happens I have a good shot. It’s exciting. It’s hard when you’re fishing, when you’re doing something you don’t like to stay focused and do it well.”