By Todd Ceisner
When it comes to Greg Hackney’s mantle, it’s pretty dang crowded.
He’s got three Elite Series trophies now along with one from an FLW Tour win. There are trophies from Angler of the Year titles from both the Elite Series and FLW Tour. There’s also the Forrest Wood Cup he won in 2009.
Back in March, he had to clear more space for another significant addition to his hardware collection – the Johnny Morris Award, which is given to the winner of the Major League Fishing World Championship.
Hackney’s triumph, which occurred over the course of four rounds of competition at a series of old, flooded farm lakes in Florida, not far from the Treasure Coast region, shouldn’t come as a surprise. The venues favored his shallow-water and grass-fishing strengths and he was able to be effective in the face of challenging, cold-front conditions, especially in the final round at fabled Kenansville Lake.
A year ago, Hackney finished 5th in the Sudden Death Round of the World Championship, leaving him on the sidelines for the final round that saw Bobby Lane claim the first MLF world title. This year, he bounced back from a 6th-place finish in the opening Shotgun Round to finish 2nd in the Elimination Round. That earned him a ticket to the Sudden Death, where he was the first competitor to hit the target weight, clearing his path to the final round at Kenansville, known to some as “Jurassic Park” due to its hidden-away location at the end of the 13-mile unpaved road and its reputation for producing big Florida largemouth.
After carding just one fish in the first period of the finals, Hackney picked up steam in the second and third periods. Six of his 10 bass weighed 3 pounds or more – only one was under 2 pounds – as he racked up 32-06 to beat Mike Iaconelli by 6-plus pounds. Andy Montgomery held the lead early, but faded to 3rd while Reese was the leader after a five-fish first period, but only boated two fish the rest of the way and settled for 4th.
Afterward, Hackney breathed a sigh of relief and was thankful he was able to capitalize on an opportunity that was in his wheel house.
“There’s so much disappointment in this (sport),” Hackney said. “Iaconelli was just in here and he’s totally crushed regardless of what he said. I know that because I live the same life that he does. Just like Skeet and Andy. They’re all really disappointed. They were all glad to make the championship round, but more times than not in this sport you leave with disappointment. There are very, very few times when you leave on a truly high note and everything is perfect. This is one of those times in my life and in my career when everything is perfect. And I know about all the days and years it takes to get here and that’s what makes it mean so much.”
Here's a rundown of how Hackney maneuvered his way to a victory at the World Championship:
> Shotgun round (Lake Garcia): 13, 27-02 (6th)
> Elimination round (Stick Marsh): 20, 47-05 (33, 74-07; 2nd)
> Sudden Death round (Blue Cypress Lake): 9, 20-03 (2nd)
> Championship round (Kenansville Lake): 10, 32-06 (1st)
> Total = 65, 154-02
Hackney’s week got started at Lake Garcia, a 3,100-acre lake with gin-clear water, in the first portion of the Shotgun Round. His 6th-place finish wasn’t the outcome he was looking for, but his confidence never wavered. He held the lead on a couple occasions, but a couple lulls took him out of contention.
“I had a good morning, but then it got slick and that seemed to hurt,” he said.
After setting the tone with the day’s big fish (6-07) right off the bat, he endured a three-hour stretch before landing his next keeper. He also had a two-hour window in the afternoon without a keeper. He closed with 13 fish for 27-02.
“I wasn’t that far out,” he said. “I had led most of the day, but lost some bites in the last period. I’ve fished in enough of those in that style to see that guy in dead last or last three come back.”
Montgomery won the round and earned a spot in the Sudden Death Round, bypassing the Elimination Round. Hackney, meanwhile, returned to the water two days later for the Elimination Round, where the weights from the Shotgun Round carried over. He needed to a big day to move up into the top 2 to join Montgomery in Sudden Death.
For the Elimination Round, it was on to Stick Marsh/Farm 13, a 6,500-acre lake with a reputation for producing big fish. Hackney delivered the fast start he needed with first three keepers of the round. That erased nearly 8 pounds of the 10-10 cushion Edwin Evers had on him.
“My confidence was helped when we went to Stick Marsh,” Hackney said. “It was the best weather we had all week and we had perfect conditions for that day.
“The other deal was that anything that Edwin and Takahiro (Omori) dialed in on Garcia, that went out the window at Stick Marsh. I got off to the quickest start despite being the farthest down and that allowed me to come back.”
Hackney relied mostly on a jig and craw combination to flip all day in the stained water at Stick Marsh. While Omori ultimately won the round, Hackney’s mission was accomplished as he rallied from 6th to 2nd with a 20-fish, 47-05 effort to secure a spot in the Sudden Death Round. His day was highlighted by a 5-15 kicker around noon that sparked a three-fish flurry that also included a 4-14.
After a day off, Hackney was back on the water March 2 for the Sudden Death Round along with Montgomery, Omori, Reese, Lane and Iaconelli with the top four finishers advancing to the Championship Round.
Blue Cypress Lake wasn’t a standout as far as numbers go, but Hackney said it’s probably the most scenic lake he’s ever fished in Florida.
“It’s about as pretty a place in Florida as I’ve ever been,” Hackney said. “With that black water, it might look like oil, but when you put a bait in it, you can see two feet. It’s gin clear. It’s different because it doesn’t have any hydrilla in it or eelgrass. The bottom is just clean, hard bottom.”
With a target weight of 20 pounds to ensure entry in the final round, Hackney used another fast start to gather momentum that led to him being the first competitor to reach the 20-pound plateau. His first two fish were sub 2-pounders, but his next six were all 2-01 or bigger, caught on either a soft-plastic stickbait or a vibrating jig around cypress trees.
He suspected the fish he caught in the morning were bedding and the fish that bit later were a little deeper, a tell-tale that they may have been post-spawn.
“That was the deal,” he said. “We’d just been fishing over them; it happens. The fish weren’t just eating it or showing themselves. You get into that when you have a lot of cover. When you don’t have a lot of cover you won’t hardly fish over them. When there’s a ton of cover and there’s one on this tree and these four trees don’t have one, it’s easy to miss them.”
As the day progressed, he was able to pinpoint areas that seemed to be holding more fish.
“Once I dialed that in, I dropped a waypoint and circled around,” he said. “When I got on it, I fished out of them, then went about 100 yards, cranked up and went back in there and lit them up again. Then there were wads of fish. I caught all of them in a small area rather than one here and then another one a half mile away.”
With one day left and the field reduced to four anglers – Montgomery, Iaconelli and Reese also moved on – Hackney seemed quietly confident headed into the final round.
“Regardless of tomorrow, I’ve already had a great week,” he said as the darkness fell across the boat yard. “It didn’t start off real good, but I’ve bounced back. I wouldn’t say I’m fishing lights out, but I’m fishing alright. I feel good.”
Kenansville Lake, which hosted the final round of the Championship, was a flipper's paradise with endless mats and vegetation.
For the final day, the competition shifted to another small lake with a massive reputation. Known to locals and those who follow trophy bass fishing as “Jurassic Park”, Kenansville Lake is situated west of the Stick Marsh and north of Blue Cypress and is about as remote as you can get in this part of Florida.
In the first two months of 2018, Kenansville produced 11 fish that were registered in Florida’s Trophy Catch program (8 pounds or heavier), including multiple entries from two separate anglers. On the day of the Sudden Death Round at Blue Cypress Lake, an 8-10 was caught at Kenansville.
Kenansville was a bit off for the Championship Round, though, due to a cold snap that greeted the finalists at the boat ramp. Morning temperatures in the upper 40s had guys scrambling for bibs and jackets and a breeze that continued to build through the day had a bite to it. Still, the potential for some giant fish had the finalists amped up, including Hackney, who thought the route to Kenansville was actually taking the anglers and crew to Lake Okeechobee.
“I knew we were going someplace I’d never been before because I’ve been straight west of Yeehaw Junction and straight south of Yeehaw Junction, but I’d never been north,” Hackney said. “We were literally in the middle of nowhere. Twelve miles of dirt road to get to the boat ramp.”
Once on the water, Hackney relied on the wind to dictate where he’d focus his ride-through and, ultimately, the duration of the competition. He gravitated to the northwest corner and immediately saw what he liked – mats and grass and the right kind of water color.
“The wind was already blowing when we got there, but it was going to pick up considerably every hour of the day,” he said. “The other guys ran way to the South, which I felt like was going to get blown out. I felt like if I established something on the north end out of the wind, I’d be able to fish.”
He also felt there’d be enough fish that he wouldn’t have to run around and fight the conditions. With a winner-take-all format on this day, efficiency was key.
“When the term Jurassic Park came up and that it was a famous fishery, I felt like it had a lot of fish in it so I didn’t necessarily have to go to the south end,” he said. “Typically, in a good lake, there are fish in places all over it. I just didn’t want to fish in the wind. I wanted to get off to a good start because with this cold front we had going through it was going to make conditions kind of rough. Between the wind and temperature drop I felt like the fish would get shocked.”
Montgomery and Reese were the first anglers on the board with keepers, but Hackney’s first fish was a 3-03 and gave him a good foundation to work from. While it was his only keeper of the first period – Reese led with 10-02 – he stayed with the strategy he plotted in the ride through.
“What we had was kind of what we had in every first period I fished in – they’ve all been slow,” he said. “The number one cause has been the full moon. We’ve been fishing on a moon that was getting full, then it got full and it looked completely full this morning. A lot of times on a full moon, if you’re not there at daylight for that first 30 to 45 minutes, there’s typically a bite and then it doesn’t happen again until after 10 a.m. That’s typical, regardless if it’s spring time or summer or fall. I, honestly, don’t like a full moon because when there’s not a full moon you can catch fish all day long. When you have a full moon, there are windows of opportunity and you have to strike during those times and I feel like that’s why all the first periods have been slow at every lake.
“I’ve been slow to start every morning, but it’s one of those deals where I gained momentum as the day goes. That one bite was so important in that first period because that’s the area I ended up winning the event in.”
His first fish of the second period was a 3-13. About 20 minutes later, he boated a 2-06 while flipping hyacinth mats. Another 20 minutes passed before he landed a 2-14 that moved him into the lead for good with 12-04. He added a 3 1/2-pounder before the end of the second to boost his total to 15-13.
He carried that momentum into the third period with three fish in the matter of 30 minutes, capped by a 4 1/2-pounder, to open up a 10-pound advantage over Montgomery.
“I had led before that, but when I got to 10 pounds, I was like, ‘I can win now,’” Hackney said. “Honestly, it’s like I got another gear. I can’t explain it. It’s like adrenaline.”
Iaconelli surged into 2nd with a 7-02 with about an hour to go. That narrowed his deficit to Hackney to 4-02, but Hackney answered with a 3-14 and a 4-04 within minutes of each other to restore his double-digit cushion and push his total to 32-06.
“In a way, it pushed me a little harder,” he said of how he reacted after learning of Iaconelli’s big fish. “I was fishing down a stretch. I was kind of content. I wasn’t getting bit, but I was fishing up to a place where I felt like I was going to get bit so when he caught that 7-pounder, it rushed me on up there a little quicker. I flip in and catch a 4-pounder. When I caught that, I was thinking I just ate up more than half of that 7-pounder. He still hadn’t taken the lead, but he had eaten up my lead. I felt like if I could stay 10 pounds ahead, chances are they weren’t going to catch a 10-pounder. They might catch an 8, but if I stayed 10 pounds ahead of everybody, I felt like I could win it.”
After landing the 3-14, he was assessed a 2-minute penalty. As he waited it out, his boat drifted up against the mat he’d fished earlier in the day and intended to come back to.
“When I got that penalty, I was in a weird place because I was so jacked up from catching that fish,” he said. “I just sat there and I drifted up against this mat that covers an old canal. I had not fished that end of it since first thing in the morning. I caught my first fish out of that mat. I felt like I needed to go back there. I stood up and on the next flip, I caught another 4 and felt like it was done. Those two 4-pounders trumped that 7-pounder. I was really jacked up about that second one.”
Indeed, those two fish proved to be difference as Iaconelli caught two more fish to get to 25-11, but ran out of time.
“I just fished the area of the lake today that I felt was perfect,” Hackney said. “It had some mats and it was perfect conditions. It was protected from the wind. The wind didn’t hamper me all day long. There wasn’t one time where I fished an area and felt like the wind was killing it because I stayed out of it by staying on that north shore all day.”
Winning Gear Notes
> Flipping gear: 8’ heavy-action Quantum Hack Attack flipping stick, Quantum Smoke S3 casting reel, 65-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 1 3/8-oz. Strike King Tour Grade tungsten worm weight, 6/0 Strike King Hack Attack flipping hook, Strike King KVD Perfect Plastic Rodent (black/blue).
> Hackney typically uses 50-pound braid for a jig, but opted for 65 to flip at Kenansville because of the heavier weight. “That big weight is hard on line,” he said. “Any time I’m fishing with 3/4-ounce or bigger, I go to 65. You don’t have to re-tie and the line size doesn’t affect the bite.”
> The 1 3/8-oz. weight was the smallest he could use and still get his bait to penetrate through the mats. A bigger weight would’ve gotten through, but his hookup ratio would’ve dropped off, he said. “I tried to use the lightest weight I could,” he noted. “There were mats that I couldn’t get the weight to go through. If I went bigger, it would go through easier, but I’d have more trouble sticking them. I’m better off trying to get by with the weight I used.”
> In the earlier rounds, he relied on a vibrating jig (Lake Garcia – Shotgun Round), flipping a jig and Rage Craw combo (Stick Marsh – Elimination Round) and a vibrating jig and flipping a Shim-E-Stick (Blue Cypress Lake – Sudden Death Round).
> Color selection was simple, he said. He used mostly black/blue or junebug. “When you don’t know what colors to fish, go with those two in Florida,” he said.
> Hackney had the same boat official (Dan Hayes) and cameraman (Cody Prather) as Lane did when he won the 2017 World Championship.
> Lane’s winning total at the 2017 World Championship was 57-04 (33 fish). Hackney, Iaconelli, Montgomery and Reese combined to catch 34 fish between them in this year’s final.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Just confidence and being around big ones in Florida gives me a different mindset. I didn’t catch any big ones, but I just love Florida. When they announced that was where we were going, I got fired up. I loved Texas last year, too. I just love big-fish fisheries.”
Here's a closer look at Hackney's final day at Kenansville Lake: