Lucy held the football, daring him to kick it. For years, Charlie Brown had fallen for the gag, giving it his best attempt, only to have Lucy pull the ball away at the last second. So many times he’d landed flat on his back, bruising both body and pride. But this time; this time would be different …
“I’m a very hyper person and I have trouble clearing my brain. But since I was a kid, I’ve had a reaction whenever I caught a fish. I don’t know why. But my mom recognized it early on.”
James Yates Hartley, affectionately known as “Charlie”, is an interesting individual. Those of you who have met Charlie undoubtedly came away with an impression. Those of you who haven’t won’t forget when you do.
Like a lot of kids, Hartley fell victim to a broken home early in life. But he used that experience, combined with a work ethic and incredibly optimistic outlook instilled by his mother, to fulfill his dream. His story is one of inspiration, and one that, like many here at the Bass War recently, may give us more insight into what makes champions tick. Because, you see, Smilin’ Charlie finally made the list.
Most fans know of Hartley; he’s seemingly been around forever. His résumé is one highlighted more by longevity than Top-10s, yet Hartley stays with it, never letting a trademark grin leave his face.
“My mom was the world’s biggest influence on that (optimism). She always taught me, if you want it, you can get it.”
However, Hartley’s youth was not one without adversity. But even after getting a raw deal on more than one occasion, he never remembers it that way.
“I believe everyone is sincere and a good person,” he says, despite grown-ups with alcohol problems trying to convince him otherwise. In fact, it was Hartley’s mom who nicknamed him Charlie – after Charlie Brown – due to his overwhelming optimism, despite life routinely pulling the football away.
As a young man, Hartley got a job at McDonald’s, where he met a customer who was an avid bass fisherman. It was during this same time in Hartley’s life that his mother purchased for him his first bass boat – a beat up little “stump jumper” that Hartley slept in for a week after his mom brought it home. With it, Hartley would join a bass club as a junior member, and after a handful of years, prove to be the club’s best angler.
Hartley’s competitive side expanded to include events with the Red Man Tournament Trail, and the once-heralded Ohio Bass Tournament Circuit, soon earning the title of Mr. Bass of Ohio. At an early Red Man Regional on West Point Lake, Hartley realized what he had been missing by exclusively fishing in Ohio. There was huge water by his standards, full of fish. Almost immediately, Hartley was hooked on the prospect of taking his skills to the national level, but real life still put such ideas on hold.
Around that time, Hartley was working full-time for a sign building company called Signcom. As the years went by, his state-level competitive career blossomed, along with his “real job." His employer took notice of both Charlie’s work ethic and increased flow of bass-cash, and offered to sell him the business. Charlie refused, insistent on saving all his pennies for a shot at a career as a traveling professional fisherman.
Not long after, Charlie’s employer again offered up the business, but this time there was a stipulation. The man was dying of cancer and wanted to see his business go to a good home. Charlie finally agreed, spending his nest egg on what would surely signal the end of his pro fishing dream.
For the first several years, Hartley worked 18 hours a day. Sure, he would continue to compete on the country’s leading bass circuits, but he did so without any time to practice, focusing more on the sign business than his fishing career.
But Hartley hit the economy at the right time, he invested well, and he ran his business conservatively. After some time, it blossomed and started to support Charlie’s fishing addiction in return. Today, Hartley employs more than 30 people.
Through the '90s, Hartley’s fishing career chugged along. His mom was there the whole time – his biggest fan offering words of encouragement from the sidelines. “I was lucky to have my mommy following me around,” Hartley now fondly remembers. “She helped me realize the magic of fishing.”
Through the years, Hartley won the points title in the Bassmaster Southern Opens and FLW's Northern EverStart circuit, and took down the Canadian Open Bass Tournament. But he never won on the big stage despite leading events numerous times.
That all changed last week when he won the Bassmaster Open on Virginia’s James River. Finally, after all the ups and downs of his long journey, Hartley broke through. But what, then, had he done different? Did the mathematical chances finally give in; was it finally just Hartley’s turn to win?
“I fished new water. I had nothing to lose, and I just fished,” Hartley said when asked that very question. But why did it take so long for Hartley to let it all hang out and go with the flow?
“My brain shuts down and I get freaked out,” he said of his normal competitive mindset. “I don’t understand how guys say they know they’re gonna catch ‘em. For me, it’s still very confusing every day.”
Hartley routinely claims he’s not a naturally talented fisherman, but that he's motivated more than anyone. In addition, he’s absolutely addicted to fishing, possibly more than any person I’ve ever met. Hartley fishes every day, and claims to often jump fences on the side of the highway – often while traveling to a tournament – to fish roadside ponds. He’s the sport’s biggest salesman: Charlie, literally, makes others in his presence want to fish more.
“I’ve never taken a vacation in my life that didn’t include a fishing rod,” he claims. And when it comes to his 20-year marriage, Hartley sums it up as only he can: “I tell my wife not to be jealous. As people go, she’s my favorite. I just prefer fishing to people.”
Like I said, if you haven’t met Charlie, you’ll never forget when you do. Congrats to one of the good guys.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)