By David A. Brown
Although the repeat eluded Randy Howell, the 2014 Bassmaster Classic champion gained valuable insight during the 2015 event on Lake Hartwell. Finishing 15 spots behind that year’s champ, South Carolina’s local favorite Casey Ashley, Howell got to know the lake a lot better and he’s hoping that insight will serve him well when this year’s Classic visits this Savannah River reservoir March 16-18.
The destination’s the same, but this year, the gem of South Carolina’s Upcountry will show anglers a considerably different look. For starters, that 2015 event saw the most brutal conditions ever recorded for a Bassmaster Classic, with temperatures as low as 9 degrees. Southern springs can be fickle vixens, but it’s looking increasingly optimistic for a stable, if not downright pleasant weather conditions.
“That was the coldest classic on record; it was pretty miserable,” Howell said. “That was the first time we had a 2-hour delay because it was so cold, the boats were sticking to the trailers when we were launching.”
Despite the frosty feeling, Howell still managed to get on a good bite by mixing up reaction techniques with dock skipping tactics. He caught fish on the Livingston Lures Howeller crankbait that had delivered his Classic victory a year prior, and on a jig with a Yamamoto Flappin’ Hog trailer.
“I really thought I had a chance to win again and that was my 1-2 pattern that I was hoping would play out,” Howell recalls. “But the final day, we had totally different conditions; no current, cold, cloudy, dark conditions and very, very still water. I think everything suspended and the deep fish bit.
“I wasn’t fishing for deep fish, so I just fell apart that final day. I was in fourth with just a pound out.
In fairness, that 2015 Classic was held in February, so a colder time was reasonably expected. But, despite the harshness of winter 2018, Howell said recent warming trends should yield a productive scenario.
“I keep up with the weather at Lake Hartwell and it’s similar to what we have in my area of North Alabama,” he said. “I think the water’s going to have spawning conditions. I’ll bet the water temperature is going to be breaking 60 in a lot of those pockets. And the fish in those clear water lakes like Hartwell come fast when that water warms up.
“I guarantee you we’ll have a good bunch of fish spawning, so there’ll be some sight fishing. I’m sure every shallow water pattern will be going on and I think boat docks are going to be a big factor.”
Making his third Classic appearance, his first on Hartwell, Yamamoto pro Brent Ehrler agrees and describes the weather trends as having accelerating potential.
“I was in Greenville, S.C. the third week of February to drop off my rig and when I got to my buddy’s house at 8 p.m. it was 70 degrees — at night,” Ehrler said. “I have a feeling every fish in the lake will be feeling like running up to the bank. When you have a sustained warming trend after a really cold winter, it’s not a trickling effect. It happens fast.”
That Filling Feeling
Another plus for this year’s Classic is Harwell’s water level. Early February saw the lake down about 10 feet, but as March rounded the last turn, that deficit had decreased to under 3. Rising water kissed by a warming trend is the recipe for pure fireworks.
“I believe (the rising water) is going to be a good thing,” Howell said. “I went to Hartwell for a few days in December and just did some riding around. I’d never seen it so low. It was cold, so I didn’t do much fishing; I mostly rode around and marked a lot of boat docks and pockets that looked like they could be good areas for fish moving in and out.
“There was a lot of shoreline debris and shoreline grass that grew during last year’s drought and I believe a lot of that will be flooded. Hartwell is such a barren reservoir that fish cling to anything in the water. I’m thinking the higher water will mean a lot more cover to fish around.”
An interesting side note to Hartwell’s productivity is the presence of blueback herring, a non-native forage species that has flourished and enhanced the lake’s food web. High-strung and highly mobile, bluebacks come and go with astounding speed. It’s the classic double-edged sword, in that the brief flurries of bass rounding up a herring school hold great potential that’s frustratingly random.
California standout Brent Ehrler’s fishing his first Hartwell Classic (his third overall), but he’s hardly new to these waters. Knowing well the give and take of fishing blueback-related activity, he said the best strategy is one of opportunism.
“The bluebacks are going to come up now and then and if you can collide with them, you’re going to do great; but if you rely on them, you’re going to get burned,” he said. “I think those blueback herring fish are here today, gone tomorrow. If you get on them, you can do well, but to go back the next day and duplicate it would be very difficult.
“The other thing is that the smaller fish may school up in an area, but I don’t think those big 4- to 5-pounders ever stop; they just keep moving. If you can capitalize on it, you’ll be in the top 3 one day, but you can’t expect to do it every day.”
Essential to keeping the blueback pattern as an element of your game plan means staying on your toes and having the right baits — for him, a 3/8- to 1/2-ounce underspin with a 3-inch Yamamoto swimbait — handy. No time to dig in the rod box when bass drive ‘em topside. You have to be ready for it.
“You won’t just see birds diving and be able to run to the activity,” Ehrler said. “You have to fish an area to find them. It’s going to be an accident, but if it happens, it’s going to be a big accident.”
The best part about the blueback angle is the increased potential for big spotted bass to play a role. Largemouth will surely dominate the show, but mixed bags won’t surprise anyone and if the right pack of spots rises to the blueback banquet, some fortunate soul will get well in a hurry.
“I think we’ll see more spotted bass play a role in this tournament,” Howell said. “Spotted bass have really been the sleeper in that lake, but with the blueback herring growing and becoming so dominant in that lake, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a lot of those 3- and 4-pound spotted bass play a role.
“They’ll get up shallow and start running banks and hitting spinnerbaits and swimbaits. If the water’s in the 60’s, we could even have some early topwater bite — who knows?”
Howell’s thinking crankbaits that hit the 7- to 9-foot range, along with squarebills, will play again this year; and with Hartwell sporting lots of red clay, he’ll have a bunch of crawfish patterns handy. He’s also expecting spinnerbaits and swimbaits like the Yamamoto Zako to produce; but he’s particularly stoked about employing one of the most versatile and productive baits the bass fishing world has ever seen.
“It’s going to be a Senko tournament and I’m looking forward to it because I like that kind of fishing,” Howell said. “The wacky rig, Neko and weedless Texas rig should be dominant.”
Ehrler said his ideal day would entail starting in likely blueback areas early in hopes of running into a school of big bass and then moving deep with an underspin, swimbait, Carolina rig, jig and dropshot. If afternoons become toasty, he might slide up shallow and look around for prespawn stagers.
“The flipside is that in March, the winning fish can still be found offshore,” Ehrler said. “The reason is that offshore fish will be schooled up, whereas shallow fish are nomads. A guy fishing the bank will have to fish multiple spots, but an offshore guy might catch a big bag off one spot.”
Ehrler said a promising offshore mix might include a 5-inch Yamamoto twintail grub on a football jig, a Carolina-rigged Senko and a dropshot with a Thin Senko or Kut Tail Worm. Another option: A jig with a Hula Grub trailer.
Looking back at the 2015 Classic’s final day, Howell said he knows he should have shifted gears, but succumbing to a hunger seeded by the biggest win of his career drove him into the stubborn zone. He certainly has no regrets about leaving it all on the water; but that mistake, he said, will not be repeated in the 2018 Bassmaster Classic.
“Looking back, I was too hard-headed to quit doing what I was doing,” he said. “It was already a slow bite, so I just thought, if I keep grinding it out, I’ll catch a few more. So I never bailed out and just fished for a limit. It’s the Classic, you’re trying to go all-out ’til the end, but then I just fell apart.
“We fish all year for consistency for points, so it’s hard to shift gears and fish differently in the Classic, but that was the final day and I was in contention to win and I knew I had to have another good bag to win. I knew that’s what I had to do to win, so that’s why I stuck with it. In a regular points event, I probably would have bailed out two or three hours earlier and went to something to try to catch a limit and that would’ve made a difference. If I had just caught a limit, I probably would have been in the top-6.”
That being said, Howell admits the quest for that trophy of trophies calls to anglers like the sea sirens of Homer’s Odyssey. And to have No. 2 in his sights definitely sharpened his competitive judgment.
“Coming off a win the previous year, I knew what it was like to feel that (thrill),” he said. “That win just catapulted my career, so I wanted it again so badly. I probably wanted to win worse than the year that I did win. That’s why I stuck it out and went all-in. I probably wouldn’t have done that in years past, but after winning the prior year, that made it easier to do that.”
Drawing wisdom and experience from his 15 previous Classics, Howell said he believes the key to winning is fishing relaxed and keeping an open mind. He truly does not believe the 2018 Classic will be won on a single pattern or a single spot. He’s predicting lots of mixed bags with the winner making a key last-minute decision to pick up a different bait — maybe a Senko, maybe a jig and Flappin’ Hog.
“I’m seriously looking forward to it and not just because it’s the Classic — it’s going to be the first Classic we’ve had in years that’s going to set up in the prime season for the lake. Mid-March is the best time to fish that lake, I believe.
“Hartwell is going to show off and it’s going to be one of the most exciting Classics ever, because literally 10 people or more could be in contention to win on that last day. I think 10-15 people could be stacked within three or four pounds of one another and anyone could win with a big bite on that last day. That’s what will make it so much fun.”