Classic tactics outlook | Bassmaster

Of all the resources anglers consider for their tournament planning, a chubby groundhog with a not-so-impressive track record is not among them. Just ask Patrick Walters, who’s sizing up the playing field for his third Bassmaster Classic appearance.

“All I have to say is Punxsutawney Phil was probably wrong,” Walters quipped, in reference to this year’s Groundhog Day (Feb. 2), on which the famous rodent saw its shadow. “He was thinking six more weeks of winter, but I think we’re going to get that spring warming trend for the Classic.”

Over the years, there have been multiple Punxsutawney Phils, and since the tradition started in 1887, their combined success rate has been less than a coin toss probability.

That being said, now that we’re inside of a week from go time, we have a fairly clear picture of what Lake Hartwell will offer the 54 anglers competing in the 2022 Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk. 

Following a cooldown that’ll impact the prior weekend and the early part of Classic week, tournament days are looking downright pleasant. Friday should begin mostly sunny with a high in the mid 60s, followed by low 70s and increasing clouds the next two days.

“I think this will definitely affect the lake; I think it’s going to progress spring a little bit,” said Walters, who topped the 2020 Basspro.com Bassmaster Eastern Open on Hartwell. “I think the fish are really going to push up shallow.”

Give and take

Local pro Brandon Cobb, who won an Elite event on Hartwell in 2019, said the Classic weather forecast may become a two-edged sword. 

“When it first starts warming, you’re going to have some fish deep and some fish shallow, versus if it was just straight cold —then you’d have a lot of fish grouped up deep,” Cobb said. “It’ll probably be easier to catch fish (in the warming trend), but I think it’ll be more scattered than finding big groups when you can catch them really fast.”

In other words, Classic competitors should be able to fish their seasonal strengths, but they may have to work harder to assemble competitive bags.

“This time of year, with a warming trend, it could be won shallow in the back of a creek, deep in a creek, shallow on the main lake or deep on the main lake,” Cobb said. “It makes it a little tricky. I know this lake so well, I know there’s 100 different ways you could potentially win this tournament.”

However anglers tackle Hartwell, defending Classic champ Hank Cherry warns against impatience.

“I would have preferred it to be colder, but the forecasted conditions are still ideal for this time of year,” Cherry said. “That warmth is just going to make them react more during the day, but that morning bite, when it’s still cold for the first four hours is going to be critical.”

Expected stage

Cherry believes the warming trend bodes well for those who like to fish the bank and mid-depth waters.

“It’s going to open the door for a lot more things to happen,” said Cherry, who won the last two Classics (Lake Ray Roberts, 2021 and Lake Guntersville, 2020). “I don’t think it will impact the weights (positively). I think the weights would have been heavier if it was colder, but there will definitely be a bigger group of guys in the mix going into the weekend.

“A lot of the fish may be leaving the offshore stuff and flooding the banks, so you’ll see more guys able to fish just the banks. At the stage it is now, by Sunday you may see guys fishing for some off the beds — there’s no telling.”

Speaking prior to the beginning of Classic practice, Cherry said the most likely scenario will find most of the fish at some stage of their shoreward migration — either transitioning out of winter patterns or on their way to the seasonal waiting rooms.

Cobb agrees, but he’s not ruling out a lingering offshore bite. 

“It should be mostly prespawn, but I think there probably will still be some fish in the winter pattern, just because some fish spawn late,” he said.

Species strategy

Predicting that the tournament will be won in between the bank and the offshore range, Cherry said the winning angler will turn in mixed bags of largemouth and spotted bass. While specific preferences vary, Cherry said it’s not rare to find spots and largemouth in close enough proximity to catch them with the same bait on the same habitat feature. 

Still, most competitors will look to bag an early limit — some mixed, some single species — to settle the nerves and then work on upgrading. Typically, those kickers will be largemouth, but not always.

“The spots outnumber the largemouth on Hartwell, but they’ve gotten a lot bigger than the last time the Classic was on Hartwell (2018),” Cherry said. “I think you’re going to see some guys catching some 3 1/2- to 4-pound spotted bass.”

Moreover, while picking through vast numbers and culling ounces may be the norm, Walters said the dance floor can heat up in a hurry.

“You could pull up on the right school of them, catch them in 15 minutes and be done,” he said. “It’s not always time consuming.”

Singing the blues

Often, those intense flurries are related to sudden appearances by the nomadic blueback herring. These hefty baitfish tend to play a more significant role in the warmer months, but ignoring the herring factor could mean missed opportunities.

Cobb explained: “Other times of the year, you’re targeting fish that are 100% feeding on herring, but in the spring, the fish kinda do what they do and the herring just happen to be where they are. It makes them easier to catch. 

“You can fill the boat quickly off the same fish you’d be fishing for anyway, whether in a pocket or on a point, around some docks — wherever the fish may be. It’s more like a luck thing — if the herring are there, the fish may start schooling, or they’re just biting really, really well because they’re feeding when those herring are present.”

Knowing this, anglers are wise to keep a walking topwater handy, along with a fluke style bait — perhaps a double fluke “donkey” rig for multiple opportunities.

No one-trick ponies

Considering the warmth-stimulated shallow game, a lingering offshore bite and the transitional stuff in between, Hartwell’s likely to see fish caught on a wide range of baits. Offshore, anglers can count on dropshots, football head jigs, finesse worms and underspins, while jerkbaits, crankbaits, spinnerbaits, Texas rigs and flipping/skipping jigs will tempt the shallower bites.

“I don’t think you can do one thing like just fish deep or just fish some docks or just fish creeks for shallow largemouth,” Cobb said. “I think you’re going to have to mix it all up because the time of year with a lot of fish moving around.

“I think it will come down to a lot of decisions on the water. Maybe you’re fishing out deep and you say, ‘I want to try to catch a big largemouth up shallow.’ It’ll be about putting the right decisions together at the right time. I say that because there’s going to be a lot of fish doing a lot of different things.”

At this point, predicting the winning Classic formula would be guesswork. However, Cherry said the successful game plans will need a healthy dose of mobility.

“Especially if they’re not out deep, you’re going to have to fish through new water every day,” he said. “Hartwell is plenty big enough to do that.”

Walters concludes: “I probably would have preferred colder conditions, just because it sets them up on more isolated things, and you can run that stuff a little better. But it’s the Classic — you don’t get to pick the conditions. You just have to go with it.”

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