Practice makes perplexity, spawns predictions

GREENVILLE, S.C. – Photographer Andy Crawford and I spent the Wednesday prior to the 2022 Bassmaster Classic in a popular and prolific tributary of Lake Hartwell, hoping to gain some insights into how this tournament will play out. For the on-the-water media, the standalone day is a chance to dial in our technology and get the lay of the land. Unfortunately, when it comes to reading the contenders, it is a show that at best resembles Kabuki theatre, a stage for posturing. Those who are on fish pretend not to be, and those who are lost do their best not to spin out.

In a full morning on the lake, we started off relatively close to the take-off, wherein short succession we saw four competitors’ boats. As we hopscotched up the creek, so did they. Then we headed as far back as we could get, scanning the shorelines and coves, and never saw another angler’s boat. As we prepared to take the boat out of the water, we finally saw two more.

Despite the paucity of data points, you can learn quite a bit from a whole lot of nothing. Of course, I’ve been here for three prior Classics – 2008, 2015, and 2018 – so I’m not building this analysis from whole cloth, but after viewing less than a tenth of the field and witnessing exactly zero fish catches, here’s what I think I think about what’s about to go down:

The Heat is On: I started the morning in a hoodie and a rain jacket for warmth, and by 9 a.m. the sun was beating down on us. The water temperature was under 58 degrees at our first stop, and over 60 degrees when we got back to the boat ramp. A lot is going to change over the course of each day, and throughout the duration of the weekend. Anglers who are betting on where fish are going – possibly meaning to the banks – and who can adjust constantly, will have a decided advantage over those who decide to ride a single pony. I don’t recall a single Classic in recent memory where the fishing had the potential to get better every day for every angler. Usually, it slacks off on Day 2 or Day 3 due to fishing pressure, boat traffic, weather or some combination thereof. I’m not saying that everyone will see their catches improve, just that the shallow power fishing bite should excel.

Keeping it Close: By fiat of the B.A.S.S. media bosses, the various camera boats were assigned distinct sections of the lake today, in order to avoid ending up covering the same anglers and the same water. While that may have prevented me and Crawford from seeing much, it allowed me to see a whole lot of the same thing, and what I realized is that small tracts of geography have great variety. Within a half-mile stretch, water can go from clear to dingy to dirty (although Crawford, the South Louisianan, thinks that anything you can’t plow is “clear”). What does that mean? The consensus seems to be that you can’t win on spotted bass alone, but you can sack 12 to 15 pounds of them and then go looking for a big largemouth bite or three. Unlike some lakes where that means you’d have to leave the dam and make the long haul to the upper reaches of the river, you might be able to bounce back and forth between the two species without burning a lot of gas.

Looking Forward: If this next item sounds like a broken record, well, then you’re old enough to know what a “broken record” was, which likely means you’re not terribly proficient with modern technology. These young guns, however, are deft with all aspects of their electronics. We saw two twenty-somethings pull into textbook areas and then look away from the primary cover, scanning to find fish, without making a cast. The last time we were here for a Classic, in 2018, that wasn’t really a part of their arsenals. It both expands the playing field and makes it smaller, allowing anglers to find fish they could not have previously found, and then make the single pinpoint cast necessary to tempt them.

Sorry Charlie: Our boat driver, David Henderson, pointed out the dock that produced Charlie Hartley’s massive Day 1 catch in the 2008 Classic. It’s been replaced by a newer structure, but even though it was 14 years ago, and Hartley didn’t win, that’s still one of many fans’ favorite moments in Classic history.

Lack of Life: Despite the fact that Hartwell is a vibrant ecosystem, loaded with bait, bass and wildlife, we saw very little activity this morning. As noted above, zero fish catches, but beyond that we only saw a single gamefish break the surface. We saw limited baitfish activity, and the few birds we saw were sitting on the water rather than diving on bait. You’d think we were in the wrong area, but I’d venture to guess that it was more a matter of timing. If you were to go back to that same creek on Friday I bet at least a handful of competitors will start and/or spend the majority of their day there – although there might be no overlap between that group and the ones we saw there today. That’s the thing about Wednesday practice: it doesn’t necessarily correlate to Sunday results.

What’s Changing?: When I asked Brandon Card yesterday what he expected, he seemed to be hoping for the fish to move where they’d have mud on their bellies. If he’s to be believed, that didn’t happen. “The water didn’t get dingy like I thought it was going to,” he said. “It stayed the same color. I thought Sunday’s rain would produce fresh muddy water, but it was almost as if the rain never happened.” Greg Hackney agreed that not much had changed since the prior practice period: “Unless it makes a drastic change between now and Friday, it’s just like it was last Friday,” he stated.

Start Late, End Early: Seth Feider and Lee Livesay, both in Ballistic Boats, were the first two competitors back to the dock this afternoon, leaving valuable time on the table. For the reigning Angler of the Year, getting bites later in the day is not a problem. Between 8:30 and 9 a.m., his fish fire up, but he noted that he’s “gotta figure out something for the first hour and a half.”

Man’s Best Friend: In addition to his Marshal, Livesay was accompanied by his chocolate Labrador retriever, Bean. It harkened back to past Classics, like when Mark Menendez had the companionship of his yellow lab Barkley at a Louisiana Delta Classic. “I love her,” Livesay said. “She’s fun to be with. She only fell in twice today, once on camera.”

Prediction #1: The winner will have 54 pounds, more than in any of the past Hartwell Classics.

Prediction #2: That 54 pounds is more likely to consist of a 22-pound bag and two 16 pound bags than three bags of 18 pounds apiece.

Non-Prediction with Hope: I’d still love to see a Classic won primarily on a large swimbait or glide bait and Hartwell provides the right type of environment for that to happen. We saw at least one competitor heaving the old tennis shoe around today, and he reported several bites. In an event where cookie-cutter limits will likely be common, the big bite those baits can provoke could be worth the gamble. It would make for some incredible footage.

Quote of the Day: Matt Robertson, when asked how he’d celebrate a Classic victory: “I’d throw the biggest #[email protected]%# party this town’s ever seen and then I’m #$%[email protected] flying to Vegas.”

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