This Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the ABA Ram American Fishing Tour held its National Championship on Lake Hartwell, bringing with it nearly 300 boaters competing for the first prize of a top-of the line boat and a Ram truck. With the lake turning over anglers knew that fishing conditions would be tough, but they were probably even tougher than most people predicted. Just ten pounds a day was enough for a top-5 finish, and averaging three pounds of bass per daywas enough to finish in the top half of the field.
In the end the tough bite worked out just fine for Andy Wicker of Pomaria, and in three days of fishing Andy managed to put together a total of 34.08 pounds. This turned out to be enough for a significant, nearly 2 ½ half pound victory. 2 ½ pounds is never a comfortable margin, but in a tournament where 2-pound fish are prizes and 2 ½ pounders are monsters it was substantial. After day one Andy was hovering just outside the top ten but within striking distance of the leaders, but on the second day he made up the difference. On the strength of a monster 14.89 pound bag – the big bag of the tournament by a substantial margin – he opened up what turned out to be the decisive lead. His day three bag of 10-plus pounds sealed the deal.
Andy believes that he probably would not have won the event had the fishing not been so difficult, and he points out that to come out on top in a 300-person event a lot of things have to go right. Tough conditions played into his game as well as his knowledge of Lake Hartwell, a lake he doesn’t get as many chances to fish now living in the Midlands but with which he became very familiar during 5 years at Clemson (Andy is a former member of the Clemson Bass Fishing Team).
Andy went into the event anticipating being able to fish more topwater lures, and this time of year he expects to be able to catch fish schooling on the surface on Lake Hartwell. However, the lake was clearly undergoing a transition, and in practice on Monday he noticed that fish on the surface were coughing up herring but by tournament time they were coughing up threadfin shad. He has found this to be a sign that a turnover is underway.
With the changes the lake is going through Andy decided to primarily concentrate on drop-shotting main lake brushpiles, and he tells me that Lake Hartwell is literally filled with brush. In fact, Andy says that “It is harder to find a point or hump without brush than with brushpiles. The Southeast has some hardcore brush planters!” The brushpiles he fished were mainly in 18-25 feet of water.
While Andy was primarily fishing a drop shot around brush, and chose not to target schooling fish believing that was a dangerous game to play under the conditions, fish would come up from time to time around brushpiles. The last day he weighed two schooling fish.
Fishing brushpiles kept Andy competitive and in the hunt, but they weren’t the difference makers that won him the tournament. Andy says that he did go back to some junk fishing with a jig and topwater looking for a better bite, and the difference in the tournament ended up being a few pretty good largemouth that he landed. The most notable of these was the 6.56 pound largemouth that he caught on day 2, which was more than a pound bigger than any other fish weighed in a tournament in which only about ten fish over 4 pounds were brought to the scales.
Andy said “that was a very fortunate fish, and I was going down the bank throwing a jig and a frog when it came up chasing.” He threw a Horny Toad to it and never looked back. While no other fish compared to that one, he spent time each day fishing this way and always had one or two pretty good largemouth to show for it.
In the end the combination of putting together solid catches on brush and supplementing it with largemouth found junk fishing paid off in a big way, and it proved to be the perfect pattern for Andy. He believed that he could have found some better spotted bass if he had had more deep brush marked, like some other top Hartwell anglers who specialize in that style of fishing do, but he pointed out it has been two or three years since he’s been able to put in significant time on the lake. Having to compete against some very, very talented local anglers he needed to mix it up a little bit to come out on top.
Many times when anglers win a boat they sell it because they already have the boat they want, but this is not one of those times. Andy says that he has been fishing out of other family member’s boats and pulling them behind their trucks, and he is thrilled to win a 21-foot Triton powered by a Mercury 250. To make the deal even sweeter he wins a two-year lease on the Ram Truck of his choice! If it had been a smaller boat and motor he might have sold it, but Andy says this is exactly what he wanted. “I’m not going to come across a deal like this again – this is the exact set-up I wanted.”
One of the excellent Hartwell anglers who Andy mentioned by name was tournament angler and fellow SCFishingReport.com correspondent Brad Fowler, who himself has won a couple of boats fishing events on Lake Harwell. A tough event also played into Brad’s wheelhouse, and he finished in fourth place – Cameron Smith and Franklin Ramey were separated by 1/100th of a pound at 31.76 and 31.75 pounds in second and third, and Brad was just over a quarter of a pound behind them at 31.40. For full results click here.
Brad had no trouble catching fish during the tournament, and he told me that after a week of practice and tournament fishing he had two thumbs that were both raw and hurt. His problem was pretty simple – the lack of a big bite. Brad caught a ton of 1 ¾ to about 2-pound fish, but his biggest one all week was 2 ½ pounds.
For Brad conditions got tougher as the week went on, and at the beginning of practice he was getting much better bites. Until the middle of the day on Sunday he could fish over brushpiles with different topwater lures and bring up schools of fish including better ones, but then around lunch time the bigger fish bite turned off. He said it was “like the magic flip of a switch” when the bigger ones shut down. Around that time there were a couple of cold nights but then things warmed up again, but the bite never turned around. He isn’t sure why.
Brad reported doing pretty much everything all three days, and he said each day he fished from above Clemson down to the Hartwell dam. He spent some time at the bank as well as out deeper, but he found the best action in the 18-30 foot range – although truthfully he said that most brush seemed to be loaded with small fish. He was drop-shotting but did report seeing some sporadic schooling and catching some fish this way – not the tremendous schooling activity a few anglers reported seeing, but not non-existent. He did spend some time fishing off the ends of deeper points in the 30-40 foot range, and marked some bigger fish there, but they just weren’t eating. Brad says that these bass make a mark on the depth finder when they are about to take his bait, perhaps indicating that they are spinning around to bite, and they would almost make that mark and then not. It was frustrating. Like Andy he did spend some time at the bank looking for a bigger bite but it just didn’t happen, with the most memorable near-miss being a nice largemouth that took three swipes at a buzzbait but would not commit.
I join Brad in congratulating his fellow Clemson alum Andy Wicker on a huge victory, and thank both anglers for their insights.
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