The water in Lake Hartwell is colder than expected, and the fish aren't easy to find. But anglers in northwest South Carolina preparing for the Bassmaster Classic said after their first day of practice Tuesday that the lake is chock-full of chunky bass, and a warm rain or slight warm spell will likely make those fish easier to catch in hurry.
"I saw a lot of fish busting," three-time Classic runner-up Aaron Martens said. "I could see if we got the right weather and conditions were just right, you could pummel them, catch 25 pounds."
The broader consensus is that 18 to 20 pounds a day will probably be plenty to compete for the Classic crown. Water temperatures were around 47 to 50 degrees chillier than the last time anglers were allowed on Hartwell, in December.
The cool conditions pushed many fish to depths of nearly 30 feet. If they stay there, said six-time Classic qualifier Kelly Jordon, it could make for a methodical, difficult tournament.
"You're going to have to fish slower than I was hoping," Jordon said. "I was hoping there'd be more of a reaction bite. It's going to be a grinding wintertime tournament more than a prespawn. There will be some fish in staging areas. It's not a December pattern, but it's not as far along as I'd hope."
With a week and a half before the tournament, Jordon said, much of what he's trying to do is get a feel for the lake, and to develop what he called "hunches."
"It gives you a point of origin, a place to start when the Classic starts happening," he said. "That's what most people are looking for."
Others, like two-time Classic qualifier Jared Lintner, would settle for locating more than a "handful" of fish. He described himself as "pretty disappointed" after getting only a half-dozen bites on the day.
"For me today, it wasn't what I anticipated going into it," said Lintner, who finished fifth in the 2007 Angler of the Year standings. "I was a little shocked to see the water was still 49, 50 degrees for the most part. I only had a handful of bites today, and I caught a couple of decent fish, but overall it's pretty slow.
"I still don't have a good grasp of what's going on. I've seen plenty of fish suspended in the grass. I just don't know."
Martens – reached at his campsite just after practice as his wife was putting him in charge of the cooking artichokes said the sheer size of the 56,000-acre lake made it "obnoxious" to scout in just three days. While he was heartened at how eager the fish were to eat, and delighted at their relative heft, he was disappointed to see how deep the baitfish (blue herring, namely) were lurking.
"The bigger bait is still out, not even close to the creeks," Martens said. "I was hoping it would be a little more advanced than that. I would think this time of year, as long as that bait stays where it's at, there are going to be very few fish."
The upside: Even a slight warming of the 50-degree water could move them up several vertical feet in just a couple of days, he said.
Some anglers prefer to keep any discussion of conditions and strategy to a strict minimum so close to the biggest bass tournament of the year. John Crews, for one, declined to get any more specific about his observations on the water than to say, "I think wind could affect things here. That could be something to watch."
He added that it was a nice, quiet day on the water, with few recreational boats. Oh, and, "it wasn't too hot, wasn't too cold, and it didn't rain." So there's that, which is nice.
But it may rain before the beginning of the Classic on Feb. 22 fantastic news for the drought-parched Southeast – and, if the forecast holds, perhaps even during this week's three-day practice availability, which concludes on Valentine's Day.
"We've got two more days tomorrow and one more day next week, and a lot of stuff can change in that time," Lintner said. "If the water warms up just a little bit, a lot of fish will start moving up to prespawn areas and thinking about eating."
The final practice day will be Feb. 20. They'll have a day to go stir-crazy at expos and such, and then, the 2008 season begins with the three biggest days of the year.
"This is the fun part," Martens said. "When you get to go fishing."