CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Casey Ashley is no stranger to championship level bass tournaments. The Costa Sunglasses pro has competed in over a dozen throughout his 17-year professional fishing career, which includes taking the hardware home in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic on familiar waters of Lake Hartwell, when he had the pressure of being the local favorite weighing on him.
Ashley’s calm, cool demeaner could mislead you into thinking he’s an “aww, shucks” type of bass angler, but make no mistake, Ashley is a calculated technician on the water. He enjoys the game planning that competing for the sports’ biggest trophies brings out.
Ashley made it clear that in thinking back through all the Classics, Forrest Wood Cups, or REDCREST Championships he’s competed in, he’s never fished a tournament where strategy played a bigger role than this year’s Bass Pro Shops REDCREST Presented by Shore Lunch on Lake Norman.
“I’ve fished all kinds of events whether it be Opens, Tours, Classics or Cups, but I’m here to tell you this REDCREST is a whole different animal,” Ashley said.
When pressed on why strategy has been so important this week, Ashley gave a glimpse into what he and his fellow Bass Pro Tour competitors have been processing during the first three days of competition.
“First of all, we have the SCORETRACKER®, which lets us know where we stand in real time every minute of this derby,” Ashley said. “You always have a number in your head you feel like you gotta catch to make the cut, I told myself I needed to catch 12 pounds a day to make the Knockout Round this week … but knowing the score changes all of that. Then we had to factor in the format for this five-day event, which included zeroing the weights after the first two days. So, if you thought you could catch a giant bag of fish after practice, you sure as heck didn’t want to do it on Days 1 or 2.
“Next you have Lake Norman itself, which is known for throwing curveballs. As we’ve seen play out, this isn’t a place you can fish for five big largemouth bites a day and expect to excel. It just doesn’t happen here very often, and if it does, you can bet the house it ain’t gonna happen the next day. I knew you’d have to weigh some spots this week to win here. Making decisions of when to lay off your juice and when to keep catching them has been critical.”
As Ashley explained all the different factors the 40-person REDCREST field has faced, it paints a complex and impressive picture. Punctuated by the nuances of Lake Norman’s spotted bass versus largemouth conundrum and the unstable weather forecast for the tournament, whoever wins REDCREST on Sunday will have absolutely earned it.
They’ll have navigated through all these variables and more en route to reaching the pinnacle of the sport. A worthy puzzle and playing field for the Bass Pro Tour’s crowning achievement.
The South Carolina pro isn’t a local on Lake Norman, but his prowess in the Carolinas and experience on this fishery put him on the short list of favorites. So far, Ashley has lived up to these expectations, as he headed into Saturday’s Knockout Round in sixth place. I wondered if Carolina pros like Ashley, Thrift, or Gagliardi were the only ones considering all these complexities.
“This field is full of hammers, and they don’t overlook a thing,” Ashley said with a laugh. “The smart ones were thinking about the intricacies of strategy for weeks leading up to this. The best ones probably didn’t sleep much after official practice. Of course, plans don’t always work out, but considering all the factors and having a gameplan was a must for anyone wanting to win this thing.”
With all these considerations swirling around his head, Ashley was looking forward to Saturday morning, when his wife Kenzie is backing his Toyota Tundra and Triton Boat down the Blythe Landing ramp. Just like it is for me and you on a Saturday morning, at this moment it’s time for him to clear his mind and go fishin’.