SENECA, S.C. – With official practice in the books for the Phoenix Bass Fishing League Presented by T-H Marine All-American, the anglers are headed to registration and then to tie up for Day 1 of competition. Lake Hartwell is no stranger to big tournaments, and this week 49 of the best from the grassroots of bass fishing have a lot on the line. First place on the boater side takes home $100,000, and the winning co-angler earns $50,000. Additionally, this year the boater champion at the All-American advances to REDCREST 2024 for the chance to win $300,000.
So, we caught up with a few of the anglers to see how practice went and get a feel for what everyone can expect this week.
Any tournament on Hartwell is going to have a whole passel of local favorites, considering its popularity as a tournament destination and prime location in the southeast. In this event, there are 19 boaters and co-angers that live within 125 miles of takeoff, with Marietta, Georgia, angler Emil Wagner being one of them. Coming off a Top 10 in the Toyota Series at Eufaula, Wagner is quite accomplished at all the right stuff for success on Hartwell.
According to Wagner, we’re looking at a diverse event that doesn’t quite hit the best possible fishing.
“Every June, on any herring lake, Lanier or Hartwell, it gets absolutely insane,” Wagner said. “Like, it’s the best fishing of the whole year. But right before that, they’re in a bit of a funk. They’re still all out there where they’re supposed to be, but for whatever reason they’re pretty hard to catch. It’s decent, but it’s not insane. For me, it’s been pretty good.
“There’s a lot of options right now. You can still catch fish on bream beds, there’s the tail end of a herring spawn, there are probably a few bed fish left. You can catch dock fish, too, so there are so many options. We’re not really set into the summer yet, they’re pretty spread out. But, I think we’ll see solid weights across the board.”
Last week’s Collegiate Bass Championship showcased some of the highs and lows of Hartwell, with multiple teams catching more than 19 pounds in a given day, but few on the high end actually being consistent.
“A lot of times all that is, is landing your bites, or the fish that hit your stuff offshore getting the hooks versus not getting the hooks,” Wagner said. “If you’re around ‘em offshore, you’ll have 4- or 5-pounders on a topwater, fluke or swimbait, and sometimes they eat it and sometimes they just hop over it. A lot of times the guy that has 20 and 10 probably had the same amount of bites, but one day they just happened to get them in and one day they didn’t. You just have to play your chances and hope for the best.”
Wagner knows very well how big of a deal the All-American is, and he’s tremendously looking forward to this first one and the opportunity it provides.
“I qualified for two regionals last year, so I knew I had two chances,” he said. “When I saw it was going to be here, I was frickin’ jacked up. I’ve had a lot of tournaments between qualifying and now, and this has been the one on my mind the whole time.”
One of the premier anglers on the Mississippi River, Cade Laufenberg is a long way from Wisconsin this week. On the last half-day of practice, he was still flying around looking for the bite.
“I was probably the only person today that saw both dams in one day,” the river rat said. “I went up to the Keowee Dam, and then all the way down to the main dam, and fished everywhere in between, trying to get a feel for things. Honestly, I’m a little surprised, the water temperature and everything isn’t what I thought it would be. It’s only 71, 72, it’s pretty cold, and I think the fish are feeling it – I haven’t found any big schools of fish that are set up out deep and biting good. I’ve found plenty of schools of spotted bass, but they’re up high in the water column and hard to catch.”
When the All-American was last at Hartwell, Chris Macy won because he figured out a specific way to trigger bites on the final day. So far, Laufenberg doesn’t have that key tweak dialed in.
“They get really smart, really fast,” he said. “You’ll throw out there and see on LiveScope like 30 fish come flying up to your bait. Then they get within like 6 inches of it and they just turn around. They’re coming so fast you swear they’re going to trainwreck it. I’m talking about fish coming from 15 or 20 feet down, rocketing up, and they stop at the last second.”
Notably, Laufenberg did catch a big one in practice, a 6-pounder that ate a buzzbait. And, he’s contemplating starting shallow and eschewing the brush, cane and clean water.
“I’m catching some largemouth up around flooded bushes,” he said. “I caught a big one on a buzzbait, I might flip some tomorrow. I found one creek that has a bunch of bushes, and it’s dirty water. There’s not a lot of water in the bushes, but I think there’s enough.”
Whatever he does, Laufenberg is firmly flying by the seat of his pants on Day 1.
“I don’t really get the jitters anymore,” said the experienced angler. “I guess I’d have more if I had a stellar practice and I felt like it was mine to mess up. I’m just feeling like I’ve got to go out there and try to figure it out on the fly – I don’t feel like I’ve put it all together by any means. It’s hard to get nervous when you don’t have anything super crazy to go with.”
Tyler Trent is basically making a living fishing at home on Kerr Lake; and he won the last time he fished a MLF event in South Carolina, taking top honors in last year’s Regional on Lake Murray. Now, he’s readying for the third three-day event of his career, having won each of the previous ones he’s fished. For Trent, practice hasn’t been too shabby.
“I’d say it’s OK,” he said. “It ain’t hard to get bites, the problem is finding the quality it’s going to take to win this thing. I believe it’s going to be a mixture of shallow and offshore, but I personally prefer offshore. That’s how I’ve had good success and how I like doing it. But, if I get stuck on a certain weight I’m not scared to go shallow to try to get a bigger bite.
“I had never been to Murray, and this will be my second time at Hartwell. I came down before off-limits and fished for two days and then hopped in the BFL they had here and finished 19th. I got a check, and I lost one that would have had me in the Top 10. So, my first trip here was pretty decent.”
One thing that has Trent a little out of his element are the spotted bass. He’s not used to them being a major tournament factor.
“The difference between here and Murray that I don’t like is the spotted bass,” he said. “I’m not really used to the spots. They’re easier to catch in my opinion, but if you’re catching spots, in my experience they run the largemouth off. So, you have to change up to get that largemouth bite.
“One thing I’ve seen is a pile of 1.80 to 2-even spots,” Trent said. “I think you’re going to need upper 2- or 3-pound fish to truly hang. I’m no local by any means, these boys might know how to catch the bigger spots, but I’m just running across them.”