SENECA, S.C. – The 40th edition of the prestigious Phoenix Bass Fishing League Presented by T-H Marine All-American is underway on Lake Hartwell out of Seneca, South Carolina. It’s widely regarded as one of the pinnacle tournaments for weekend anglers, with anglers from across the country competing to get here. The tournament has helped launch many professional fishing careers, including four anglers competing on the Bass Pro Tour, Jacob Wheeler, Stephen Browning, Nick LeBrun, and Jeremy Lawyer.
Other notable winners include Shaw Grigsby, Clark Wendlandt, and Rick Clunn. It’s a marquee event and the winner this week on Lake Hartwell will go down in the history books and earn a top prize of up to $120,000 and a berth in REDCREST 2024.
Lake Hartwell is no stranger to top-level bass fishing and has become a popular location for championship events of all levels. From high school and college national championships to hosting four Bassmaster Classics, Hartwell is a premier destination due to its size, fishing quality, and proximity to one of bass fishing’s hotbeds in the Carolinas.
The lake was created with the completion of the Hartwell Dam in 1962 and stretches to nearly 56,000 acres, with much of it being prime bass fishing habitat that includes docks, rock, and clay banks up shallow and plenty of submerged brush piles and cane piles for those looking to get away from the bank.
Anglers fishing this week can fish to their strengths and expect to catch fish. The diverse fishery features cleaner water near the dam and dirtier water up the Tugaloo and Seneca rivers. The lake has a healthy population of largemouth and spotted bass and each should play this week, even though blueback herring chasing spots have grown in size and numbers in recent years.
Hartwell local and Tackle Warehouse Invitationals angler Brian Latimer grew up fishing the lake and he still fishes it regularly when not on the road fishing tournaments or filming for his popular YouTube channel. He expects plenty of techniques to work and says catching fish will not be an issue this week.
“This lake is just littered with 1½- to 2-pound spotted bass,” he said. “Catching a limit shouldn’t be a problem; it’s about finding those bigger fish. Spotted bass over 3 pounds are what I’d consider a good one for Hartwell, but there’s a large population of 4s and 5s out there. It’s hard to get five largemouth a day, especially in a multi-day event, so you must have a few good spots to compete here now.”
While spotted bass should be the main species, he does expect some big largemouth to appear and possibly more than usual, due to current conditions.
“It’s been prime spring conditions here since early March and the weather has been the same since then with air temps mainly in the 70s and 80s ever since then,” he said. “Spring has just kept lingering around and has kept more bass along the bank. The bluegill spawn is still going on and there’s still a little bit of a herring spawn, so fishing shallow is still going to play and we might see more largemouth than we normally do.”
Latimer expects anglers to find success casting to cruising largemouth, but says the offshore spotted bass bite is more of a sure bet.
“Someone will probably bust out 20 or 22 pounds of largemouth the first day and then have trouble backing it up the final two days,” he said. “The offshore spots are more consistent if you want to catch the 17 pounds or so a day that I think it will take to win this. Offshore, guys will catch schooling fish on topwaters over brush and cane piles and then can slow down when it’s slick calm and catch them with a drop-shot or jig.”
When asked to point out a few possible winning areas, Latimer said Hartwell is unique because it offers many areas that could kick out the winning bag.
“It’s a place you can win anywhere on the lake,” he said. “There are always a few guys who figure out a good bite way up the rivers in the dirtier water and it could also be won way down the lake in the cleanest water. The cool thing about the lake is that it’s full of fish from one end to the other and you’ll see a big mix of patterns from the anglers who make it to the final day.”
Hailing from Sarcoxie, Missouri, Lawyer is competing in this week’s All-American for an impressive sixth time and is the perfect example of climbing the tournament ranks with MLF. He began fishing BFL events while working a Monday-to-Friday job and eventually won the All-American on his fourth try in 2016, a year after finishing in the runner-up spot.
That win gave him a shot at fulltime fishing on the FLW Tour and he’s now fishing the Bass Pro Tour. Without the All-American, he wouldn’t be here and he’s back again this week on Lake Hartwell.
“This tournament definitely means a lot to me and if I didn’t win it in 2016, I wouldn’t be fishing professionally right now,” he said. “Winning this tournament gives anglers a platform to jump to the next level if they want to. Look at the past winners, Shaw Grigsby, Clark Wendlandt, Stephen Browning, Jacob Wheeler, and all of the other guys. They all got their big break at this event.”
Last year, when his schedule aligned to fish in the Ozarks Division again, Lawyer leapt at the chance to fish the entire season. The qualification for the All-American was just a bonus.
“I still consider myself a grassroots angler, and I try to fish as much as I can locally when I’m home,” he said. “The chance to fish and travel with my buddies last year for the BFLs was great because I haven’t been able to do that in a long time. Making the All-American was the perfect end to the season, and I’m looking forward to taking it all in and walking down memory lane a bit this week.”
Lawyer said those fishing for the first time are in for plenty of fun and that just getting here is a significant accomplishment.
“This is, in my opinion, the hardest event to qualify for in tournament fishing,” he said. “If you finish first, 10th, or last in this event, you should be proud because so many anglers try for years and years and never make it here. I follow it every year because of how much it means. The guys fishing it for the first time are in for quite a treat because this event has a lot of prestige and winning it can change someone’s life.”