SENECA, S.C. – Herring lakes, like Lake Hartwell in the Phoenix Bass Fishing League Presented by T-H Marine All-American, always showcase unique baits and techniques. It happened again this week and there were plenty of flashy chrome baits, flukes and some cool lures, some still in production and some not, that do their best to look like a blueback herring.
Here’s a recap of the baits and patterns of the Top 10 anglers in the 40th edition of the grassroots championship event.
Georgia’s Emil Wagner spends most of his time on Lake Lanier but used that blueback herring knowledge to perfection to win the All-American on Lake Hartwell, roughly two hours from home, with a three-day total of 55 pounds, 11 ounces.
He spent plenty of time graphing before the lake went off-limits and keyed on drops for his fish this week.
“A lot of the better fish didn’t come on brush piles, which I think a lot of guys were fishing. Instead, they were on the drops. It’d be 6 to 10 feet of water and drop 20 feet deep.”
“I got way fewer bites on the Swimmer, but they were all good ones,” he said. “I fished the Fluke on a 4/0 Gamakatsu worm hook and put a nail weight in it today. It was so tough and they didn’t want to come up for anything, but the weight allowed me to twitch it about a foot or two below the surface so they could see it better.”
Like the winner, Matthew O’Connell spends a lot of time on Lake Lanier and used those skills to score an excellent finish on Lake Hartwell. He knows the ways of the blueback herring and how imperative it is to keep on the move to fool the bass that eat them.
“I was running and gunning brush, points, and a little bit of everything looking for the better schools,” he said. “I fished much of the lake, starting around Green Pond and working towards the dam.”
His lure selection was heavy on flukes and topwaters.
“Most of the fish I caught came on the fluke, but walking topwaters were also key,” he said. “The other key this week was getting on a good rotation, running all new places, or hitting some of them multiple times. I went back and forth between the two strategies.”
Buddy Benson of Dahlonega, Georgia, is just 18 years old but took the lead after the first day of fishing with a 19-9 limit. His bag sizes dwindled daily after that, but he still finished third.
“I caught most of my fish running brush, mainly from Andersonville Island down to the dam,” he said. “I was hitting 50 to 60 spots a day.”
For his first All-American, Benson used a blue pearl hologram Zoom Super Fluke and a Lucky Craft Wander 110 in chrome.
“Having no wind on the final day killed me, the fish were just coming up and missing the baits,” he said. “I had my opportunities the last two days, but it didn’t happen.”
Even though he’s from Missouri, Anthony Johnson spent over a week on Hartwell before it went off-limits. This time included plenty of screen time and he used it all to his advantage, finding many of the same places as those in the top three who live much closer to Hartwell, concentrating on the area near the Hartwell Dam.
“I spent eight or nine days here before the off-limits and found dang near everything you can find in a 10-mile stretch,” he said. “I did my research and spent the time out there grinding, finding brush, cane, and anything people throw in the lake that sticks up. I was on fish all week; whether or not I could get them to bite was a different story.”
Johnson ran a lot of water with flukes and topwaters; no surprises for a Hartwell derby.
“Hartwell is all about chrome topwaters, and I definitely did that,” he said. “I also fished a Zoom Super Fluke in a lot of different colors. The key was rigging the bait to swim as straight as possible. I also mixed in some Sebile Magic Swimmer fish, which this lake is known for.”
“It sets up almost identical to Smith Lake, except we don’t have the cane piles back home,” he said. “I spent this tournament running main lake points with cane piles and it was nothing special besides the bait. I caught all but one of my weigh fish on the Jackall Riser Bait.”
He fished the Riser Bait 007 in the mirror wakasagi.
“It got bites when nothing else would work,” he said. “The only problem was you had one chance and if you messed up, they weren’t coming back again for the bait.”
He estimates fishing in 40 different areas throughout the three days and no single place accounted for fish more than once.
“It was different every day, and I couldn’t get the same places to fire more than once,” said Wiggins. “I fished all over, but the middle section by the I-85 bridges was the best area.”
Virginia’s Tyler Trent, who won the Lake Murray Regional last fall, fished about as many spots as humanly possible during the All-American.
“I was running and gunning, and I don’t know how many places. I never hit the same thing twice,” he said. “I had 1,800 waypoints I marked and feel like I ran about half of them. I fished everywhere from takeoff down to the dam and bounced around, and if I hit five or six without luck, I’d skip down a mile and start fishing again.”
His run-and-gun approach included a handful of casts with three baits before moving on.
“I was throwing a topwater, a fluke, and a drop-shot with a Missile Baits Magic Worm in blueback secret,” he said. “The 4-inch size seemed to work best for the spots. The topwater didn’t seem to matter, and I threw a bunch of different walking baits and they’d either commit or not. I’d make a couple of casts with each bait and then roll on.”
Going against the grain, Maryland’s Brian LaClair fished bridges with small 1/16- and 3/16-ounce Missile Jigs Ike’s Micro Jigs in green pumpkin with a matching Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm on the back. It worked for him and he posted three bags that were all within about a pound of each other on the way to his first All-American Top 10 in his third try.
“I got on a bunch of fish on bridges with super light line,” he said. “I’d get right on the pilings and drop it down to about 30 feet deep and hold on; it didn’t matter how deep the water was around it. They were suspended at 30. You’d load up on one part of the bridge and it’d be real hot and then go dead and you’d have to keep moving to the next place.”
LaClair said he fished both the pilings and the abutments on the bridges.
“Sometimes they’d be right on the bridge and sometimes the ‘buts would be better, down in 20 feet of water. The bridges were the best for me all week. I tried some offshore stuff, but that wasn’t for me and I went back to the bridges.”
It was all about the fluke for Tennessee’s Jimmy Neece Jr. He had several rigged up in different colors and weights and tried them all at each of his spots.
“My main pattern was fishing a fluke, and I had three different colors and some had weights in them and some didn’t,” he said. “I switched it up for each cane pile I fished to see which would get them to fire. In some places, they wanted an unweighted pearl fluke; in others, they would bite the rainbow shad color with a weight. I tried them all at each spot.”
He focused on the middle to lower section of the lake and had approximately 30 spots that he would hit each day.
“I caught a handful of fish on a shaky head, too,” he said. “The other bait that caught a few fish was a Jackall Riser Bait in their bone color.”
Weighing bags in the 12-pound range each day of the event, Oklahoma’s Ian Leybas scored a solid finish on his first trip to the All-American. To catch his fish, he keyed on points with brush.
“I bounced around the mid-lake area around Green Pond and would hit any point with brush on it,” he said. “I was looking for schools of fish or little groups of three or four bass; if you saw a solo fish, it was too hard to get them to bite. I was fishing for bass in that 8- to 10-foot zone and keeping the bait above them and they’d come up and get it.”
His top bait was a YUM FF Sonar Minnow in Houdini shad and Tennessee shad and he fished it on a 1/8-ounce jig head.
“In practice, I got some on topwater but couldn’t get them to bite it during the tournament and caught them all off that little bait,” he said. “The fish were shallow early and then pushed out later. It was also better when you had wind or clouds; it got tough when it was calm and sunny.”
Indiana’s Nick Uebelhor had two 13-pound bags the first two days before stumbling a bit on the final day, but he still scored a nice payday in his second All-American by fishing around the Sadler Creek and Rivers Forks areas.
“The first day was all topwater and the second day was on a fluke and a Megabass Vision 110+1 jerkbait,” he said. “The last day, I didn’t catch many fish, but it was a fluke again. I was fishing points with cane piles and also focusing on standing timber and they’d come up from 20 feet to come to get the fluke.”
His topwater was a Cast Fishing The “OG” that Uebelhor says is “basically a saltwater bait” with a unique action.
“It goes under and pops up; I caught two big largemouth and a big spot with it the first day,” he added.