I’d fished Lake Hartwell before on the FLW Tour, but I went back in December to get reacquainted with the lake before the cut off. Judging from what I learned then and what I knew about the general seasonal patterns, I figured there was a pretty good chance that the tournament would be won out deep. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case, though. Those deep fish are often tracking schools of blueback herring and they can be difficult to relocate, even if you think you understand where they are.

During the official practice period before the tournament the water temperatures remained fairly high, and there were still a good number of fish up shallow where I wanted them. I nevertheless spent two of the three days out deep. My better results came relatively shallow, in the 6 to 12 foot range, so I knew that there would probably be enough fish up shallow to survive, but with the harsh cold weather settling in I was worried that it would get tougher.

I really didn’t know how the cold snap was going to affect the fish. I tried to chase the deep bite again on the Wednesday before the tournament started, but I just couldn’t get it to work. I was only getting two or three bites a day doing that and I knew that I couldn’t win that way. Therefore I also spent a few hours in the creeks looking for some more productive shallow cover. That way if the deep guys stumbled I might have a chance.

On Thursday B.A.S.S. told us that the tournament start would be delayed due to hazardous road conditions. It probably didn’t affect the fish much, but the shortened day hurt those of us who were fishing for a limited number of bites. Also, the weather was brutal. My Frabill Ice Suit was phenomenal. My core never got cold, and I simply could not have made it through Day One without it, but the super-low temperatures caused reels and rod guides to ice up and you could only make a fraction of the number of casts that you’d make on a normal competition day.

Day One was clearly my demise in this event. I struggled to get bit and over the course of the day I caught only two fish – one shallow and one deep. I had a third bite but lost it. It would take an absolute miracle on Saturday to make the cut. I had to make some adjustments.

On Day Two I stayed deep until 10am looking for big bites but I simply could not get bit out there. At that point I went shallow to an area where I’d caught some good fish in practice. At least I knew the right class of bass lived there. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make them bite. I had three bites all day, landed them all, and my tournament was over. It was an exceptionally difficult event for me. I simply never picked up on the right clues, and my failure to do so was complicated by the weather conditions. It is what it is. Most everyone in the field struggled at least one or both days. That’s typical of blueback lakes.

I’m still not sure where I went wrong. I really thought that my new ONIX units from Humminbird would give me an edge – they are absolutely phenomenal – but I’d find a group of fish in deep water, get one or two bites, and that would be it. Without much prior knowledge of the lake and how the fish there behave, I was behind the eight ball.

My two main lures were a 3/8 ounce Lunker Lure jig and a #8 Shad Rap. I fished the former on a 7’ medium-heavy Denali Jadewood rod with a 6.2:1 Shimano Chronarch Ci4 reel spooled with 12 and 14 pound test Gamma Fluorocarbon. I fished the Shad Rap on a 6’10” Kovert cranking stick with the same reel and 10 pound test Gamma Fluorocarbon.

Next up is the Elite Series season opener on the Sabine River. I’ve never been there before so I’m not quite sure what to think about that one. Fortunately, I’m already qualified for the 2016 Bassmaster Classic, so I can fish at ease and have fun with the season. There are several venues I’ve never been to, and that concerns me a bit, but having the Classic berth in hand allows me to fish my strengths and that’s when I tend to throw caution to the wind and excel. I’m really looking forward to it.