Casey Ashley is no stranger to championship level bass tournaments. The Costa Sunglasses pro has competed in over a dozen of them 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 “awh, 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.

When talking to Ashley last night before the start of official competition he made it clear that in thinking back through all the Classics, Forrest Wood Cups, or REDCREST Championships he’s competed in, Ashley believes he’s never fished a tournament where strategy would be so important as this 2023 REDCREST 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 admitted.

When pressed on why strategy is so important for this tournament, Ashley gave a glimpse into what he and surely many of his fellow Bass Pro Tour competitors have been processing this week.

“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, for me on Norman this week it’s 12-lb but knowing the score changes all of that. Then we have to factor in our format for this 5-day event, which includes zeroing the weights after day two. So, if you’re going to have a giant bag of fish and really milk an area for all it’s worth, you don’t really want that to happen on days one or two.

“Next you have Lake Norman itself, which is known for throwing curve balls. I’ve fished this lake plenty over the years. It isn’t the kind of place where 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 that it ain’t gonna happen again tomorrow. You’re going to 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 will be critical in this deal.”

As Ashley explained all the different factors the 40-person REDCREST field is faced with, it paints a complex and impressive picture. Punctuated by the nuances of Lake Norman’s spotted bass versus largemouth conundrum and the weather forecast for the tournament, which features a considerable cold front after being warm and sunny during practice.

Whoever wins the 2023 REDCREST on Sunday will have absolutely earned it. They’ll have navigated through all these variables and more in 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. I wondered if the other 39 competing anglers were considering all these details.

“This field is full of hammers, and they don’t overlook a thing,” Ashley said with a laugh. “The smart ones have been thinking about the intricacies of strategy for weeks. The best ones probably won’t sleep much tonight. Now that doesn’t mean our plans always work out, they usually don’t, but considering all the factors and having a plan is a must for whoever wins this thing.”

With all these considerations swirling around his head, Ashley was looking forward to this morning when his wife Kenzie would back his Toyota Tundra and Triton boat down the Blythe Landing ramp. Just like it is for me and you on a Saturday morning, at that moment it’s time to clear his mind and go fishin’.

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