Veteran angler hopes to duplicate his day in the sun at Bassmaster Classic
For 24 hours, Charlie Hartley was on top of the bass fishing world. Literally.
It was the afternoon of Feb. 22, 2008, and as Hartley walked offstage at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, the garrulous Ohio B.A.S.S. veteran was the Day 1 leader of the Bassmaster Classic. Hartley – a journeyman who qualified for that Classic through the Southern Opens and had run his Mercury 250 Pro XS through the B.A.S.S. Invitationals, Top 150s, Opens and Elite Series since 1993 – had brought 21 pounds, 1 ounce of Lake Hartwell bass to the scales to claim the lead over the best bass anglers in the world.
“If you’ve dreamed of it all your life like I had, leading the Bassmaster Classic is the most emotional feeling you could possibly imagine,” said Hartley. “I’m getting teary-eyed right now just talking about it. The world spins around, and you’d swear that you’re going to pass out. It’s rare air to be breathing.”
Hartley’s first day on Lake Hartwell had proved to be the stuff of fable. Fishing in conditions that he describes as “absolutely miserable," the former professional skateboarder had plucked four 2-pounders off his first spot of the morning. A nice start, but in the words of his marshal that morning, “Son, those fish aren’t big enough to win the Bassmaster Classic.”
Hartley’s second stop at a series of shallow docks earned a totally different reaction.
“The first fish I set the hook on was a 5 1/2-pounder,” he says. “My marshal said ‘Son, that kind of fish WILL win you the Bassmaster Classic.”
Hartley worked those docks throughout the morning for four big fish that pushed him to just over 21 pounds, and then left the area to preserve some fish for the rest of the tournament. The bite would eventually falter over the next two days, dropping Hartley to 15th for the tournament. It was a slightly disappointing finish considering his hot start, but still part of an experience that has fueled Hartley ever since.
“At the press conference after the first day, there were three of us sitting up at the podium: me, Scott Rook and Kevin Vandam,” Hartley says. “Scott Rook and Kevin Vandam! It was surreal. But, I do remember the feeling I had that afternoon. It made me feel like I could qualify for 10 more Classics. After just that one day, I thought to myself ‘Wow, I hope this happens again.’”
And it would: thanks to his victory in the Bass Pro Shops Northern Open on the James River in Virginia last summer, Hartley became one of the 52 qualifiers for the upcoming 2017 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Conroe, Texas (March 24-26).
Charlie likes his chances
Hartley jokingly refers to himself as “a skateboarder who just loves to fish.”
After his memorable Classic moment in 2008, he competed on the Elite Series until 2015 before failing to requalify for the 2016 season. Since then, he’s competed in all three divisions of the Opens, trying to make it back to the Elites (and to the Classic).
But he’s not fishing Conroe for just memories and a participation trophy.
“I spent 30 days on that lake before the off-limits,” Hartley said. “Just like I did at Lake Hartwell, I’ve had the luxury to spend a whole bunch of time getting to know the lake. I don’t know if that practice time will be as valuable as it was on Hartwell, but it sure can’t hurt to know every little nook and cranny on the lake. I take this opportunity very seriously. I’m not the best angler competing in this Classic, but I might be the most prepared.”
Conroe, one of the most revered big-fish fisheries in the country, suits Hartley’s style well, too. This impoundment of the West Fork of the San Jacinto River will offer good opportunities for shallow-water specialists, and for anglers who are adept at fishing a range of baits from a jig to a crankbait.
“Conroe is a ‘trash’ fisherman’s dream,” Hartley jokes. “There’s a lot of shallow water, a lot of visible structure, a lot of docks to fish. I really like those kinds of fisheries.”
Regardless of his finish this year, Hartley plans to soak up the experience – and maybe hope for another day on top of the bass-fishing world).
“I relished my first Classic, and I will relish in this one, too,” he says. “People fish and dream all their lives of getting to the Classic. I don’t know if I’ll ever lead another one, but I can tell you for sure, I wish that everybody who fishes could feel what it’s like to lead the Bassmaster Classic. Even if just for one day.”
NOTES: Hartley has competed in 223 B.A.S.S. events in his career … the 52-year-old was a competitive skateboarder as a youth, and still carries a skateboard with him to tournaments … the 2017 Bassmaster Classic will be contested March 24-26 on Lake Conroe, with weigh-ins at Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros.