This year’s Bassmaster Classic at Lake Hartwell, S.C., is complete. Billed as the Super Bowl of bass fishing, this one was exciting down to the final fish. Alabama angler Jordan Lee became only the third angler in 48 classics to win back-to-back. It’s a feat that may not soon be broken.
Another Alabama angler was working for his second Classic title. Randy Howell of Guntersville was fishing his 16th Classic. He won the coveted title in 2014 on Lake Guntersville, coming from 11 places back on the final day to capture fishing’s top prize.
Bass fans may recall Howell’s miraculous win. After leaving the ramp, he felt the urge to reverse course and head to a different location at a bridge in Spring Creek.
“I felt the Lord speaking to me about being great rather than good.” Howell said. “I turned around and went in the opposite direction of where I had told my wife and friends where I would be fishing.”
The change proved to be the right decision. Howell used a then prototype crankbait made by Livingston Lures to catch over 29 pounds on the final day. After the victory, Howell purchased a plot of land on the shores Lake Guntersville and built a house.
This year’s Classic was a little tougher on Howell. Lake Hartwell was stingy with large bass during this year’s event. Many in the 52-angler field struggled to catch a decent limit. After day one, Howell found himself in 42nd place with just over 11 pounds.
Day two was another day, and as a true competitor, Howell was prepared to move up the leaderboard. His goal was to make the top 25 after day two and fish on championship Sunday. I was blessed to be the media observer to ride the entire tournament day with Howell.
Arriving at the ramp well before the 7:30 a.m. takeoff, Howell was in his boat preparing tackle and rigging a couple of fresh rods. He was interrupted for a live dockside interview for the few thousand spectators that came out to watch the launch.
“I’ve got a few lures ready they should hit today,” Howell said.
He added quietly to me, “Almost everyone is fishing a ChatterBait, but I’m going to start with a crankbait.”
I have done several interviews with Howell in the past, and we even got in some fishing time several years ago on Logan Martin Lake. He was the speaker at a wild game supper at my church in 2004.
Howell is personable and not shy about his Christian faith. He often speaks to church groups, youth events and other functions. His speaking calendar is more crowded since winning the Classic.
Rain and flashes of lighting surrounded the launch site. Thunderstorms delayed the day two takeoff 20 minutes. Howell and tournament leader Jason Christie of Oklahoma exchanged greetings and commented on the weather affecting the fishing.
“This overcast could change things,” Howell said. “I would prefer if the sun was out most of the day.”
All pro anglers have a fishing plan for the day. However, that plan can change depending on several factors including weather. Being able to make the right decisions at the right time is crucial in winning major tournaments.
We were in the first flight for day two. After running about four miles downriver, Howell slowed his big Triton at a bridge embankment. He made his first cast with an orange crankbait, a Livingston Howeller, the winning lure in the 2014 Classic on Lake Guntersville.
Howell made several casts with the crankbait fishing parallel with the shoreline. The Howeller ran around 10 feet deep and would bump the rocks lining the bank at the bridge abutment. After a few more casts, Howell switched rods and throws a spinnerbait. Another rod change saw a ChatterBait have its turn in the water.
“Let’s try the other end of the bridge,” Howell said.
We made a short run across the river to the other end of the bridge. The sky was still dark and rain clouds loomed nearby. After a few casts with his signature crankbait, Howell connected with a small spotted-bass weighing about a pound-and-a-half — a decent start to day two of the most important tournament of the season.
A green culling clip was attached to the bass’ jaw. A new rule this year in B.A.S.S. prohibits any culling float or fish identifier from piercing the fish’s mouth. The culling float attached like a small clothes pin or paper clamp. The floats are different colors to help the angler retrieve a fish quickly from the livewell to cull out and return to the water.
Anglers have their own selection on which color to use for smaller fish to cull out once a limit is caught. Some anglers use a red float as first fish to go. Howell selected a green-colored float to identify his first fish to cull.
After two more passes around the bridge header, we ran to another smaller bridge back in a creek. Howell had a game plan to maximize his fishing time. He usually has about nine rods on deck ready to fish in an instant if he decides to make a lure change.
At the next stop, Howell connected with another small bass on a ChatterBait. Another cull clip attached to the fish and it went in the livewell. The clouds began to break, and the sky brightened.
“We’re going to head to the back of the slough and try it shallow,” Howell said. “It only takes one or two degrees warm up to turn them on.”
As the Triton made the turn around a point, Howell spotted fellow Classic competitor Gerald Swindle of Guntersville in the back of a pocket. Howell turned the boat and we head to a large cove with piers and grass. The lake level had risen a few feet due to heavy rains about a week before the Classic. The higher water flooded some dead grass and weeds.
With precision casting, Howell placed the ChatterBait 10 feet or more under a pier. As the lure reached the corner a 3-pound largemouth inhaled it. Howell’s limit and weight were increasing. He continued fishing the pier with several more casts.
“I think I’ll need over 14 pounds to make the cut for tomorrow(Sunday),” Howell said. I’m going to need a limit like that last one.”
Switching up between the ChatterBait,, a Senko and a spinnerbait, Howell methodically fished piers and isolated weed clumps. He picked up another keeper bass and missed another at the edge of a weed patch.
By midday, the sun was out, and the rain jackets came off. Along with the sunshine, the wind increased. Howell continued his pattern of fishing piers and grass clumps in the backs of pockets and coves. Howell reached into his rod locker and retrieved a heavy action spinning rod rigged with braided line.
He selected a bright orange Senko soft plastic worm in a 5-inch length. Howell used a single large wide-gap hook rigged Texas style with no weight. A non-keeper inhaled the lure near the end of a pier. The fish was quickly released back into the lake.
Targeting a pier with two jet ski ramps attached, Howell zipped the Senko under the pier. Before the worm got wet, a large bass rolled over and swarmed the bait. Howell fought the bass from underneath the pier and into his boat. He estimated the fish to weigh around 4½ pounds.
“That will make a difference at the weigh-in,” Howell said. “A couple more like that one would be nice.”
Fishing time was escaping and the 3:15 p.m. check-in was less than two hours out. We made a run back to the large cove and the grass clump where Howell caught two and missed another bass earlier in the day. The location change paid off as Howell quickly caught another keeper to reach his limit of five bass.
Repeated casts to the weeds produced another decent keeper and culled out a smaller bass. A large pier next to the grass gives up another bass and Howell culled again. With check-in time close Howell made the run back toward the launch area.
With about 10 minutes reaming, Howell stopped at a long bridge across from the marina check-in area. Multiple casts with the crankbait and ChatterBait did not produce any fish.
Back at the check-in, the B.A.S.S. official signaled to Howell he had one minute to spare. Howell cut the engine and waited for his turn in line to trailer his boat at the ramp.
“I don’t know if I have enough,” Howell said, referring to the weight for his sack of bass. “I hope I get to fish tomorrow. If not, I’ll be at the expo.”
Backing down the ramp with truck and trailer was Howell’s wife, Robin. She eased back, and Howell gave the signal to stop and he drove the boat onto the trailer. And in an instant truck, trailer and boat was moving up the ramp.
At the weigh-in it was close, razor close. Howell’s day two sack weighed 13 pounds, 6 ounces. He missed the cut by one ounce. His paycheck difference for that one ounce — $3,000.
Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoors editor. You can reach Charles at email@example.com.