You would think that the five rivers that empty into Winyah Bay would be enough fishing waters for the 110 competitors who will begin competing Thursday in the Huk Performance Bassmaster Elite tournament headquartered at Georgetown’s Carroll Campbell Marine Complex.
But the Cooper River, famed for its big springtime largemouth catches and reachable via the Intracoastal Waterway through Charleston Harbor, is as much a topic of conversation among the country’s top bass anglers as the more readily accessible Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Sampit, Santee and Black rivers.
“To be honest, I don’t really consider this a homestate tournament,” said Casey Ashley of Donalds, the 2015 Bassmaster Classic champion. “This time last year was the first time I’d ever heard a bass even lived in Georgetown. I don’t think (any of the pros) have ever fished there before. It’s going to be a fun tournament. The playing field is going to be even, that’s for sure.”
John Proctor of Conway, who won a BASS Nation Southern Division tournament out of Georgetown in April 2015, said a lot of professionals queried him about the Winyah Bay fishing during a visit to the Bassmaster Classic. Proctor said if the Cooper River wasn’t a factor he thought 14 pounds a day – a 56-pound tournament total – would win. Ashley ventured a similar guess, if not for the Cooper River.
But the Cooper River is a wild card that Proctor thinks will make a lot of pros gamble away half of their eight-hour fishing days in order to make the run.
In March 2015, Brian Tyler of Johnsonville turned heads nationally when he caught a five-bass limit during a BASS Nation state qualifier that weighed 42.3 pounds, including a 10.87-pound bass, two nine-pounders and two six-pounders. He later yielded the spot to another angler who had a 25-pound total anchored by an 8.48-pound fish.
“Out of 100 (anglers), I’d guess as many as 50 will make that run,” Proctor said.
Ashley said he would try to fish as many of the bodies of water as possible during practice Monday-Wednesday. On one of the practice days, Ashley said he would venture to the Cooper River.
“All of the rain is probably going to make everyone run to the Cooper River. That’s going to be the stable river,” Ashley said of recent weather patterns. “With all the rivers a man could run and run and run until they couldn’t run anymore. That will make it interesting. There’s no telling who is going to catch what, where or how far they’re going to run to do it.”
The tournament field includes six South Carolina anglers – Ashley, Davy Hite (Ninety Six), Andy Montgomery (Blacksburg), Britt Myers (Lake Wylie), Marty Robinson (Lyman) and Jason Williamson (Wagener).
Participants will launch at 7 a.m. each day, with the field cut to the top 51 anglers after Friday’s fishing and to the top 12 who will compete Sunday. Weigh-ins are 3:15 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The competitors will be fishing for a $658,000 purse with $100,000 going to the winner.
Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway, who was instrumental in getting the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society to bring a tournament to his hometown, said he expects big crowds for the event.
“The tournament is being held in conjunction with the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival (winyahbayfestival.org),” Hemingway said. “We will be holding a Palmetto Dock Docks competition (9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Sunday) and the South Carolina State Duck Calling Contest (11 a.m. Sunday).”
Hemingway said there are other activities, including concerts downtown Thursday, Friday and Saturday.