For Will Harkins, redemption never tasted so good. After a heartbreaker in 2023 finishing 2nd at Lake Eufaula due to tiebreakers, he seals the deal earning his first NPFL victory with a three-day total weight of 47 pounds, 9 ounces.
Harkins started the event in second place with 16 pounds, 9 ounces on day one, and moved into the lead on day two with 16 pounds, 13 ounces. Starting strong on day three with two early keepers, Harkins culled his way to a final day weight of 14 pounds, 3 ounces to take the win.
Coming into the event, the Georgia pro knew he would need to fish each morning with an open mind and learn where the fish would be positioned with changing conditions. As the last angler to weigh in, needing only 9 pounds, his margin of victory on Logan Martin was 4 pounds, 4 ounces over NPFL newcomer Brock Bila.
“It has been the same for me all week,” said Harkins. “I caught fish on the Strike King 1.5 and the jig but the fish were set up each day on the same types of banks.”
On the final day, the early limit to begin in the morning took the pressure off but he had felt like the door was wide open for someone to steal the win yet again.
“Getting those two good fish and the early limit took some pressure off; I caught six early and then between 1 and 4 PM I caught six more,” he added. “There was a mid-day lull and I was nervous coming to weigh in. I knew I gave someone an opportunity, not getting to the 16-pound range myself, to catch a big bag but when I got closer to weighing in, I knew I had a shot.”
With the monkey off his back early in the season, the Georgia angler plans to change nothing for the rest of the season.
“I do not have to worry about getting close and not slamming the door shut,” he laughed.
NPFL rookie Brock Bila rode a 17-pound, 11-ounce day two to finish in the second-place spot with a three-day total weight of 43 pounds, 5-ounce in his first event of the 2024 season. He started on day one with 12 pounds, 11 ounces, and added another 12 pounds, 15 pounds to go with his day two weight.
Also executing a one-two punch on Logan Martin, Bila targeted both suspended fish on the main lake and largemouth in the backs of pockets.
“The main key was clean water and bait fish relative to the spot,” he said. “That is literally it. I fished clean this week except for today and lost one decent fish this morning and another big one this afternoon after the live coverage ended.”
On day two, he located a group of fish in shallow muddy water but nothing was doing on the final day. Despite the disappointing final day, Bila is thrilled with a second-place finish on a tough body of water.
“For these caliber anglers, I fully expected to get my butt whipped on until I settled in, but man that did not happen,” he added. “I was a little worried coming in but the confidence level is sky high going into Hartwell.”
With a three-day total of 42 pounds, 14 ounces, Jesse Millsaps increased his weight throughout each day of the tournament to finish the first event of the year in second place. He started day one with 11 pounds, 14 ounces, added 14 pounds, 7 ounces on day two, and his biggest bag of the week on the final day of 16 pounds, 9 ounces.
One of the few anglers who enjoyed a good practice period, Jesse Millsaps executed a one-two punch of a Berkley Frittside5 crankbait and a blade jig fishing key stretches all three days. As the water changed, his colors changed to stay ahead of the bigger bass.
“I focused on main lake areas with chunk rock and access to deeper water,” he said. “When it was clear water, I fished a white bladed jig around the docks and the Frittside5 on the rocks. When it got dirty, I had to switch to red colors.”
Aside from one key fish which cost him a shot at second place, Millsaps was happy to back up a good practice with a good tournament.
“The only thing that changed for me was boat traffic,” he laughed. “The big chunk rock provided a current break for the bigger fish moving in and I rotated a few key areas each day.”
After a tough practice period, Louis Fernandes knew what he had to do with warming water and stabilizing weather. He started on day one with 13 pounds, 8 ounces, added 11 pounds, 10 ounces, and his biggest bag of the week today with 16 pounds, 15 ounces. His two-day total weight of 42 pounds, 1 ounce earns him third place and a great start to 2024.
After catching a few key fish on day one with a First Gen Fishing Swim Jig and filling a limit with a jerkbait and crankbait, the warming water meant Fernandes could lock a crankbait in his hands for the rest of the event and do what he does.
“The bite just started to get good the last two days and it changed to all crankbaits yesterday and today,” he said. “I left some fish out there yesterday after not making the right adjustment, but today I had an early limit and moved to the main river where the bigger fish were setting up.”
He focused his efforts on 3 to 6 feet of water on steep chunk rock banks. Anything more or less would not do, and the warming water in the afternoon on the chunk banks made the perfect staging area for bigger fish waiting to move shallow.
“I covered as much water as possible each day and dialed in exactly where those bigger fish were sitting,” he added. “I used an iRod 733 rod with 15-pound P-Line Tactical Fluorocarbon and just did what I love to do.”
Rest of the Best
Buddy Gross 41-2
Jason Burroughs 41-1
Kyle Welcher 40-15
Todd Goade 40-3
Joseph Webster 39-11
JTodd Tucker 39-9