Bart Blackburn of North Augusta made the switch from recreational fisherman to serious bass fisherman 24 years ago, getting familiar with the intricacies of Strom Thurmond Lake and learning the quirks of its largemouth bass population.
"I spent a lot of time on the lake," he said. "In 1982, I was introduced to tournament fishing by Mike Andrews of the River Rats Bass Club (now called Columbia County River Rats Bass Club) and fished in my first Mr. Clark Hill tournament."
The lake was first named Clark Hill, later changed to Clarks Hill and finally to Strom Thurmond Lake, but organizers of the Mr. Clark Hill tournament, which pits Augusta area bass club members against each other, opted to keep the original name. All the clubs involved also are affiliated with the Clark Hill Committee, which runs the annual event.
So for the 24th time, Blackburn joined nearly 200 other fishermen on the lake on Oct. 7-8 for the 34th annual Mr. Clark Hill and, much to his surprise, won it by a scant 86/100ths of a pound over Craig Johnson of the Suburban Bassmasters. The winner had 28.36 pounds, the runner-up 27.50 pounds. Blackburn said his previous best finish was third. Johnson has placed second four times.
"It was a long time coming," said the champion, who earned bragging rights until the first Saturday in October 2007.
BLACKBURN, 45, a Manchester, Conn., native who came south at the age of 2, is a 1980 graduate of Jenkins County High School in Millen, Ga. An electrician by trade, he joined the local union and that's how he met Andrews.
In previous Mr. Clark Hills, "I always beat myself because of my desire to win, putting too much pressure on myself and really becoming exhausted," he said. "This year, I was able to take time to practice before the tournament. I was on the lake for three days prior to tournament week and three days of that week. Being able to practice helped me make the right decisions and I actually had fun."
The tournament was held over a two-day period for the first time this year and Blackburn hopes that trend continues. "I've always felt that the local Top Six tournament needed to be just one day and the Mr. Clark Hill two days."
Competitors have the option of fishing by themselves and Blackburn did so, heading to a Savannah River point after blastoff from Wildwood Park where he caught a 2-pound bass on a Zoom Super Fluke, white with blue flecks. He dyed the soft plastic lure's tail a bright chartreuse. He chose to rig the lure as a single and not a double, a rig that he developed some years ago.
"People were using three-way swivels to create a double fluke rig, but fish would break off or pull free. I developed a method using two swivels and some beads where one fluke could freely slide up and down the main line. The double rig mimics a school of bait fish and I like to use it when the bass are schooling. When they're not, I'll tie a single fluke to an 18-inch-long leader and that to a barrel swivel attached to the main line."
HIS TECHNIQUE on the retrieve is to "burn" the lure back for three or four turns of his 7:1 ratio (7 feet for every one turn of the reel handle) bait-casting reel, then "twitch it" a couple of times. That gets the bass's attention.
Just where the bass could be caught was no secret. "Points and humps (submerged hills). Everybody knew it, but some of those areas yielded better fish than others," he said.
Blackburn never found schooling fish during the tournament, but moved into the Fort Gordon Recreation Area section of Little River and caught a quick limit of five bass around a hump in an hour's time. The fish were all in the 11- to 2-pound range.
"I caught my first good fish - a 3-pounder - on a hump where I'd caught 5-, 6- and 7-pound fish during practice. I stayed there until 8:30 a.m., but they never showed up. I'd learned that for some reason, the fish on the South Carolina side were more active than those on the Georgia side, so that's where I headed after lunch. I had a limit of fish weighing about 10 pounds by then and my better bites were coming later in the day.
"The last 30 minutes before weigh-in, I stopped on a point near Lake Springs and caught another 3-pounder. With 15 minutes left, I stopped on another point and on my last cast caught another 3-pounder. That gave me a fraction over 13 pounds and I was in fourth place, trailing Mark Johnson who had a 14-pound catch."
DURING THE WEIGH-IN, Blackburn heard some fishermen say they had missed some good fish while using a buzz bait, a surface lure whose propeller causes lots of fuss on the lake surface. So on the second day, he tied on a Buckeye r-ounce buzz bait "dressed" in a white skirt and a white Gotcha Grub.
"I started in the Lake Springs area and caught four fish during the first hour. The largest was just 2-pounds-plus and I went back to the fluke and the Fort Gordon area where I caught lots of fish, getting another quick limit. But I was able to cull (upgrade) only one of the fish with a 2-pounder in 11 hours."
His weigh-in time was 3 p.m., and about 2 p.m., Blackburn moved to a point where he had found a late bite and bigger fish. The first thing he did was miss a 4-pound-class fish, "and I thought I'd blown my chance to win. But five casts later, I caught a 4.98-pound bass and 10 casts after that, a fish that weighed between 31 and 33 pounds.
"When my fish were weighed, they totaled 15.20 pounds, about a pound more than I thought I had. I learned that it had been a tough day for many fishermen and Mark Johnson was able to catch only one fish. I'd talked to Craig Johnson, who thought he'd caught 14 to 141 pounds, so I knew it was going to be close."
Blackburn could sympathize with Mark Johnson "because the same thing happened to me the week before at the Bass Fishing League regional on North Carolina's Kerr Lake. I missed a 5-pounder that would have qualified me for the All-American championship."
Being able to become a professional bass fisherman is just a dream, but Blackburn prefers being able to stay home with wife, Robin, and their 6-year-old daughter. He will compete in the Savannah River Division of the BFL and also the Southern Anglers Challenge circuit.
"I'm happy just to win tournaments and enough money to support my fishing," he said.
YEAR-BY-YEAR MR. CLARK HILL RESULTS
1973: Sam Seal, CSRA Bassmasters, 10-fish limit, 16 pounds, 10 ounces. 1974: Noel Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 11-4. 1975: Bobby Dickinson, CSRA Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 11-4. 1976: Thurston Hall, Clark Hill Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 24 pounds. 1977: Gerald Osborne, Tugaloo Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 17 pounds. 1978: Thurston Hall, Clark Hill Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 14 pounds. 1979: Fred Swanson, Belvedere Bass Busters, 6 bass, 8 pounds, 4 ounces.
1980: Gerald Champagne, River Rats Bass Club, 8-fish limit, 13 pounds. 1981: Wayne Rowell, River Rats Bass Club, 8-fish limit, 15 pounds. 1982: Noel Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 16 pounds. 1983: Noel Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 19-1. 1984: David Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 8-fish limit, 15-10. 1985: Noel Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 7-fish limit, 13-14. 1986: Larry Gilpin, Wildwood Bassmasters, 7-fish limit, 15-10. 1987: Ed Rice, Belvedere Bass Busters, 7-fish limit, 13-11. 1988: David Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 7-fish limit, 16-4. 1989: David Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 12-2.
1990: Carter Loftis, Clark Hill Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 11-12. 1991: Bill McKie, Belvedere Bass Busters, 5-fish limit, 15-7. 1992: Robert Chapman, Midland Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 18-4. 1993: Marty Quesada Jr., Martinez Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 14 pounds. 1994: Henry Bordeaux, Suburban Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 14-4. 1995: Glenn Hubbard, Evans Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 14 pounds. 1996: Donald Miller, Outcast Bass Club, 5-fish limit, 15-5. 1997: Bob Becton, River Rats Bass Club, 5-fish limit, 18-1. 1998: Dale Gibbs, Outcast Bass Club, 5-fish limit, 22-2. 1999: Darle Opalewski, CSRA Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 22.62 pounds.
2000: Bob Becton, Outcast Bass Club, 5-fish limit, 14.68 pounds. 2001: Dale Gibbs, Outcast Bass Club, 5-fish limit, 15.36 pounds. 2002: Mike Guilbeau, Evans Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 11.66 pounds. 2003: David Brown, CSRA Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 11.4 pounds. 2004: Marty Quesada Jr., Belvedere Bass Busters, 5-fish limit, 17 pounds. 2005: Mike Tuten, Richmond County Bassmasters, 5-fish limit, 14-9. 2006: Bart Blackburn, Columbia County River Rats Bass Club, 28.36 pounds*.
*Two-day, 10-fish limit
Source: Mr. Clark Hill Committee