He has ridden the back roads from rural Carolina all the way to victory lane of the Bassmaster Classic, leaving many people wondering who Casey Ashley is and what the secret is to winning the world championship of bass fishing.
Born and raised in Donalds, S.C., Ashley’s blood is as red as Piedmont clay and when he speaks you can hear the easy, confident flow of the Savannah River in his voice.
His success in professional fishing comes from a lifetime of pure, clean country living in the outdoors, which started before he can remember.
He caught his first bass at the age of four or five on a Zebco 33.
“Mom loved to crappie fish so dad would take us all crappie fishing over on Clarks Hill,” says Ashley, who turned 31 in February. “While we crappie fished, dad would cast for bass. Of course, I wanted to fish just like dad for bass. So he rigged me up a Carolina-rigged lizard and let me sling it around.”
“Pretty soon I was tangling with a pound and a half bass,” he adds with a grin that’s a country mile wide. “It was barely a keeper, but it was a monster to me. That was it. I was hooked.”
As a kid, Sunday nights were special in the Ashley household because Casey was allowed to watch The Bassmasters TV show, which aired on The Nashville Network at the time.
“That was the original Bassmaster show andit came on late Sunday night,” Ashley remembers. “Even though I had school the next day, dad let me stay up to watch it. I could hardly sleep after watching those shows.”
From an early age, Ashley imprinted on fishing legends like Denny Brauer, Tommy Biffle, George Cochran and, of course, Kevin VanDam.
“When I was in the fourth grade I did a book report on professional fishing as the job I wanted to have when I grew up,” he adds. “It’s the only career I’ve ever wanted.”
“I started fishing tournaments with dad when I was probably 8 or 9 years old,” he recalls. “Sometimes they wouldn’t let us fish, saying I was too young to be a participant.”
Starting in the 8th grade, Ashley attended Dixie High School in Due West, S.C., where he honed his competitive side in football, basketball and baseball.
“I played all three, but I probably enjoyed baseball the most,” he says. “When you step up to the plate and it’s just you and that ball – it’s sort of like when they call your boat number in a tournament and it’s just you and the fish.”
School and sports took up and a lot of Ashley’s time, but every spare minute was spent in the outdoors.
“If we weren’t in school or on a ball field, we were in the woods chasing critters or on the water fishing,” he says. “During the winters, we would go coon hunting every night after dinner. On the weekends we would start the day rabbit hunting, then go fishing, deer hunt in the afternoons and then coon hunt at night – I mean it was nonstop.”
During the summers, Ashley worked on a local farm, hauling hay and fishing evening tournaments along the Savannah River chain with his dad.
“Dad would pick me up after work with the boat in tow and I’d be covered in hay dust,” Ashley recounts. “He’d bring me a pair of swim trunks, I’d jump in the water at the lake for my bath and then I was ready to fish the derby – those were good times.”
By the time he graduated from high school, Ashley had already earned a doctorate in the outdoors from the hills and rivers of God’s country. However, his fascination with the movements and migrations of wildlife is never ending.
“If we were hunting we would wonder what the fish were doing,” he says. “If we were fishing we would wonder what the raccoons or deer were doing. After you hunt and fish for years you begin to realize how it’s all connected and cyclical in the outdoor world. How the seasons cycle, new moons grow to full moons, drought turn to floods, warm fronts are replaced with cold fronts – all of it affects wildlife and being in tune with those outdoor rhythms is what I live for.”
After graduating from high school in 2002, Ashley attended Piedmont Technical College, a two-year community college, where he earned a degree in Industrial Electronics as a fallback plan in case pro fishing didn’t work out.
“Timken Bearings over in Honea Path, is a major employer in this area,” he confirms. “I knew I would have a small window on Tour to make it and if I didn’t, that’s where I was going to work.”
In January of 2006, Casey Ashley officially began his campaign to make it as a pro angler. He teamed up with fellow Carolinians Marty Robinson and Jason Williamson and headed for fabled Lake Okeechobee to fish what was then called the EverStart Series.
“That was the first time I had ever left home,” says Ashley, who was 22 at the time. “Fortunately, I had Marty and Jason to run with. We were just Carolina country guys trying to break into bass fishing’s big leagues.”
Fishing in his first “big time” tournament at Okeechobee, Ashley found himself leading the event after day one, but eventually finished 17th, which only fueled his fishing fire more.
“After that event I entered all five of the 2006 BASS Opens and ended up qualifying for the 2007 Elites,” he says. “I finished fourth in the last Open that year and won a boat, which paid for my deposits into the Elites. In fact, Marty, Jason and I all qualified for the Elites together that year.”
At their very first Elite event as rookies in 2007, the Carolina contingent got their first dose of pro fishing reality. While in en route to Amistad, all three of their trucks were broken into, resulting in stolen phones, GPS units and tackle.
“We limped on to Amistad with broken windows and sharing tackle to get by,” Ashley remembers. “None of us made a check in that event and we had to drive to California for the next one. I remember thinking at that moment, what in the world have we gotten ourselves into, here? We had barely gotten started and I was already broke!”
Ashley pressed on and four tournaments later won the Elite Series event on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia.
“That was huge for me,” he says. “It took me from being behind to being ahead of the game financially. And it also helped secure a berth into my first Classic – the 2008 Classic on Lake Hartwell.”
Down a Country Road
Amazingly, Ashley’s gift of being in tune with the water to catch fish is rivaled by his gift to carry a tune with his voice and guitar. He actually began singing in high school for talent shows and then picked up the guitar soon afterward. Since then he has traveled with a six-string to tournaments and fin
ds that strumming a few songs in the evening is therapeutic.
“Whether it’s been a good or bad day on the water, it’s nice to take a break from it for a while and sing,” Ashley says. “It helps ease our minds, for a bit anyway.”
During the 2007 season, Ashley volunteered to sing the National Anthem at takeoff and it caught the ear of famous songwriter Rodney Clawson, who was fishing the event as a co-angler.
With a love of fishing and country music in common, Clawson and Ashley became friends, which led to a slight detour down a country road, so to speak.
“Rodney wrote a song called Fisherman about the pro fishing lifestyle that he wanted me to sing,” Ashley says. “We took it to Nashville in 2008, recorded it as a single and did a video for it and it became my theme song on tour.”
In 2011 Ashley and Clawson teamed up again to record a demo CD of six songs entitled Released. Ashley says he still has a passion for music but over the last few years professional fishing has taken precedence.
“It’s hard to chase two dream careers down at once,” he says. “If anyone thinks pro fishing is too expensive and competitive, go to Nashville to try to sing. There are hundreds of extremely talented singer/songwriters waiting tables for that big break. I love to sing, but fishing is where my heart is and that’s where I’m going to stay for while.”
Home is where the Hart(well) is
Professional fishing is all about preparation but Ashley contends there are a couple things in pro fishing that you can never prepare for:
“Fishing your first Classic and winning a Classic, especially on your home lake,” he says. “At my first Classic, I thought I could block it all out; heck, I couldn’t even block out media day the first time around.”
Ashley finished 17th in his first Bassmaster Classic at Hartwell. But it was that very Classic that laid the foundation for his win in 2015.
“A lot of people have asked me when did I first start practicing for the 2015 Classic,” he says. “And the honest answer to that is, seven years ago at my first Classic. Since they had record crowds at that event, I knew BASS would eventually come back to Hartwell and I vowed to get it right when they returned.”
Before he could redeem himself with a Classic win at home, he won a FLW Tour event on Hartwell in March of 2014 – a warning shot that he meant business in defending his home turf. Ashley added the FLW Tour to his schedule in 2014 in an effort to qualify for the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Murray, Ashley’s other “home lake.”
In fishing the FLW Tour event on Hartwell, Ashley was initially concerned he might show a little too much of his Hartwell hand, giving 2015 Classic qualifiers a generous head start on what to look for. But that never happened. In fact, the way Ashley won the FLW Tour event on Hartwell might have been a bit of a decoy for those examining his win for clues for the Classic.
“The way this has all worked out is just crazy,” Ashley reveals. “At the FLW event, the herring bite, which I wanted to keep under wraps, never materialized. I caught a few using an underspin in that event, but the herring bite was not happening and I ended up winning it on a jig in brush.”
“At the Classic this year, the complete opposite happened,” he continues. “The jig bite was nonexistent for me and the herring bite was much stronger. So it was like a flip flop in tactics.”
Ashley’s record on herring lakes is impressive. In addition to his two wins on Hartwell, he also has an Elite Series victory on Lake Murray in 2011. When asked why he is so dangerous on herring lakes, Ashley says he knows when to utilize the herring bite and when to leave it alone. He points to the vast differences in the FLW events and the Classic as primary examples.
“That whole herring deal is dicey,” he reveals. “Sometimes they can make you look like a hero and sometimes they can completely derail you. Knowing when to play them and when to avoid them altogether is key.
“Over the last year I fished three events on herring lakes. At the FLW event on Hartwell, I bailed on the herring and went to deep brush to get away from them. At the Forrest Wood Cup at Murray, I couldn’t make herring work so I avoided them completely again and focused on shallow bream patterns and missed winning that event by 11 ounces. Then at the Classic this year, I realized those herring were right where I needed them to be so I decided to play the herring game, especially on the last day when I committed to the deep herring pattern.”
Since winning bass fishing’s biggest title on February 22, Ashley says his life has been a whirlwind.
“Like I said, nothing can prepare you for a Classic win,” he explains. “You think you have an idea of what’s fixing to happen, but you don’t. Actually, the day after I won was somewhat quiet. But looking back, I realize that was just the calm before the storm. I’ve been on the phone in interviews and doing radio shows ever since.”
Ashley’s biggest challenge since winning the Classic has been getting up to speed with an online and social media presence.
“I’m more of a reserved person and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not tech savvy –if those are even the right words,” he laughs. “But my goal is to change that. I want fans to know what this year will be like for me; I want them to be able to follow along with what’s going on in my career. So we’re getting the ball rolling on that front as well as trying to keep up with media and appearance requests.”
“But the last thing you will hear me do is complain,” he adds. “It has been my dream to win the Bassmaster Classic since I watched it on the Bassmaster TV show when I was 7 years old and now it’s happened and I want to soak up every moment of it.”
Casey Ashley of Donalds, S.C., won the 2015 Bassmaster Classic, which was held on Lake Hartwell February 20-22.
Ashley has been a fulltime professional angler since 2006. During that time he has competed on the BASS Elite Series for eight seasons, qualifying for the Bassmaster Classic six times and winning two Elites Series events: Smith Mountain Lake (2007) and Lake Murray (2011). In addition, he has scored 15 top-10’s in Elite competition and amassed $1,150,262 in BASS winnings. His highest finish in the BASS Angler of the Year race is 8th in 2011,
Ashley also competed on the FLW Tour for one season (2014) and took home a FLW Tour win on Hartwell and a fourth place finish in the Forrest Wood Cup on Lake Murray.