By Todd Ceisner
When the Forrest Wood Cup was contested at Lake Murray in the middle of August 2008, the field of 77 anglers encountered a lake that required an open and daring mind to conquer.
It was without a doubt the dog days of summer and the fishing conditions were less than ideal with peak summer temperatures, clear water and a post-front barometer conspiring to offer up a challenging puzzle.
While junk fishing was the predominant approach, it was Michael Bennett's risky call to go shallow and toss a frog when the stakes were sky high (the weekend) and the conditions were tough that ultimately carried him to the win and the $1 million payday.
So who's going to be the one to make the Maalox Call Of The Week this time around? Will the deep fish keying on roaming schools of herring cooperate for 4 days in a row or will it take a mix of deep and shallow to prevail? Or will someone get on a shallow pattern and ride it all the way through Sunday?
It's tough to pinpoint exactly how it will play out, but this much was easy to glean from the practice reports: It's going to be a grind this week.
A lot has happened at Murray in the six years since Bennett got the confetti shower, so it's hard to say with any certainty that this year's Cup will resemble the '08 version. That derby, at the very least, will serve as a distant reference point for this year's field, which is considerably smaller at 45 anglers, and especially for the 13 pros who will be fishing their second Murray Cup.
The lake figures to pose another grueling test this week and those who got an advanced look at the lake before it went off limits on July 27 came away wondering if there could be more zeroes than limits come tournament time. Some of that may be legit, but such bold statements have been debunked in the past. Some anglers admitted that practice in the summer conditions is overrated since things are just so random right now.
A BFL was held at Murray on July 12 and just eight anglers weighed in a limit of fish. Limits this week will be precious – the 10 finalists caught only eight limits over the final 2 days in '08 – and so will any fish in the 4-pound class. Where they come from, however, will be the most fascinating aspect of this event.
The water temperature has dropped 6 to 8 degrees in the past couple weeks, but after a cloudy start to practice, the sun burned through and will remain a fixture overhead so whatever activity was triggered by the drop in temperature will be blunted.
It all makes for a fascinating setup for this year's championship, which will feature the top five anglers in the current BassFan World Rankings. Before more about the bite itself, and the factors that will affect this year's event, here are some details on Lake Murray itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Murray
> Type of water: A deep, old, Saluda River impoundment that's clearer than average
> Surface acres: 50,000-plus
> Primary structure/cover: Stumps, clay banks, flats, ledges, brush piles, docks
> Primary forage: Blueback herring and threadfin shad
> Average depth: Not available
> Species: Largemouths only
> Minimum length: 14 inches
> Reputation: A sometimes-overlooked lake that's up there with the best in the Southeast. A heavy average with some 8-pound-plus brutes, but can be feast-or-famine in summer especially
> Weather: Blazing sun and hot straight through the weekend.
> Water temp: Mid-80s and likely to climb
> Water visibility/color: Decent stain in some areas, but should be on clearing trend
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 1 to 25 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Jigs, shallow cranks, plastics, frogs, swimbaits, tubes, soft jerkbaits, topwater, drop shot
> Winning weight (4 days): 54 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 20 after 2 days): 23 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2 for Murray
> Biggest factors: Mental toughness and execution. Those who can stay positive through long dry spells and land what bites will have a leg up
> Biggest decision: Deep or shallow?
> Wildcard: A couple big bites (5-plus pounders) could tilt the Cup in one guy's favor
What's The Shallow Story?
Murray is covered with docks and those will certainly factor into some anglers' plans, especially in the absence of any substantial grass beds. According to Michael Murphy, a former FLW Tour angler and Bassmaster Opens competitor who lives in nearby Lexington, it'll be intriguing to see what types of shallow water gets picked over.
Mark Rose will fish a combination of shallow and deeper water this week.
"I wouldn't limit myself to any type of shallow cover – there are laydowns and a little bit of grass," he said. "There's a lot of shoreline grass now with the rains we've had. It looks like the grass at Dardanelle. There's not much matted grass around.
"For that I like a cross between a guy who can catch them at Dardanelle and a guy who catches them at Hartwell or Clarks Hill."
Aside from the grass, there are countless bluegill beds scattered around the lake and there are always bass lurking around those areas.
Is Deeper Better?
Bassmaster Elite Series pro Britt Myers spent a lot of time fishing Murray early in his career and he thinks the Cup could just as easily be won on offshore fish, which are hit or miss in the summer, or in one of the many creek arms or up one of the rivers.
"Everything is such a hero or zero deal," he said. "It's so much easier to go up those rivers and fish shallow, but then it's like every other lake in the country. Down lake, it can be inconsistent, but if you can find them they can be the right ones.
"Basically, when you pull up to a spot, you have to fish extremely fast and move on. You can't spend much time in one area. The bass show up really fast on the lower end of the lake. It's very frustrating and it's weird. The guys who live around there will do well. It's like when we go to Florida and there's so much grass to flip and it seems like everybody is flipping the same stuff, but it always seems like it's the same guys who always catch them because they know those little differences to look for.
"These blueback lakes are unique and they're very frustrating. The (bass) are either there or they're not."
Murphy concurred and added anglers bent on finding the deep bite need to be prepared to run their big motor plenty.
"You're going to have to have a lot of places," he said. "Herring are very comparable to alewives. They look similar and act similar. Herring are just the warmer water version. If you get cloud cover, though, that bite will fall off. If it's sunny and windy, guys will catch them.
"Herring like the sun and wind whereas gizzard shad hide in the sun. There are a couple reasons why the herring bite is a risky deal. First, that stuff's out in the open and there's always the spectator factor – we see it so many times at bigger tournaments. Guys want to learn something and follow people and then just want to catch something. That's just the way it is.
"The other reason is the wind factor. If you have a place that's good and windy on day 1 and then it's slick flat, they'll start biting funny. If the school is big enough it won't matter, but it's a very fickle game. If a guy can figure out how they move around each day and change presentations, he could do alright."
On The Move
Running and gunning. Junk fishing. Some of this, a little of that. BassFans will hear a lot of that this week.
However the Cup plays out, it's safe to assume those at or near the top of the ledger will be mixing up techniques and presentations and then refining them as the event wears on. Bass fishing at this time of year at Murray just isn't conducive to sitting on an area and hammering away for eight hours.
Casey Ashley has won at Lake Murray before and will be among the anglers favored by many to win this week.
The conditions changed throughout practice and while the weather appears as though it'll stabilize for the tournament, anglers know that doesn't mean the fishing will be more consistent. The randomness of bites in practice has led some to believe they'll need to move every 15 or 20 minutes.
The consensus among the field is that this Cup won't be won by hitching your wagon to a shallow-water pattern since there doesn't appear to be a high volume of bass in skinny water. There are stretches where a few fish can be had, but it's been hard to run around and build a pattern on similar cover. At the same time, the offshore fish can turn on and off like a light switch depending on the presence of schools of bait, whether it's blueback herring or threadfin shad.
Here are some other things to be mindful of as the Cup approaches:
> Gotta Be 14: At the start of 2013, the South Carolina DNR instituted a new 14-inch minimum size requirement for largemouths on Murray. It had been 12 inches. Those 2 additional inches could loom large for some anglers this week.
"Those guys who had 11 pounds last time with a 5-pounder and four 13-inchers will be in trouble and that could affect some people," Murphy said.
> Early Fall?: While it may sound like a stretch seeing that Columbia was just pounded with several days in the 90s, a string of cloudy and rainy days may push the water temperature down a bit. It had been hovering around 80 and Murphy says if it starts to tumble into the 70s, some early fall patterns might emerge. It seems unlikely, but it's worth noting.
"We had a hurricane (Arthur) come through in late June and it dropped the lake 5 degrees," Murphy said. "If we get another wave of rains and it gets down another few degrees around 77 or 78 I think it'll really be good. It seems like they're where they want to be for the fall-time bite, it's just hard to get them to bite."
> Get Ready For Lulls: The action is not expected to be fast and furious from takeoff to check-in this week, which means anglers will need to capitalize on the spurts and flurries when they happen.
"Some guys will start their day right out of the gate and just catch them and will have five for 13 and then go through dry spells," Murphy said. "Some guys won't catch anything until 11 and then catch 14 pounds right away.
"Every lake this time of year is notorious for having lulls in the late morning and early afternoon. It's like playing a waiting game. The unfortunate truth is if you don't have wind the afternoon bite can get really tough, especially on the weekend with all the boat traffic."
> Up A Creek: The Saluda and Little Saluda rivers will probably attract a fair bit of attention from those who want to hug the bank, but don't rule out the major creek arms. Murphy says drawing a north-south line that passes through Dreher Island State Park on a map is a rough way to separate the lower lake from the river portion.
"I'm not saying you can't run in the backs of the creeks down lake and catch them, but in these herring lakes, the shallow fish tend to be more up above the split," Murphy noted. "The water colors changes, too, up above the (391) bridge."
Here's a look at how Lake Murray lays out.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It's been tough on me. It's just going to be a grind. I think if you can catch five and get one good one each day, you'll do okay. I haven't put it together yet. It's just random. It's hard to pattern anything. You can run into an area with a couple of fish in it, but it's mainly because there's bait in that area. You have to get around bait. Why they're there is random. You can run 10 identical things structure-wise and they'll only be on one thing.
"There are moments when it's not too bad. I had a dry spell on Monday for like five or six hours. Just like any other event you have to stay focused and stay positive. You're going to have to fish super clean and you can't get discouraged and be negative and then miss one.
"You're going to have to mix it up to win. Somebody can do fairly good shallow, but I think you'll run out of fish. It's just so hard to get bit deep that I don't think you can catch enough deep. You can settle down in some shallow areas, but the deep stuff will be run and gun. You're going to have to run new water every day and fish what looks right that day at that moment."
"It's not easy. You can go hours upon hours without catching a fish. I had a little better day Monday but it's an absolute grind. It's too bad we're not here a month from now. This is the worst possible time, basically, to come any lake in the South.
"This lake is actually very good. I've fished it in the spring and it's easy to pattern and it has lots of big ones. You can pick up a bait and catch one and go four hours and not catch another one. I caught three keepers Sunday and then went 7 hours Monday without catching one.
"You can catch fish doing both, but not a lot. When or if I catch one on tournament day, I'm going to be excited about it. I think a guy can do well both ways.
"When I did well here, I didn't feel like I was chasing the herring deal because I don't feel like I have a clue what to do with the herring fish. Even now, the fish I've seen I don't think they're eating herring."
"I fished the Cup here last time so I have some history of what I thought was going on. It's been really random for me. I can get some bites and I caught one big one Monday, but there was no rhyme or reason to it. I don't have that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you pull into your first spot and think you'll catch a 4- or 5-pounder.
"Some guys will catch some schooling fish early, but after that it's going to be a grind to get it done. It's like that anywhere in the south right now. This is going to be a tough tournament, especially when the sun comes out. This won't be like going to Lanier. There's a lot of brush here, but on the main lake they seem to roam a lot more and they're hard to catch.
"I think the majority of people will catch them shallower than 15 feet. It's not going to be a super deep tournament. When the fish are up and active and you can actually catch them they're a little shallower than normal."
"There are a lot of changing conditions so you'll need to keep an open mind and fish on the fly. The guy who can mentally stay strong and adjust throughout the day is going to do well. Whether you're fishing shallow or deep, you can't be afraid to change it up.
"I haven't figured out the winning deal yet. There are a lot of big fish in here – you can catch a 6 or 7 shallow or deep, but when the sun has come out and it slicks off it slows way down. When it's cloudy, those fish stay active longer. The same goes for shallow fish. It seemed like the shallow and deep fish bit good Sunday, but Monday I got some bites early and then it got ugly.
"It's going to be fun to see how it's won. I'd be surprised if the winner isn't mixing up several things. Execution will be huge. We're not going to catch 20 keepers a day. If you miss some, mentally you have to recover and capitalize on the next one."
"The last two days before off limits I figured a little bit of a deep bite and it seems to be working out pretty good, and I found a shallow bite, too, so I'm going to do them both. I have confidence in the lake now so that helps out a lot. I think it'll be a little better than everybody thinks.
"I'll probably spend 15 to 20 minutes in an area. I've usually been getting a bite pretty quick in some areas. I'd love to have a 15-plus pound bag on day 1. I think if you can catch 10 to 12 pounds a day that will get you to Saturday and 14 pounds a day will win it. One big bag will go a long way here this week."
"I'm not on 'em, but I'm going to fish hard the first 2 days. There are a lot of things I'd like to do with an extra day of practice. It hurts because I was starting to get an idea (Tuesday) of what I think is going on. I'm just going to have to run with it in the tournament and see if it's right. The problem is it's almost like fishing the James (River) because you have a definite early morning bite and you really have to capitalize on it. I wish I had more time to narrow it down.
"I'm just going to fish shallow. I don't really have any knowledge of the offshore stuff here. This time of year, the fish don't seem to be deep. Some guys might find them, but we're in the dog days of summer and it's just going to be a grind. I got four bites (Monday) and five Tuesday. I'm trying to expand a little bit on what I know, but it ain't great."
"I had a couple bites fishing shallow, but only having 1 day of practice, that's what I'm going to do. I didn't have time to go out and fish around deep. I just feel like I can run shallow stuff and if I get bit, fine, and if I don't that's fine. That's one of the downfalls of fishing two tours – losing practice time.
Scott Canterbury expects the tournament to be a grind and mental toughness will go a long way when the bites are few and far between.
"I don't know if there's enough fish shallow to survive. I know nothing about this lake. I didn't talk to anyone. I have no idea what the weights are going to be. You never know shallow. It just takes the right day and the right little stretch and you can catch a few big ones. I didn't see any in practice, but there are some up there all year around.
"The time of year I won at Hartwell, the fish were thinking about spawning and here, that's a ways off. All they're thinking about is eating. I don't have a lot of experience with these herring lakes and that's why I'll be on the bank. I may catch them or I may not, but I know I'll feel more comfortable fishing shallow than being out there dragging something around deep."
"It's been tough, but these tough ones can sometimes give you the best opportunity to win if you can stumble upon a few good bites. The last time the Cup was here, I wasn't on anything going into the tournament and it kind of happened during the tournament and I'm hoping that plays out again.
"There's no matted vegetation (this time), which is where I caught some fish in 2008. That's a lot of things for bass. This year, there is no offshore grass and no matted stuff. There are docks and what few brush piles are out there. I'm just going to fish all of the above and hope to get a few good bites. I've been able to get a few while I've been here – not many. They're hard to come by.
"I'm going to fish what's in front of me and fish the conditions. I think we'll have a lot of sun and the good thing is we had that Tuesday and we got to see how it' going to be. It's going to be a fun week. If you can catch them, you make a big check. If you don't catch them, you still make a big check. It's a win-win."
"I really believe it's going to be a junk-fishing tournament, but more importantly it's all about timing. You can pull into an area and get bit and then pull up to that same spot the next day at the same time and not get a bite. I did it back to back on a couple of spots I've gotten bit before – I went back just to check and they were gone. That just told me to move around a lot until you get on some active fish. Either that or hunker down in a couple spots if you know they're going to be there.
"I think it'll be a deep and shallow combination. I haven't been able to get on a solid shallow bite or a solid deep bite. I'm catching some doing both and then some suspended fish as well. That suspended bite is hard because it's cloudy one minute and sunny the next and they never get locked into a good position.
"I haven't figured out the blueback herring deal, but I feel like I've found enough of the threadfin shad schools that I understand them a little better. They're not as big of fish chasing the threadfins, but at least I'm able to get bit."
"I just hope to catch five a day. It's going to be a grind and it's going to be tough on everybody. I know some guys who are catching some fish and everybody's getting a few bites, but you can come out here and catch none, one, two or three pretty darn easy. I think you can do that a lot easier than you can catch five.
"If I've gotten bites on anything, I quit doing it pretty quick and moved on to something else. I never really had anything just jump out at me. I don't think there's a lot of fish to be had the way I'm fishing. It's just a grind catching one at a time and going two or three hours without a bite. Then you'll get into a little section and maybe get two or three bites, but it seems like no more than that. It's hard to get a feel for it.
"I can get a random bite on docks. I can get a random bite between docks and it's that way all day long. It's just random. It seems to me that it's wherever the bait's at. If you see a little schooling activity, that's where you get bit, whether it's on a dock or a topwater. Then it kind of goes away and you can go back through stuff that looks just like it and never get another bite."
"I really feel like that if it's not Casey Ashley or Anthony Gagliardi, the guy who wins will develop the pattern during the tournament. Things are constantly changing. In tournament situations, the best guys seem to fish to a higher level. In practice they're just fishing around and getting an idea of what's going on, but when the tournament starts there are some guys in this group that make adjustments and throw practice out the window and just go with their gut feeling.
"The first day of practice the water didn't get above 80. It was misty and rainy. When it gets down into the 70s, these fish start to chomp. Sunday was pretty good. I had 16 or 17 keeper bites. I know multiple guys who could've had a good day. On Monday, things warmed up a bit and Tuesday it warmed up even more and it was 100-percent different.
"I've not seen the numbers shallow that I thought should be shallow. This lake looks unbelievable as far as cover – there's so much bank grass and docks and wood – you'd think they'd be all over the place, but you can fish a mile stretch that looks awesome and never get a bite. This lake still has me scratching my head. I don't even know where I'm going to start Thursday."
"My mindset's pretty good and I'm confident, but that's not to say I've gone out there and stroked them every single day of practice because I haven't caught that many fish. I feel like I have an idea and I think it'll be similar to the last one here.
"I knew what I needed to do to win and I felt like I had a shot to win with what I had found. I don't think I've had as good a practice in this one as I did that first one, but at the same time I feel like I practiced different. I diversified what I did to some extent. That may or may not play out, but I have a couple different things I can do to catch fish whereas in 2008 I was dialed into one technique and when that slid by the wayside. I did as well.
It's so unpredictable here on any given day. A lot of lakes in the summer stay fairly consistent. It's not like that here. One day can bring one thing and the very next day it'll be something completely different. I feel like I prepared as best I could. The advantage I have is I have so many places to fish. I have a lot of spots. When the bite's tougher, having a volume of spots is key so if I can catch a fish out of one of every 20 places then I'll feel pretty good."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Bryan Thrift – Running and gunning is his game and there will be no shortage of moving around this week. He's finished 3rd at the last two Cups and was the day-3 leader last year so he'll be anxious to see if he can get over the hump and finish this week.
2. Anthony Gagliardi – He took a hard road to get here, but with the year's most lucrative event playing out in his backyard (literally), he'll be fishing with a purpose, especially after finishing 48th in the 2008 Cup.
3. Jason Christie – For the second straight year, he'll fish the Cup directly on the heels of an Elite Series event up north so his stamina will be put to the test. He's won at Hartwell before, albeit in the spring, so he's familiar with the herring lakes. He likes to wing it shallow mostly and if he can find some productive vegetation or skinny water, the world's top-ranked pro could add his first major title to the mantel.
4. Casey Ashley – Aside from Gagliardi, he's the top local angler in the field. He won at Hartwell earlier this year and won the Murray Elite Series event in May 2011. He's a shallow-water guy by nature, but he knows the lake well enough to know flexibility and mobility will be important.
5. Brent Ehrler – Mr. Consistency is one of five former Cup winners in the field. He's a freak with a topwater and in deep, clear-water scenarios. His average finish in seven career events at Murray and comparable venues (Lanier, Hartwell) is 11th with a win (Hartwell) and three other Top-10s.
6. Andy Morgan – It's hard to pick against the winner of back-to-back AOY awards who will be fishing his record 17th Cup. If he makes the weekend as he's apt to do, his presence alone could shake things up.
7. David Dudley – A former Cup winner, Dudley was 14th at Murray in 2008 and has a decent track record at herring lakes like Lanier and Hartwell. He knows how to close, too, so if he's sniffing around the Top 10 on the weekend, he could become the first two-time Cup winner.
8. Mark Rose – He caught 20 pounds and led after day 1 of the '08 Cup, but faded on the weekend. He had yet another rock-solid season and has to be considered among the best pros on tour without an AOY or Cup win to his credit.
9. Jacob Wheeler – The youngster continues to shine when the lights are brightest and the pressure is ramped up. He won the Cup with a shallow-water gamble at Lanier in 2012, then stormed back after a miserable day 1 last year to finish 2nd at the Red River. His victory at BASSFest this summer proved he's capable of winning anywhere against anyone.
10. Cody Meyer – Had a dynamite season and would've captured the AOY had it not been for the other-worldly performance turned in by Morgan. Murray seems to fit his skill set and he's historically strong in the Cup with four Top-11 finishes in five appearances.
> Anglers will launch at 7 a.m. ET all 4 days at Dreher Island State Park (3677 State Park Road, Prosperity, SC 29127). Weigh-ins all 4 days will get under way at 5 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena (801 Lincoln Street, Columbia, SC 29208). On days 1 and 2, arena doors will open at 4 p.m. On day 3, doors open at 3:30 p.m. and on day 4, doors will open at 3 p.m.
> The FLW Expo will be held from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 15-17 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center (1101 Lincoln Street, Columbia, SC 29210).
> Thurs., Aug. 14 – Sunny - 89°/69°
- Wind: From the NE at 6 mph
> Fri., Aug. 15 – Mostly Sunny - 91°/69°
- Wind: From the NNE at 4 mph
> Sat., Aug. 16 – Partly Cloudy - 93°/71°
- Wind: From the SSW at 6 mph
> Sun., Aug. 17 – Mostly Sunny - 95°/74°
- Wind: From the SW at 9 mph