By Todd Ceisner
When the Forrest Wood Cup came to Lake Murray in August 2008, a pre-tournament storm front threw everything into flux. The schooling bite that some competitors were banking on faded early in the tournament as the falling water temperatures pulled more fish up shallow, including the fish Michael Bennett eventually won with.
In that tournament, Anthony Gagliardi was pretty much all in on the offshore herring bite and when it dropped off so, too, did his chances of competing for a win at his home lake.
He put his eggs in several different baskets last week as the Cup returned to Murray. Not only did he target bass that were pushing bait to the surface over deep water and shallow points, he fished brush that he'd planted in inconspicuous spots in the Little Saluda River. His multi-faceted game plan allowed him to be consistent across all 4 days of the tournament and gave him different options when conditions changed.
He made the weekend cut in 7th place, then moved up to 3rd after day 3 before seizing the victory with a 13-14 stringer on the final day that gave him a 51-02 total and a dramatic 1-ounce win over Scott Canterbury, who's been the runner-up in two of the last three Cups.
"It still hasn't sunk in yet," Gagliardi said Monday afternoon.
He's got plenty of time to allow his triumphant comeback from a DQ at the season opener to wash over him the next Tour event won't be until next March in Florida. After the win, he reflected on what he learned from having gone through what he did this season.
"I'm super hard on myself when I don't perform or do as well as I think I should," he said. "I get down really easy and it's hard for me to get out of that sometimes. My wife is always trying to encourage me and trying to pull me out of those little slumps.
"After the DQ, obviously, I was low, but after the first tournament at Hartwell, I stayed positive all year. Even on the days when it looked like it was going to end my run to make it I'd catch a big one at the end of the day and still have a shot going into the next tournament. That happened at a couple of tournaments. At Kentucky Lake, on the first day, I didn't have but 12 pounds. I was out. I knew I wasn't going to make the Cup with that and then in the last 10 minutes, I caught two 4 1/2-pounders. It kept me alive and kept me in it for another day. There were so many cases like that throughout the year that I think I can learn from and use going forward."
Speaking of learning experiences, Gagliardi used the 2008 Cup as a reminder that he needed to have a couple game plans working heading into the tournament.
"In 2008, I focused almost 100 percent on schooling fish then because that's normally the deal this time of year," Gagliardi said. "We had that crazy weather in that tournament that threw that bite off and I didn't catch them on day 2 and missed the cut.
"We were having crazy weather again this year and I wanted to have other possibilities if the schoolers never materialized or if it died for some reason. I wanted to have different backup plans."
While his competitors last week constantly noted how random the fishing was and talked of the need to constantly be finding and fishing new water, Gagliardi caught the lion's share of the fish he weighed off three areas.
Here's how he did it.
Living on Lake Murray gave Gagliardi more than enough time to survey the lake prior to it going off limits.
"I spent some time in pre-practice fishing shallow and looking for fish in that shore grass," he said. "That's when I stumbled upon the shallow point that I eventually fished on day 1.
"I went back in official practice and got a bite and that's when I realized there were more fish there when I got there. We had a northeast wind as part of that front around when the tournament started and that may have blown some bait in there. I'm not real sure, but I know there was a group of fish in there and they were actively feeding."
He wasn't too concerned about being seen on certain places during practice.
"There were places I knew I'd fish during tournament that I didn't need to fish in practice because those were places that I can fish it so fast and find out if they were there in 5 minutes and then move on if they weren't," he said. "There were a lot of places like that I didn't fish."
He'd also planted some brush in the river that he eventually fished and caught some key fish out of.
"I really didn't know what I was doing," he said. "It was more a random placement than anything. I tried to put it where there wasn't much shore cover and it's so small that it'd be almost impossible for someone to run across them. You had to make the exact right cast to find them.
"I put a good bit of it out there, but I concentrated it in a 1-mile stretch of river so I knew if I keyed on it I could fish it quick, but still have a lot of stuff to cover."
When fishing the area where the bass would school up and chase bait, Gagliardi would wait for the fish to show themselves before casting.
> Day 1: 5, 13-02
> Day 2: 4, 10-03
> Day 3: 5, 13-15
> Day 4: 5, 13-14
> Total = 19, 51-02
The consensus among the competitors heading into the tournament was that 13 to 14 pounds per day would put someone in contention to win. There would be the odd 16- to 18-pound bag, but nobody would be able to consistently produce that kind of weight.
Gagliardi got off to a solid start with 13-02 on Thursday that had him in 7th place. It was the perfect start really since he knew the leaders probably wouldn't be able to duplicate their big stringers and he wound up being right.
His program on day 1 a swimbait rigged on a jighead fished across shallow points was totally different than how he caught his fish the rest of the way.
"I got on a shallow herring bite that I wasn't aware of until the tournament started," he said. "It was something like what you see go on here in April or May. They were back in the back of a longneck and they were up on a shallow point in 2 or 3 feet of water. There were two points side by side. I'd had a couple bites in practice in there so I ended up going in there Thursday and they were feeding in there."
Day 2 turned out to be the toughest day, but it also was the most important in terms of the setting the stage for Gagliardi's weekend.
The spot he caught them Thursday didn't pan out for a second straight day and at 3 p.m., he only had three fish for about 5 pounds.
That's when he decided to run up the river to fish the brush he'd planted. He picked up a 10-inch worm and scored a 5-04 kicker that gave him four fish for 10-03, which kept him in 7th place entering Saturday.
He knew coming in one shy of a limit would dent his chances at winning, but the kicker was his saving grace.
"That was a key decision that helped me," he said.
On Saturday, he boxed four keepers by 9:30 on his schooling area just up from the dam on the lower end of the lake. Those fish all came on a fluke-style bait.
"It's just a point at the mouth of a deep pocket," he said. "The point itself is big and rounded and has separate fingers with deep water on all sides. It's just always been a place they school up."
Having four fairly early allowed him to make the decision to go fish brush earlier than he had on Friday. About noon, he headed into the river and finished his limit with a 5-pound kicker, caught again on the 10-inch worm.
His 13-15 bag was his best of the week and moved him into 3rd place, right in the middle of a tightly-packed Top 5 entering the final day.
He was the third boat to blast off Sunday and he headed straight to his schooling fish area by the dam. He had to work around a local angler who wasn't a fan of Gagliardi revealing his favorite fishing spot to a flotilla of spectator boats, but he managed to scratch out a limit there, but not without some frustrating moments.
"I had 4- and 5-pounders blowing up around me like I've not seen in a long time and I couldn't get the bites," he said. "I know when I make a cast at a fish that's doing that, when I'm supposed to get a bite and when I probably won't. I made umpteen casts that there was a 99.9 percent chance I was going to catch him or he's going to bite me and they didn't. I don't know what the reason was.
"Some of them were blowing up on herring. Some were feeding on shad, but some were knocking 4-, 5- and 6-inch herring out of the water and those are the ones that usually when you get something anywhere in their little area and they feel it, they're going to hit it. For some reason, they were so keyed in on what they were eating that I couldn't trigger them. I only caught one that I threw at while they were breaking and the other three I caught there just fishing while they were down.
"I lost a couple, including a big one that I thought would be troublesome. I caught my biggest one three casts after lost the big one. That helped. I still think about it. I did catch one right after that and that helped calm me down."
It was a fitting way for him to close out the win, fishing the way he loves on the lake he knows so well with so much at stake.
"If I'm around schooling fish, I don't care if everything goes right, I'm still going to be a nervous wreck when they're out busting around," he said. "That's my favorite way to catch them. I love sitting there waiting for them to come up. I didn't do it today, but normally I'd sit there with my rod in my hand and I don't care if it's been 20 minutes since they came up before, I won't cast because every time you do that and they come up you waste an opportunity. You're so much more apt to get a bite when those fish show themselves when they're up feeding than you are just casting around.
"I normally just sit there and just wait on them. There's no better feeling to me than when I see them come up and you throw out there and you're anticipating that bite and then he comes up and eats it. That's just my favorite way to fish."
Winning Pattern Notes
> Watching Gagliardi cast and fish a fluke for schooling fish would make even your wrist hurt. He would make a long cast to where he'd see a fish break the surface, then reel at a hyper-fast speed for several seconds, then stop and twitch the rod twice, then reel fast again and then twitch it twice.
"Not everybody fishes it like that and it's not so much a reaction bite because a reaction bite is when there's a fish lying in ambush and something flashes in front of their face and they inhale it," he said. "These fish have a good view of that bait and can see it from a long ways. They're coming from a long ways to eat so you have to make them commit. You have to make them want to eat it. When it's moving that fast and then you stop it, they're right there and inhale it. Being down in the clear water by the dam, too, that's the way the herring move. The bass are used to them moving so fast."
Winning Gear Notes
> Swimbait gear: 7'2" medium-action RainShadow Revelation casting rod, Daiwa Tatula casting reel, 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Buckeye swimbait jighead, 5" Basstrix swimbait (scaled sardine).
> Fluke gear: Same rod, same reel, 10-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, unnamed 4/0 EWG worm hook, Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits D Shad (pearl and olive shad).
> Worm gear: 7'6" unnamed flipping rod, same reel, 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight, unnamed 6/0 worm hook, 10" Zoom Ol' Monster (plum apple).
> The RainShadow rods are a new line from Batson Enterprises, which recently signed Gagliardi. He only had a few rods to use for the Cup. "We just threw some together so I could fish the tournament with them," he said. "What I'll eventually have is going to be even better than what I already have here."
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success "My decision to make that first run up the river on day 2. I had practiced that brush the last day of official practice and didn't get any bites and I kind of wrote it off. I wasn't even going to waste my time fishing it. On day 2, I was fishing the lower end and was really struggling so I decided to make that run and I gave myself hour or an hour and a half to fish and I caught that almost 5 1/2-pounder. To think I almost didn't go up there. That decision was huge, but I had a feeling that even though I didn't get any bites when I fished it, I thought there was a good chance I could catch a couple fish there. The next day, I spent more time there and caught two more good ones."
> Performance edge "My Humminbird 360. That was absolutely critical for me, not just in the tournament, but it allowed me to practice more efficiently. I don't think I'd have won had I not had the chance to practice with it. To pull up and not have a lineup on a brush pile and then to be able to find that line without driving right over the area and making it unfishable for a while was really important."
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