By Todd Ceisner
Itís mid-August in the South. For some, that means football season is right around the corner. For others, itís time to prep for hunting season.
For the 53 competitors in this weekís Forrest Wood Cup, it means itís time to get acclimated to Lake Murray, the 50,000-acre, deep and sometimes stingy Saluda River reservoir that will play host to FLWís signature event for the third time.
Stingy certainly seems to be a fitting description this week as the four-day practice session yielded plenty of groans, wincing and head scratches from anglers. This event has all the makings of a classic grind.
ďI havenít caught a keeper yet,Ē one competitor said in a text message after two days of practice.
ďI remember why I caught two fish last time,Ē said another.
This was to be expected, though, as there appear to be no sure things at the lake that endured significant flooding in the fall of 2015. The shallow bite isnít as dependable as some had hoped it would be, presumably because the water isnít as high as it was three years ago. The offshore schooling fish that chase wads of nomadic herring are simply unpredictable, with very few exceptions.
That combination has some concerned about where to go to find something Ė†anything Ė†to build on. Add to that a 3-day tournament format (a first for the Cup) and it will be interesting to see how strategies evolve. Plenty of competitors sank new brush in advance of this tournament, but time will tell whether those endeavors pay off.
Many believe the first 2 to 3 hours each day will be critical as that is the best topwater-bite window. If the cloud cover that dominated practice sticks around through the weekend, as some forecasts predict, that window could be extended.
Beyond that, the shallow-water patterns havenít been reliable, but some will still commit a good bit of time Friday to seeking out productive water with the knowledge that recycling spots later on is likely unfeasible.
While bites have been tough to come by, virtually every angler interviewed referenced that when they did catch a fish in practice, it was in the 3-pound range.
ďWhen you get bit, for the most part, they are keepers,Ē said Matthew Stefan, the Wisconsin pro whoís competing in his third Cup.
The water temperature was in the 90s at the start of practice on Sunday, but has retreated into the low to mid 80s, thanks to prolonged cloud cover. However, such a temperature swing isnít expected to trigger wholesale changes around the lake. If anything, the rain on Tuesday and Wednesday might add a little stain to the Big Saluda and Little Saluda rivers and the creeks on the upper end of the lake.
There are eight competitors in this weekís field who will be making their third Cup appearance at Murray and six qualifiers will be vying for a second career Cup title.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake 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: Largemouth
> 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 the dead of summer
> Weather: Scattered thunderstorms and rain expected each day with temperatures in the high 80s.
> Water temp: Low to mid 80s
> Water visibility/color: Rain could add some stain to a few creeks, but itís clearer on the lower end.
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 1 to 25 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Jigs, shallow cranks, plastics, frogs, swimbaits, tubes, soft jerkbaits, topwater, dropshots
> Winning weight (3 days): 42 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 10 after 2 days): 22 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 2.5 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: Where to start Ė†the early-morning bite will go a long way in deciding the outcome
> Wildcard: A couple big bites (5-plus pounders) could tilt the Cup in one guy's favor
Hereís a closer look at how Murray lays out, courtesy of the Navionics web app:
Limits Mostly a Must
Itís not a requirement to catch five fish a day at Murray to contend for the Cup, but it sure helps and it figures to be a necessity this year with the shift to a three-day format. Itíll be difficult to overcome a day without a limit with one fewer day of competition.
When he won in 2008, Michael Bennett came in with four fish on day 4, but still prevailed by more than 9 pounds. In 2014, the top two finishers Ė Anthony Gagliardi and Scott Canterbury Ė both came in short of a limit one day.
The same year Gagliardi won, day 4 was the only day on which more than half of the competitors (six of 10) in action that day caught a limit. In 2008, day 1 was the only day Murray produced limits for more than half (43 out of 77) the competitors.
Anthony Gagliardi has a Tour win and a Cup victory at Lake Murray.
One thing BassFans shouldnít expect to see is a summertime big-weight shootout. In the two previous Cups held at Murray (both in August), only two 20-pound stringers have been registered and there have been just eight other bags of 15 pounds or more.
According to Tim Harmon, a tournament angler from Lexington, S.C., who owns Tree Shaker Tackle and last fall organized the Quest Pro Challenge event at Murray, says the lake is ďweirdĒ right now.
Thereís been a tough-to-identify grass growing on the lower end thatís puzzled locals for the better part of a year. The herring bite now more resembles that which occurs in April and there seem to be more sub-14-inch bass in the lake than Harmon can recall.
ďItís going to be a grind,Ē Harmon said. ďThe lake is probably fishing as tough as it ever has. Anything in August or September on Murray is hard. Itís already hard and Iíve seen the last two times for the Cup. To me, itís fishing even harder now and the fishing is cut in half because of the grass.Ē
Harmon believes the lower end will be a wildcard now because of the above factors.
ďSince the spring thereís a been a tall, nasty grass growing and its 10 to 12 feet tall in some places,Ē Harmon said. ďItís very hard to fish because it breaks off easy. There are plenty of bait fish there, but the fish donít live there.Ē
He hasnít spoken to anyone whoís been able to identify the vegetation, but heís anxious to see if any Cup competitors are able to dissect it and generate consistent bites from it.
ďIf someone can figure out how to catch those lower-half fish and do it consistently, theyíll run away with it,Ē he said. ďItís very hard to fish and figure out. If they figure it out, Iíll be impressed because the locals have given up on it over the past six or seven months. It doesnít get the pressure like it used to.Ē
Donít Bank on River
After Steve Kennedy hauled in 20-02 on the final day of the í14 Cup and briefly threw a scare into the leaders during the weigh-in, it ensured the Saluda River would get additional attention if the Cup ever came back to Murray.
The key to the Saluda River fishing better three years ago than it has this year or this week was the amount of current moving through the system.
Former Cup and Bassmaster Classic winner Davy Hite, who lives in Ninety Six, S.C., and grew up on the upper Saluda River, says what BassFans saw in 2014 is not a frequent occurrence in the middle of summer.
ďThat can happen, but itís not something that happens very often in the summertime,Ē Hite said. ď(Kennedy) had a banner day and thatís because there was more current then and the fish were biting better up the river.Ē
Hite said he floated the Saluda last week and there was little to any noticeable water movement.
ďIt was almost a standstill,Ē he said. ďThat affects how those fish bite. More current helps position those fish.
ďWeíve had a lot of rain this year, but not a lot in the last month so thereís very little current. If we get the rain in the forecast, even a few inches, it would help the fishing.Ē
More Hite Insight
Hite retired from the Elite Series after the 2016 season to take on an expanded role on Bassmasterís live-streaming tournament coverage. He lives roughly an hour from Dreher Island State Park, which will serve as the launch site for the Cup.
He shares the opinion of most in that whomever wins this week will have to blend multiple patterns rather than rely on one option.
Jeff Sprague likes what he saw and found in practice this week.
ďItíll take a combination of offshore and shallow fishing,Ē he said. ďYou canít win doing one thing alone. Itíll be a combination like Anthony did (in 2014). Thatís what I wouldíve done then and what Iíd do now if I was in it this week.Ē
As far as the fish relating to herring in the summer Ė†ďthe schoolersĒ as most call them Ė he said they become increasingly unpredictable and as a result theyíre tougher to pattern.
ďItís not random in the spring when the herring are shallow,Ē Hite said. ďFrom March until about mid-June, itís predictable where theyíll be, but in the dead of winter and summer, the herring get so deep, especially in the summer. They roam because theyíre not relating to points that are 1 to 5 feet deep. When theyíre shallow, itís a lot easier to target bass around them.
ďThe whole problem this time of year is theyíre 40 feet or deeper. Itís like fishing in a bathtub when theyíre shallow or in an Olympic-sized swimming pool when theyíre deep. Itís hard to make bass react out there.Ē
He also stressed that competitors shouldnít get out of their comfort zone at Murray, which offers plenty of ways to catch bass.
ďYouíve got to fish your style,Ē he added. ďA lot of fish can be caught on the bank mid-lake so you donít have to go where Kennedy was (in 2014). Mid-lake has been the best section for the last few years.Ē
Speaking of Herring
Harmonís experience recently has been that a lot of bass are keying on smaller bait in the 1-inch size range, but competitors have said in practice there are schools of much bigger bait that are attracting better quality fish.
Knowing where multiple such schools are located and roughly when they're actively feeding will be the ultimate challenge this week.
ďThe bait's smaller than normal and shallower,Ē Harmon said. ďIt resembles a herring and shad spawn in May. Thatís what is weird about it. The key is finding those fish around bigger bait. There are a lot of places where theyíre chasing small bait and often itís a bunch of short fish.
ďA lot of the bigger largemouth get out and group up with the stripers.Ē
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
ďIíve had a pretty tough week, but the weather might make them bite better. Of course, itís been cloudy the last two days and they havenít been biting. If I catch one, Iíll be happy. If I catch a limit , Iíll be thrilled.
ďThere are some nice-sized fish in this lake. I really think there will be people who catch 11 or 12 pounds, but wonít have a limit. I think itís tough. I only got five or six bites a day and I changed up and went fishing for a bite.
ďI think itíll be won on the main area of the lake between the dam to above the launch. Thatís a big area, but for this one, Iím going to stay in the middle section of the lake.Ē
ďIíve been surprised at the quality when you do get one to bite. There seems to be more fish here if you compared it to last yearís Cup (at Wheeler Lake). Here, itíll be a guy trying to catch five decent ones versus trying to catch a keeper.
ďI feel good. I like my chances here and I like the way itís fishing. I can mix it up and get bit both ways. Itís going to be spot-related, but itís a good pattern lake, too. There are several different patterns going on. There are guys who are fishing deep who Iím sure are committed and guys fishing shallow who are committed. Those who can mix it up have a chance to take it.
ďI feel like Iíve put in my time both deep and shallow this week Ö Iíve seen what I need to see to know it can get done. If I can mix it up both ways, I have a better chance than a guy doing it one way. If you divide time properly, maximize time and avoid those lulls, you can do well.Ē
ďI had one good day and the rest of it hasnít been any good. What Iíve noticed overall is itís going to be different from Ď08 and Ď14 because the water is lower and the shallow bite isnít there. The good-looking stuff is still there, but thereís a foot less water on it. Itíd still be a grind, but you could catch eight or nine keepers per day back then. Thatís not happening this week. You can grind and catch one or two.
ďThereís a pretty good amount of grass on the lower end, but I havenít been able to do anything with it. Iím no biologist, but itís what I call pondweed. Itís real stringy and you canít pull a bait through it. Anything that touches it gets fouled up.
ďThere are areas with a bunch of it and itís 5 to 6 feet tall. There have to be fish in there somewhere, but Iíve never caught anything anywhere out of that kind of grass. Believe me, Iíve tried this week.
ďWhen you catch one, itís often a good one. I think the weights overall will be down, but the winning weight will be higher. When you catch one, theyíre fat and healthy. They donít look like August fish. Some guy will catch five each day and if he catches five offshore fish, heíll have 15 pounds.Ē
ďItís been pretty rough honestly. Itís the summertime and itís going be a little different from what I'm used to fishing. I tried a lot of stuff down the bank and had some bites shallow and some offshore on herring. I think whomever wins will be doing a little of both. Youíre going to have to do a little of everything.
ďEarly (morning) will be the key. If you get to 11 a.m. and you have one fish, you might be screwed. You have to take chances in this thing, so thatís what Iím going to do. Iím targeting bigger fish in the morning. When you get on them out here, theyíre fat and healthy, big largemouth.Ē
Larry Nixon was more enthused about Murray's potential prior to the off-limits period than he was following official practice.
ďI feel like I made all four days (of practice) count. I found a little every day, but also feel like I was beating up on fish I could potentially fish for in the tournament.
ďItís a winnable tournament for anybody. With it being a three-day event, anyone who catches an upper-teens (bag) or better and follows it with two limits has a shot to win. I think itís tougher than in 2014, but at the same time I donít know if itís tougher to get bites. Itís just different.
ďThe water is a foot lower and itís moved a ton of fish off the banks. I still feel if you get around the fish theyíre active, but the shallow bite is few and far between. My gut tells me itíll be won offshore. If you can make that first hour count, that will take you a long ways. If youíre not a good chunk of the way to your limit by 9:30 a.m. it becomes tough.Ē
ďI pushed the shallow pattern and I couldnít put it together so I put my own together and itís a little more scary. Iím going to chase the herring deal more. I know the payoff is great if you can produce five fish doing it.
ďMy only fear is not getting enough opportunities, but if you do, the reward is pretty good. I havenít had a ton of bites this week, but when I get one doing what Iím doing, theyíre the right ones.
ďIíd never been here before so four days practice was a lot. On Sunday, I ran around and looked at what it had to offer. I fished up the river and pushed the shallow deal and couldnít get anything going there. I went out deeper to rock and brush and schooling fish and thatís what Iím going to do.
ďThe ones Iím fishing for are rogues. Theyíre here, there and gone, so Iím going to have to move a lot. Iím more of a grinder and that means Iím going to have to rededicate myself as far as how I fish this week.Ē
ďI need another month of practice. Itís been kind of tough, but itís what you expect when you come to a clear lake in August with herring. I think itís probably better than if itíd been hot. It drizzled all day Tuesday and that was my best day.
ďI think youíll get more bites if it stays cloudy, but it depends on how youíre fishing. I want to fish deep, but if itís cloudy and rainy, I might not even fish it. Other than that Iím fishing shallow. If itís raining, Iím going to fish shallow. Iím just going to play the weather. Friday will be just like another practice day.
ďI feel okay about some places, but Iím almost afraid to go back to where Iíve caught some in practice. If youíre fishing shallow, every day will be a practice day. Itís hard to string together three limits if youíre running new water unless youíre on a pattern.Ē
ďThe fish that will bite seem to be good ones, but itís very few and far between. I donít know what to make of it. Everyone talks about how tough it is, but if you can get five keepers a day, youíll probably have a couple good ones in there and those can add up quick. Theyíre so healthy and pretty.
ďIím sitting here confused about the herring deal. First, you have to hope theyíre still there, then you have to get them to bite, then get them in the boat. Oh, and by the way, you need five of them.
ďIím glad it wonít be sunny. I hear youíre supposed to want it to be sunny with a herring bite, but I canít catch crap when itís sunny. Iím not sure if I want wind or not, though. I am glad itís going to rain, though. Iím totally cool with that.Ē
ď(Practice) was four days of pretty much misery. There were a couple pretty good deals going before cutoff, but theyíre gone now so itís narrowed down and gotten tough. There are only X amount of spots where thereís activity and if you donít get one of those, itís going to be tough.
ďThe shallow bite was good (before cutoff), but thatís gotten tougher and tougher. It was good and easy and consistent, but for me, itís hard to do it all day if itís not pretty good. Thatís changed. Itís definitely going to be a struggle. There was one day of practice I did not get one bite.
ďI could do well, but then again I might not, but I prefer to have something to rely on. Iím an area fisherman. Iím not someone who runs all over the lake and this place doesnít lay out where you can go into an area and put your trolling motor down and go all day. This lake has key places and thatís not my style. I can do a lot of things, but to hop and jump all day at my age is not something I enjoy doing.Ē
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. Anthony Gagliardi Ė Facing a different kind of pressure this time as he seeks to defend his Murray Cup crown and become the first to claim two Cup wins. He lives on the lake and is well-versed in the patience itíll take to compile competitive stringers this week.
2. Larry Nixon Ė When it comes to generating five to seven bites on a given day, few are better than Nixon, who is appearing in his 16th Cup this week. Heís cracked the top 10 five times, including four times since 2009. When the bite is slow, patience is required and heíll provide that in spades this week.
3. Scott Martin Ė If you pay attention to his social media channels, youíd think Martin has concluded all the fish have swam out of Murray, but we know better. The former Cup champ and AOY is always a threat in the marquee events and heís probably still sour about weighing one fish on day 4 in 2014, when he finished 9th.
4. Bryan Thrift Ė The reigning AOY seems about due to break through and add a Cup title to his burgeoning list of accomplishments. Heís only finished outside the top 10 in two the 10 Cups heís competed in. He was in the top 3 until the final day in 2014.
5. Andy Morgan Ė Donít expect to find him chasing schoolers over 50 feet of water. His mindset is suited for these events Ė†heís just as good grinding out five as he is sorting through numbers. Heíll be poking and prodding around the shallows as he tries to capture the signature victory of his already stellar career.
6. Cody Meyer Ė His wife is due any day with the coupleís second child so his mind might be a little pre-occupied, but heís out for some Murray revenge this week after blanking on day 2 back in 2014 (he was tied for 2nd after day 1).
7. James Watson Ė His victories (one PAA, one FLW Tour Invitational, one B.A.S.S. Open) have all come in the fall, but he has a lot of confidence in the dog days of summer, too. He had a terrible season points-wise, but heís playing with house money this week and is feeling confident.
8. Scott Canterbury Ė Heís over his gut-wrenching 1-ounce loss to Gagliardi in 2014 and should be back in his comfort zone, where he can put a jig in his hand and put his head down for at least two days.
9. Michael Neal Ė Says heís learned from his mistakes in 2014 at Murray when he got hung up on the herring bite. He was 2nd at Wheeler last year and is another one poised for a breakthrough showing in a showcase event.
10. Justin Atkins Ė Finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year race, but fished nothing like a newcomer (five money finishes, two Top-10s, only one finish lower than 56th). His roots are junk-fishing rivers around Mississippi and that experience could come in handy.
> To view a list of competitors and how they qualified, click here.
> Anglers will take off at 7 a.m. ET all three days from Dreher Island State Park (3677 State Park Rd., Prosperity, SC). Weigh-ins each day will get under way at 5 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena (801 Lincoln St., Columbia, SC). The Forrest Wood Cup Expo will be held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center (1101 Lincoln St., Columbia, SC) and will open at 10 a.m. all three days.
> Fri., Aug. 11 Ė Scattered Thunderstorms - 87į/72į
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sat., Aug. 12 Ė Scattered Thunderstorms - 90į/74į
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sun., Aug. 13 Ė Scattered Thunderstorms/Mostly Cloudy - 90į/73į
- Wind: Light and variable