By Todd Ceisner
BassFan Editor

It’s mid-August in the South. For some, that means football season is right around the corner. For others, it’s time to prep for hunting season.

For the 53 competitors in this week’s Forrest Wood Cup, it means it’s time to get acclimated to Lake Murray, the 50,000-acre, deep and sometimes stingy Saluda River reservoir that will play host to FLW’s 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.

“I haven’t caught a keeper yet,” one competitor said in a text message after two days of practice.

“I remember why I caught two fish last time,” 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 isn’t as dependable as some had hoped it would be, presumably because the water isn’t 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 – anything – 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 haven’t 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.

“When you get bit, for the most part, they are keepers,” said Matthew Stefan, the Wisconsin pro who’s 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 isn’t 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 week’s 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 it’s 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 – 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

Here’s a closer look at how Murray lays out, courtesy of the Navionics web app:

Limits Mostly a Must

It’s 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. It’ll 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 – Anthony Gagliardi and Scott Canterbury – 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.

Photo: FLW

Anthony Gagliardi has a Tour win and a Cup victory at Lake Murray.

One thing BassFans shouldn’t 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.

Different Environment

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 “weird” right now.

There’s been a tough-to-identify grass growing on the lower end that’s 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.

“It’s going to be a grind,” Harmon said. “The lake is probably fishing as tough as it ever has. Anything in August or September on Murray is hard. It’s already hard and I’ve seen the last two times for the Cup. To me, it’s fishing even harder now and the fishing is cut in half because of the grass.”

Harmon believes the lower end will be a wildcard now because of the above factors.

“Since the spring there’s a been a tall, nasty grass growing and its 10 to 12 feet tall in some places,” Harmon said. “It’s very hard to fish because it breaks off easy. There are plenty of bait fish there, but the fish don’t live there.”

He hasn’t spoken to anyone who’s been able to identify the vegetation, but he’s anxious to see if any Cup competitors are able to dissect it and generate consistent bites from it.

“If someone can figure out how to catch those lower-half fish and do it consistently, they’ll run away with it,” he said. “It’s very hard to fish and figure out. If they figure it out, I’ll be impressed because the locals have given up on it over the past six or seven months. It doesn’t get the pressure like it used to.”

Don’t Bank on River

After Steve Kennedy hauled in 20-02 on the final day of the ’14 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.

“That can happen, but it’s not something that happens very often in the summertime,” Hite said. “(Kennedy) had a banner day and that’s because there was more current then and the fish were biting better up the river.”

Hite said he floated the Saluda last week and there was little to any noticeable water movement.

“It was almost a standstill,” he said. “That affects how those fish bite. More current helps position those fish.

“We’ve had a lot of rain this year, but not a lot in the last month so there’s very little current. If we get the rain in the forecast, even a few inches, it would help the fishing.”

More Hite Insight

Hite retired from the Elite Series after the 2016 season to take on an expanded role on Bassmaster’s 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.

Photo: FLW

Jeff Sprague likes what he saw and found in practice this week.

“It’ll take a combination of offshore and shallow fishing,” he said. “You can’t win doing one thing alone. It’ll be a combination like Anthony did (in 2014). That’s what I would’ve done then and what I’d do now if I was in it this week.”

As far as the fish relating to herring in the summer – “the schoolers” as most call them – he said they become increasingly unpredictable and as a result they’re tougher to pattern.

“It’s not random in the spring when the herring are shallow,” Hite said. “From March until about mid-June, it’s predictable where they’ll be, but in the dead of winter and summer, the herring get so deep, especially in the summer. They roam because they’re not relating to points that are 1 to 5 feet deep. When they’re shallow, it’s a lot easier to target bass around them.

“The whole problem this time of year is they’re 40 feet or deeper. It’s like fishing in a bathtub when they’re shallow or in an Olympic-sized swimming pool when they’re deep. It’s hard to make bass react out there.”

He also stressed that competitors shouldn’t get out of their comfort zone at Murray, which offers plenty of ways to catch bass.

“You’ve got to fish your style,” he added. “A lot of fish can be caught on the bank mid-lake so you don’t have to go where Kennedy was (in 2014). Mid-lake has been the best section for the last few years.”

Speaking of Herring

Harmon’s 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.

“The bait's smaller than normal and shallower,” Harmon said. “It resembles a herring and shad spawn in May. That’s what is weird about it. The key is finding those fish around bigger bait. There are a lot of places where they’re chasing small bait and often it’s a bunch of short fish.

“A lot of the bigger largemouth get out and group up with the stripers.”

Notes from the Field

Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.

Jamie Horton
“I’ve had a pretty tough week, but the weather might make them bite better. Of course, it’s been cloudy the last two days and they haven’t been biting. If I catch one, I’ll be happy. If I catch a limit , I’ll be thrilled.

“There are some nice-sized fish in this lake. I really think there will be people who catch 11 or 12 pounds, but won’t have a limit. I think it’s tough. I only got five or six bites a day and I changed up and went fishing for a bite.

“I think it’ll be won on the main area of the lake between the dam to above the launch. That’s a big area, but for this one, I’m going to stay in the middle section of the lake.”

Jeff Sprague
“I’ve 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 year’s Cup (at Wheeler Lake). Here, it’ll be a guy trying to catch five decent ones versus trying to catch a keeper.

“I feel good. I like my chances here and I like the way it’s fishing. I can mix it up and get bit both ways. It’s going to be spot-related, but it’s a good pattern lake, too. There are several different patterns going on. There are guys who are fishing deep who I’m sure are committed and guys fishing shallow who are committed. Those who can mix it up have a chance to take it.

“I feel like I’ve put in my time both deep and shallow this week … I’ve 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.”

JT Kenney
“I had one good day and the rest of it hasn’t been any good. What I’ve noticed overall is it’s going to be different from ‘08 and ‘14 because the water is lower and the shallow bite isn’t there. The good-looking stuff is still there, but there’s a foot less water on it. It’d still be a grind, but you could catch eight or nine keepers per day back then. That’s not happening this week. You can grind and catch one or two.

“There’s a pretty good amount of grass on the lower end, but I haven’t been able to do anything with it. I’m no biologist, but it’s what I call pondweed. It’s real stringy and you can’t pull a bait through it. Anything that touches it gets fouled up.

“There are areas with a bunch of it and it’s 5 to 6 feet tall. There have to be fish in there somewhere, but I’ve never caught anything anywhere out of that kind of grass. Believe me, I’ve tried this week.

“When you catch one, it’s often a good one. I think the weights overall will be down, but the winning weight will be higher. When you catch one, they’re fat and healthy. They don’t look like August fish. Some guy will catch five each day and if he catches five offshore fish, he’ll have 15 pounds.”

Shane Lehew
“It’s been pretty rough honestly. It’s the summertime and it’s 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. You’re going to have to do a little of everything.

“Early (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 that’s what I’m going to do. I’m targeting bigger fish in the morning. When you get on them out here, they’re fat and healthy, big largemouth.”

Photo: FLW

Larry Nixon was more enthused about Murray's potential prior to the off-limits period than he was following official practice.

Matthew Stefan
“I 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.

“It’s 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 it’s tougher than in 2014, but at the same time I don’t know if it’s tougher to get bites. It’s just different.

“The water is a foot lower and it’s moved a ton of fish off the banks. I still feel if you get around the fish they’re active, but the shallow bite is few and far between. My gut tells me it’ll be won offshore. If you can make that first hour count, that will take you a long ways. If you’re not a good chunk of the way to your limit by 9:30 a.m. it becomes tough.”

Jason Reyes
“I pushed the shallow pattern and I couldn’t put it together so I put my own together and it’s a little more scary. I’m going to chase the herring deal more. I know the payoff is great if you can produce five fish doing it.

“My only fear is not getting enough opportunities, but if you do, the reward is pretty good. I haven’t had a ton of bites this week, but when I get one doing what I’m doing, they’re the right ones.

“I’d 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 couldn’t get anything going there. I went out deeper to rock and brush and schooling fish and that’s what I’m going to do.

“The ones I’m fishing for are rogues. They’re here, there and gone, so I’m going to have to move a lot. I’m more of a grinder and that means I’m going to have to rededicate myself as far as how I fish this week.”

Cody Bird
“I need another month of practice. It’s been kind of tough, but it’s what you expect when you come to a clear lake in August with herring. I think it’s probably better than if it’d been hot. It drizzled all day Tuesday and that was my best day.

“I think you’ll get more bites if it stays cloudy, but it depends on how you’re fishing. I want to fish deep, but if it’s cloudy and rainy, I might not even fish it. Other than that I’m fishing shallow. If it’s raining, I’m going to fish shallow. I’m just going to play the weather. Friday will be just like another practice day.

“I feel okay about some places, but I’m almost afraid to go back to where I’ve caught some in practice. If you’re fishing shallow, every day will be a practice day. It’s hard to string together three limits if you’re running new water unless you’re on a pattern.”

Travis Fox
“The fish that will bite seem to be good ones, but it’s very few and far between. I don’t know what to make of it. Everyone talks about how tough it is, but if you can get five keepers a day, you’ll probably have a couple good ones in there and those can add up quick. They’re so healthy and pretty.

“I’m sitting here confused about the herring deal. First, you have to hope they’re 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.

“I’m glad it won’t be sunny. I hear you’re supposed to want it to be sunny with a herring bite, but I can’t catch crap when it’s sunny. I’m not sure if I want wind or not, though. I am glad it’s going to rain, though. I’m totally cool with that.”

Larry Nixon
“(Practice) was four days of pretty much misery. There were a couple pretty good deals going before cutoff, but they’re gone now so it’s narrowed down and gotten tough. There are only X amount of spots where there’s activity and if you don’t get one of those, it’s going to be tough.

“The shallow bite was good (before cutoff), but that’s gotten tougher and tougher. It was good and easy and consistent, but for me, it’s hard to do it all day if it’s not pretty good. That’s changed. It’s definitely going to be a struggle. There was one day of practice I did not get one bite.

“I could do well, but then again I might not, but I prefer to have something to rely on. I’m an area fisherman. I’m not someone who runs all over the lake and this place doesn’t 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 that’s 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.”

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 – 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 it’ll take to compile competitive stringers this week.

2. Larry Nixon – 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. He’s cracked the top 10 five times, including four times since 2009. When the bite is slow, patience is required and he’ll provide that in spades this week.

3. Scott Martin – If you pay attention to his social media channels, you’d 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 he’s probably still sour about weighing one fish on day 4 in 2014, when he finished 9th.

4. Bryan Thrift – The reigning AOY seems about due to break through and add a Cup title to his burgeoning list of accomplishments. He’s only finished outside the top 10 in two the 10 Cups he’s competed in. He was in the top 3 until the final day in 2014.

5. Andy Morgan – Don’t expect to find him chasing schoolers over 50 feet of water. His mindset is suited for these events – he’s just as good grinding out five as he is sorting through numbers. He’ll be poking and prodding around the shallows as he tries to capture the signature victory of his already stellar career.

6. Cody Meyer – His wife is due any day with the couple’s second child so his mind might be a little pre-occupied, but he’s 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 – 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 he’s playing with house money this week and is feeling confident.

8. Scott Canterbury – He’s 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 – Says he’s 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 – 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.

Launch/Weigh-In Info

> 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.

Weather Forecast

> Fri., Aug. 11 – Scattered Thunderstorms - 87°/72°
- Wind: Light and variable

> Sat., Aug. 12 – Scattered Thunderstorms - 90°/74°
- Wind: Light and variable

> Sun., Aug. 13 – Scattered Thunderstorms/Mostly Cloudy - 90°/73°
- Wind: Light and variable