By BassFan Staff
A few years ago, John Murray’s fishing career nearly ground to a halt due to the chronic joint pain brought on by a mysterious ailment later diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. He gritted his teeth through the agony, sought treatment and made some lifestyle changes in an effort to control the symptoms.
Through it all, he continued on the only career path he’s known – professional angler. He’s been an Elite Series regular since the circuit launched in 2006 and he fished both the Elite Series and FLW Tour concurrently when the opportunity arose in 2014.
The 52-year-old is one of the most respected competitors amongst his peers and his résumé (two U.S. Open victories, more than 30 boats won across various circuits) from his days competing out west is legendary. In his mind, though, something had always been missing – a major national tour-level victory.
The wait is over. John Murray is an Elite Series champion.
Capping a week during which many in the field bemoaned the fish being in all three phases of the spawn, which made it hard to hone in on one technique, Murray relied on history and stayed offshore, mining an old foundation amidst a group of stumps for pre-spawners with a big jerkbait and deep-diving crankbait.
Over the last two days, he delivered an offshore one-two punch that staggered his competition at Toledo Bend, site of his Bassmaster Open Championship win back in 2003. After cracking 23-07 on Saturday, he boated two 7-plus pounders in the first couple hours Sunday and erased a 4 1/4-pound deficit with a 24-15 bag to win with a four-day total of 77-10. He was the only angler to catch two 23-pound stringers this week.
“Maybe I’ll retire right now. I’m not sure,” Murray quipped on stage immediately after the scales closed. “I’ve never felt this way before. When you experience it, it doesn’t seem real.”
Jason Christie was in his comfort zone all week, power-fishing stained, shallow targets up north. The Oklahoman bagged 20-01 today and wound up 2nd with 72-11.
Rookie Jamie Hartman, who led after days 2 and 3, mustered 15-08, but slipped to 3rd with 72-07. It’s his second top-3 finish in three Elite Series starts.
Casey Ashley, who rocketed up to 2nd heading into the final day, gave up two spots, but still caught a stout 17-03 to close with 70-06 in 4th.
Brandon Palaniuk had a dynamite first hour today fishing shallow grass and turned in 16-12 to claim 5th with a 67-05 total.
Here are the totals for the rest of the top 12:
6. Andy Montgomery: 65-09
7. Alton Jones, Sr.: 65-03
8. Todd Faircloth: 61-09
9. Brett Hite: 59-14
10. Jacob Wheeler: 57-02
11. Randy Howell: 56-14
12. Matt Lee: 53-04
After picking up 16 places on Saturday to make the cut in 12th, Andy Montgomery gained six more positions with an 18-11 stringer to finish 6th.
After two weeks off, the Elite Series season resumes at Ross Barnett Reservoir in Ridgeland, Miss., April 27-30.
Fishing in a snag-infested area of the lake, Murray was able to land three fish that were 6 pounds or bigger today.
Murray’s Crankbait Hunch Pays Off
> Day 4: 5, 24-15 (20, 77-10)
During last year’s Elite Series stop at Toledo Bend, Murray fished the exact same spot he won off this week and hooked similar quality fish. The only issue was he failed to land any of them.
“I touched three 6-pounders and they all jumped off,” he said, recalling his 23rd-place finish last May. “If I catch one of those, I’m in the top 12. I might not have beaten Kevin, but I would’ve made it to the final day.”
Facing a 4-plus pound deficit this morning, he got three more quality bites there and this time, they all found a home in his livewell, setting in motion a victory some 30 years in the making.
Murray had missed the cut in this season’s first two events by a combined eight ounces and had posted just one top-30 finish in full-field events (Elite Series and FLW Tour) since the start of the 2014 season. Today, he won by nearly 5 pounds.
At one point this morning, while trying to pry a treble hook from his biggest fish’s mouth, Murray’s hand was shaking so bad he could barely hold a pair of pliers.
“I really felt like I couldn’t control myself,” he said, referring to the emotions and excitement of the moment. “It’s why we do this. It was just the reality of it – ‘this is really happening.’”
This morning, Murray opted to start with a crankbait since the wind was stronger than expected and it had churned up the water and some bigger waves were rolling into the area. It was more of a hunch since the crankbait hadn’t produced anything for him there the last two days.
He caught a short fish, then a small keeper, then a 7-07 followed by a 7-09 a few casts later. He picked off another small keeper, then moved up to the shallower portion of the spot and caught a 6-pounder on a big jerkbait, an old clown-pattern Smithwick Super Rogue.
“I had the rest of the day to catch a 3-pounder and I never did,” he said. “I caught seven keepers all day.”
But the key was the three difference-makers made it into the boat this time.
It wasn’t lost on Murray that several of his fellow Elite Series anglers crowded around the stage toward the end of Sunday’s weigh-in to see his victory become a reality.
“That is everything,” he said. “Just to have the respect of those guys. I have that respect for them. That’s what it’s about. We’re not competing against each other out there. It’s us versus the fish.
“I remember last year sitting at my computer crying when Britt Myers won when he said he’d sat home and watched others win and cry. It’s a big deal.”
Additional details about Murray’s pattern and others in the top 5 will be published later this week.
Jason Christie caught 20-pound stringers this week, but it was only good enough for 2nd.
2nd: Another Close Call for Christie
> Day 4: 5, 20-01 (20, 72-11)
Christie now has four second-place finishes since his last victory in 2014. Add in five other top-10 finishes in that same span and he’s growing weary of the close calls.
“Honestly, it stings a little bit,” he said. “That’s four opportunities that I’ve let slip away. Kudos to John. He deserved it. There’s nobody I’d rather see more than him, but this is getting old.”
After three events, he’s up to 3rd in points and much of his momentum this week was owed to the 9-10 brute he caught on day 1.
“I didn’t feel like I was around the fish to win and I was still riding that big fish from day 1,” he added. “It stings a little, but it’s a good finish. I put a little money in the bank and I need all the points I can get because I usually have one stinker a year.”
This week, Christie chased water color up the lake and did most of his damage around hard cover in areas where shad and bass would spawn. A half-ounce Booyah spinnerbait was his chosen tool.
3rd: Hartman Did What He Could
> Day 4: 5, 15-08 (20, 72-07)
It’d be easy for Hartman to be torn up about coming oh-so-close to an Elite Series win for the second time in three events, but the rookie who’d never fished Toledo Bend prior to this year took it in stride.
“I’m still pumped,” he said. “First would’ve been a whole lot nicer, but third is good for me, too.”
Hartman’s hot start to his career is reminiscent of how Derek Remitz kicked off his Elite Series career in 2007. Over the first five tournaments that year, Remitz notched a win (Lake Amistad), a runner-up (California Delta) and a 5th-place finish (Clarks Hill) with a 34th and 75th mixed in. Hartman has sandwiched a runner-up at Cherokee Lake and this week's 3rd around an 84th at Lake Okeechobee.
The south wind today made boat positioning a challenge for Hartman, who started on a deep-water spot again and started the day with a 5 1/2-pounder there on a magnum shaky-head.
Jamie Hartman continued his hot start with a second top-3 finish in just his third Elite Series event.
“The wind was killing me,” he said. “I couldn’t move around like I wanted to. I felt like my timing was off. I couldn’t get another big bite. I caught a 3 3/4 for my second fish and then that was it.”
After that he tried to fish areas that would be protected, but it became a struggle.
“It was total scramble mode from there,” he said. “I tried to figure out places I could get away with fishing in that wind. I did what I could. I fought it for a while.
“I’m happy with it. It was more than I expected. The win would’ve been nice, but I’ll take third.”
4th: No Regrets for Ashley
> Day 4: 5, 17-03 (20, 70-06)
Ashley figured he’d hold his ground in 2nd with the bag he caught Sunday, but he gave up two spots in the standings.
“I thought I had 16 or 17 pounds and thought I’d stay where I was, but those boys caught ‘em,” he said. “Hats off to them. It just goes to shows with the Elite Series, you can’t count them out.”
After not generating much confidence during a practice that saw him spend a bunch of time offshore, he was more than happy with his first top-5 since his Classic win at Lake Hartwell in 2015.
“I’m happy with it,” he said. “I went into the tournament on the first day and had no idea what bait start with or where I’d throw it.”
As the event progressed, he developed a one-two punch of morning topwater and spinnerbaits around bream beds before slow-rolling a football jig in some deeper water around logs and laydowns.
“I did everything I could,” he added. “I fished off shore all practice and that’s why I didn’t have a good practice. They’re not out there that great. I hung in there on day 1 and kept myself in contention and just kept my options open with an open mind.”
5th: No Problems For Palaniuk
> Day 4: 5, 16-12 (20, 67-05)
Palaniuk had no qualms about finishing where he started the day. It’s his best Elite Series placement since a runner-up showing at Lake St. Clair in 2015.
He caught plenty of fish, but never collided with the type of specimens that would’ve narrowed the gap to the leaders.
“I needed them to be 4- or 5- or 6- pounders with the way Murray caught ‘em,” he said. “It was a definitely a good time and even cooler to do it on (Bassmaster) Live. For me, without the fans we have no sport. Knowing they’re watching elevates the excitement of it.”
It’s his second top-12 showing the season already and he’s inside the top 30 in points.
“I’m really happy with it,” he said. “I felt like I kind of got into a good groove this week and made the most of what I had from practice. Based on how practice was, I made the best decisions I could’ve made this week. You can always think what if, but I am happy with how it turned out.”
After spending two days down south fishing submerged vegetation, he spent the final two days targeting shallow water willow with a 3/8-ounce white swim jig tipped with a Zoom Super Speed Craw and mixing in a hollow-body popping frog.
“On Saturday, I went there and tried to catch 10 to 12 pounds and ended up catching them good,” he said. “I decided to do that again and when I showed up there were fish everywhere this morning.”
They were mostly 2- to 3-pounders, but it was a good way for him to get some momentum going.
"For whatever reason, there was a little school in there,” he said. “There were fish all over that area.”
> Day 4 stats – 12 anglers, 11 limits, 1 two.
Day 3 Standings
1. John Murray -- Spring City, TN -- 20, 77-10 -- 110 -- $100,000
Day 1: 5, 17-13 -- Day 2: 5, 11-07 -- Day 3: 5, 23-07 -- Day 4: 5, 24-15
2. Jason Christie -- Park Hill, OK -- 20, 72-11 -- 109 -- $27,500
Day 1: 5, 21-05 -- Day 2: 5, 15-03 -- Day 3: 5, 16-02 -- Day 4: 5, 20-01
3. Jamie Hartman -- Newport, NY -- 20, 72-07 -- 108 -- $20,500
Day 1: 5, 23-05 -- Day 2: 5, 15-12 -- Day 3: 5, 17-14 -- Day 4: 5, 15-08
4. Casey Ashley -- Donalds, SC -- 20, 70-06 -- 107 -- $15,000
Day 1: 5, 13-03 -- Day 2: 5, 23-09 -- Day 3: 5, 16-07 -- Day 4: 5, 17-03
5. Brandon Palaniuk -- Hayden, ID -- 20, 67-05 -- 106 -- $14,000
Day 1: 5, 19-13 -- Day 2: 5, 13-11 -- Day 3: 5, 17-01 -- Day 4: 5, 16-12
6. Andy Montgomery -- Blacksburg, SC -- 20, 65-09 -- 105 -- $13,500
Day 1: 5, 18-03 -- Day 2: 5, 12-00 -- Day 3: 5, 16-11 -- Day 4: 5, 18-11
7. Alton Jones -- Lorena, TX -- 20, 65-03 -- 104 -- $13,000
Day 1: 5, 18-05 -- Day 2: 5, 13-06 -- Day 3: 5, 18-03 -- Day 4: 5, 15-05
8. Todd Faircloth -- Jasper, TX -- 19, 61-09 -- 103 -- $12,500
Day 1: 5, 20-02 -- Day 2: 5, 17-12 -- Day 3: 4, 09-11 -- Day 4: 5, 14-00
9. Brett Hite -- Phoenix, AZ -- 20, 59-14 -- 102 -- $12,000
Day 1: 5, 24-11 -- Day 2: 5, 13-02 -- Day 3: 5, 09-04 -- Day 4: 5, 12-13
10. Jacob Wheeler -- Indianapolis, IN -- 19, 57-02 -- 101 -- $11,500
Day 1: 5, 25-01 -- Day 2: 4, 11-01 -- Day 3: 5, 11-09 -- Day 4: 5, 9-07
11. Randy Howell -- Guntersville, AL -- 20, 56-14 -- 100 -- $11,000
Day 1: 5, 15-12 -- Day 2: 5, 17-05 -- Day 3: 5, 13-15 -- Day 4: 5, 9-14
12. Matt Lee -- Guntersville, AL -- 17, 53-04 -- 99 -- $10,500
Day 1: 5, 20-00 -- Day 2: 5, 13-05 -- Day 3: 5, 15-05 -- Day 4: 2, 4-10