By Todd Ceisner
Familiarity and confidence were two overarching themes to John Murray’s approach to the Toledo Bend Elite Series.
He stayed in the same house in the same bedroom as he has in the past, going so far as to tell housemate Brent Ehrler to steer clear of his preferred room.
Not that Murray is outwardly superstitious, but at Toledo Bend he relied on old habits and a spot he trusted to deliver the biggest win of his already decorated career.
This was at least the sixth tournament he’s fished at the massive reservoir that sits on the Texas-Louisiana border. Over the years, he’s developed a comfort level there that revolves around one section of the lake, specifically an old house foundation amidst a throng of stumps on one of the longest points he’s ever found.
“I came to the realization earlier this year … everyone says it’s totally a confidence thing and it is,” he said. “I had gotten to a point where I didn’t have any confidence in my abilities.”
The difference at Toledo Bend was the positive experiences he’d had there in the past. Aside from his Open Championship win in 2003 (he won by 16-plus pounds over Gary Klein fishing the same part of the lake), he had two top-30 finishes in the four previous Elite Series visits there.
“I was at a great lake where I have a lot of confidence,” he said. “I decided I have to rely more on myself and that’s been my focus this year.
“This is a huge step for that. I always tell myself ‘I’ve been on tour for 11 years and not won.’ What kind of confidence does that give you? Now that I’ve won, my goal is to finish strong and be in the (2018) Classic.”
Here’s how he did it.
While some competitors hunted the shallows in search of the latest wave of spawners and others probed deep water for post-spawners, Murray stuck with what he knew.
Several years ago, when the water was several feet low at Toledo Bend, he saw the foundation that was surrounded by a good many stumps. He figured when the water came back up it’d be a place to revisit.
“Originally, it was an area no one liked because it’s a huge area and you have to idle into it,” he said. “You have to fish it to find where the fish are. That’s what started it all.”
That played into his strategy to stay away from the areas where boats were sure to be bunched up.
“I purposely chose areas where I didn’t see many boats,” he said.
He initially combed the area with a Gene Larew Biffle Bug, but later discovered “they wanted something up and moving,” he added.
That’s when a deep-diving crankbait and a beefed up jerkbait entered the equation. He caught a 5-pounder and an 8-pounder near the foundation in practice and split in search of something else.
“I went down to the dam and caught two big ones and that’s where I started the first two days, but only caught one,” he said. “I said, ‘I need to stay north,’ but I hadn’t expanded. I’d never found anything else.”
The point on which the foundation sat was unlike anything Murray has found in his 30-plus years of competitive fishing.
“It’s almost a mile from the bank out to the tip with stuff on each side,” he said. “There are a lot of stumps and there are a few little sharp breaks, but most are gradual and subtle.
“It looks a lot like San Carlos Lake in Arizona near where I grew up. The biggest, longest points on the lake are what I like and this was one of the longest ones I’ve ever found. That’s what has always drawn me to it.”
> Day 1: 5, 17-13
> Day 2: 5, 11-07
> Day 3: 5, 23-07
> Day 4: 5, 24-15
> Total = 20, 77-10
Murray’s tournament didn’t start anything like how it finished. He went through three limits in the first couple of hours after heading south to reach the 10-pound mark.
He came back to the foundation and cranked two 6-pounders to get up to 17-03, which was good for 13th.
“I knew I had a shot at a big one, but you just never know,” he said.
Murray struggled Friday when the wind slacked off. Again, he went south to start and generated one keeper bite. When he came back to the foundation, the crankbait bite had died. He lost one key fish when he tried to swing a 6-pound class specimen into the boat, only to have it break him off.
“They didn’t bite under calmer conditions,” he said. “I spent half of day 2 out there and didn’t get any bites. They could’ve been out deeper and I tried it, but I don’t know if the wind from day 1 pushed stuff around.”
He resorted to a souped-up dropshot to catch the majority of his fish and didn’t finish his limit until late in the day. Without it, he probably would’ve missed the cut.
“I was coming in with 5 minutes left, figuring I’d missed the cut,” he said. “I stopped to try for a fifth keeper and caught a 2 1/2-pounder and made the cut.”
His 11-07 stringer dropped him back to 34th, setting the stage for his weekend rally.
The crankbait bite lagged again on day 3 and he relied heavily on a big jerkbait, either a vintage Super Rogue or a Lucky Craft LC 128. He boated two 7-plus pounders, including a 7-10 that fell for a clown-pattern Rogue.
“I never caught more than two out of there that size,” he said.
He rocketed up to 3rd with a 23-07 stringer on Saturday.
With the wind blowing more than anticipated, Murray gave the crankbait another try on Sunday. He was running low from snagging so much around the foundation, but his hunch paid off.
His first fish was a 15-incher around 7:40 a.m., then a few minutes later, he caught 7 1/2-pounders within a couple casts of each other.
“Typically, if some fish are around, more will be there,” he said.
Murray noted the bait in the area were down in 10 to 12 feet and the bass would slide up and down the sides of the point, using it as a highway of sorts.”
As often as Murray has fished the spot, he knew he had to make a specific cast in order to activate the fish nearby. He never could identify what was off to the side of the foundation, but it was snaggy. However, if he was able to deflect his bait off of it, it was almost a guarantee that he’d get a bite.
“I always thought it was a stump, but I’m not sure what it was,” he said.
He later added another fish in the 6-pound class and had two smaller fish to go with three giants. His 24-15 was the second-heaviest stringer of the tournament.
Winning Gear Notes
> Jerkbait gear: 7’11” medium-action Lew's Super Duty casting rod, Lew's Custom Pro casting reel, 14-pound Lew's APT fluorocarbon line, Lucky Craft LC 128 (light shad), vintage Smithwick Super Rogue (clown).
> He chose the LC 128 in overcast and breezy conditions.
> The clown-pattern Rogue caught the 7-10 kicker on day 3.
The jerkbait generally worked with higher skies and less wind. “I used it mainly up on the flat in about 5 feet,” he said. “That jerkbait would go 2 or 3 or 4 feet. I caught two of my big ones that way on the flat.”
> Cranking gear: 7’8” heavy-action Lew's David Fritts Perfect Crankbait rod, same reel, same line, Strike King 5XD (sexy shad).
> Murray also pitched a Gene Larew Tattletail worm on a dropshot around visible stumps closer to shore in the same area. That was a key presentation on day 2 when conditions got tougher.
> Murray had initially intended on throwing a River2Sea Whopper Plopper and the S-Waver jointed swimbait, but was caught off guard by the crankbait and jerkbait patterns. "I was unprepared for the winning bite," he said.
The Bottom Line
> Main factor in his success – “Figuring out they were eating bigger white bass. Other guys were throwing smaller jerkbaits. The Rogue is a bigger-sized lure and has won me many boats out west. That Pointer 128 has also won me a bunch of money at Clear Lake, so it was a confidence thing.”
> Performance edge – “There were a lot of things, but I have to credit my Lew’s tackle.”
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