By Todd Ceisner
In this space last week, it was written that BassFans shouldn’t expect a mid-summer heavyweight shootout at the Forrest Wood Cup at Lake Murray.
Like meteorologists, we’re all wrong on occasion.
The first three-day Cup in the event’s 21-year history was a slugfest at the top of the standings and a grind for the rest. While the first Cups held at Murray (2008 and 2014) produced 10 stringers of 15 pounds or more, the 2017 edition featured 23 of them, including four over 21 pounds.
The top 5 finishers all accumulated more weight through three days this year than Anthony Gagliardi did over four days to win the 2014 Cup.
So what happened? This wasn’t like a bunch of golfers showing up at Augusta National with a new composite driver and suddenly blistering the course.
Lake Murray is basically the same lake as it’s been. Locals who watched the action on the water during the tournament joked that they weren’t learning anything new by watching the pros. Some competitors theorized that the water being recently pulled down and the cooler water temperatures may have led to the topwater bite being so strong and consistent.
There was no outlier pattern up the Saluda River this time and the shallow-water program was too inconsistent and void of quality fish that it left little choice but to move to open water and hunt for fish-holding brush and cane piles along with points, humps and drops where largemouth tend to gather.
That’s how the rest of the top 5 compiled their bags. Here’s a rundown of their strategies and patterns.
2nd: Travis Fox
> Day 1: 5, 18-03
> Day 2: 5, 16-13
> Day 3: 5, 21-11
> Total = 15, 56-11
Travis Fox had never been to Lake Murray prior to his preparation for the Forrest Wood Cup. After his four-day scouting trip prior to the lake going off limits, he didn’t care if he ever went back.
“I had it figured out how to win (before I left home),” he said. “I watched the 2014 show so many times I knew where to go and what to throw. Then I went and never had a bite.”
Actually, he seven keeper bites in four days, but five of them came within an hour of each other on two separate spots.
“That tells you how the rest of my time there was,” he said. “It was hellish. I went there stoked and left thinking I have to come back here in two weeks.”
Despite not getting a ton of bites, he drew some clues from the ones he did.
“Looking back, that taught me I could catch multiple keepers off a place instead of going down the bank and maybe not getting bit for a couple hours,” he said.
In official practice, he bounced from the bank out to offshore points and struggled on both fronts. He wound up with eight spots where he caught a single bass in four days.
“I tried to be John Cox and jumped over a log and did all of this funky stuff, then I went offshore and realized I’m not Anthony Gagliardi either,” he said.
On day 2, he revisited the points where he caught some fish in pre-practice and caught two keeper-quality fish off one and a 4-pounder off the other. He figured those would figure into his tournament gameplan, but he never caught a keeper off of either during competition.
He was the last boat to leave the dock on day 1 and had a solid limit by noon, casting an IMA Big Stik 135 to offshore areas where he consistently saw schooling activity.
“After I caught my fifth fish, I chilled out,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be leading, but I thought I had 16 and figured I’d be right there. I didn’t want to go burn up anything else, so I spent the second part of the day looking for new places.”
He followed his eight-spot rotation again on day 2, hitting them multiple times and moving up to 4th entering the final day. By then, he was fully committed to the offshore program.
“Can you go catch some if you run up shallow? Yeah, but if I’m at Kentucky Lake and I can touch the bank with a cast, I’m fishing for 2nd place,” he said. “The offshore fish here were so fat and heavy. I told my mom I can’t make a cast near the bank because that’s fishing for 2nd.”
On Sunday, he started along the backside of Shull Island, where several competitors, including himself, had been fishing through the tournament.
“I got first crack at it and fished every sweet spot I knew of and had no bites,” he added.
He then moved to a spot that he had affectionately named “Momma’s Hole” as it was where his mom, who served as his practice partner, caught a good one during a dry spell in practice.
The fish were schooling there and he got back on track en route to a 21-pound bag that pushed him up the standings. His biggest one came ripping a spoon, a technique locals typically employ when targeting stripers. It yielded a 6-pound largemouth for Fox, who lost two others on the spoon.
“Thinking back to my history on the Tennessee River and every time I’m whacking them on spoons at Kentucky Lake or Pickwick, I was throwing at schooling fish,” he said. “The fish there were chasing herring and they’re every bit as big as a spoon.”
As far as what was holding fish in the areas that produced for him, he’s not sure if there was brush or not. In fact, he didn’t definitively locate a cane pile until the final day of competition at Momma’s Hole.
“I got in too shallow and looked down and it caught my eye,” he said. “I’m sure I was catching fish related to them, but I didn’t know about it. Sometimes ignorance is a good thing.”
> Topwater gear: 7’3” medium-heavy Lew's Custom Speed Stick Series Magnum Hammer casting rod, Lew's Tournament Pro G Speed Spool Series casting reel (6.2:1 ratio), 14-pound Sufix Elite monofilament line, IMA Lures Big Stik 135 (American shad), Storm Arashi Top Walker (ghost pearl blue).
> He replaced the stock hooks on the Little Stik with #4 VMC Hybrid 1X trebles.
> He changed to the Top Walker later in the tournament because it produced a little more subtle action on the surface. “It walks easier and the big fish ate it whenever the herring shut off and fish quit schooling,” he said.
> Fox usually prefers 17-pound mono for topwater fishing, but opted for 14 at the Cup due to the open-water scenario and the added casting distance. “That stuff is funky,” he said. “It floats in the air like a spiderweb and I can throw it so far. I felt like I was reaching fish others wouldn’t have caught because I could throw it so far.”
> He caught a 6-plus pounder on day 3 by ripping a Strike King Sexy Spoon up through the water column.
> Main factor in his success – “Practicing with my mom. Out of the 15 fish I weighed, 10 came off that spot.”
> Performance edge – “The Lew’s reel was crucial. It’s unmatched as far as casting distance.”
Brandon Cobb wishes he would've been a little more patient in some areas on the final day.
3rd: Brandon Cobb
> Day 1: 5, 19-12
> Day 2: 5, 19-04
> Day 3: 4, 15-10
> Total = 14, 54-10
Back in the spring, Brandon Cobb figured he knew how Lake Murray would fish during the Cup. As the tournament drew closer and he had a chance to spend time on the water, his pre-conceived notion changed drastically.
“I would not have ever considered fishing offshore because normally that bite doesn’t pick up until late September,” he said. “Before it went off limits, I did it a little bit and started to realize there were big ones out there. After I saw that, I pretty much knew 100 percent that it could not be won on the bank.”
While he targeted cane piles mostly, he also fished drops and humps and “places where the fish suspend,” he added.
“A lot of the places look the same, but the fish just don’t use them all,” he said. “You had to find a place where the fish want to suspend, but also a place where herring get pushed into or swim across to make fish feed. I had tons of places that had some fish, but as far as where fish that fed and where you could expect to get a bite more often than not, probably 20 places.”
Over the first two days, he’d get a bite within the first couple of casts on a spot. If he went 0-for-3, it was on to the next waypoint. On Sunday, it was more a struggle.
“I did the same pattern, but something happened,” he said. “The fish didn’t sit where I thought they’d sit. They were more scattered and were schooling a little bit. I should’ve waited on those schools rather than run around. And when they weren’t schooling, I ran around more than the first two days instead of waiting.”
Cobb, who’s getting married in November, wishes he’d have been more patient on the final day.
“I was making three casts and then leaving,” he said. “On Sunday, I’d have been better off being patient. I knew where they were days 1 and 2 and on Sunday they were not where I thought they were. I would’ve been better off waiting and throwing to them.”
His biggest fish Sunday came on a soft-plastic jerkbait and when it slicked off, he downsized his walking baits.
“It was so slick I should’ve been throwing smaller baits rather than bigger ones,” he added.
> Topwater hardbait gear: 7’6” medium-heavy Ark Fishing Rods Invoker casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 15-pound Yo-Zuri Hybrid line, Yo-Zuri Inshore Hydro Pencil (blue mackerel), Yo-Zuri 3DR Series Pencil (glass minnow).
> Cobb also used a 7’ medium-action Ark rod when throwing smaller baits on top.
> Topwater softbait gear: 7’2” medium-action Ark Fishing Rods Inovker casting rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGX casting reel, same line (12-pound), 5/0 EWG light wire, Zoom Super Fluke (glimmer blue and blue pearl silver).
> Cobb Texas-rigged the Super Fluke, but did not Tex-pose the hook point.
> Main factor in his success – “Covering a lot of places every day.”
> Performance edge – “My Lowrance and Navionics card as far as being efficient and setting down and being able to cast at my brush pile right away.”
Bryan Thrift didn't anticipate the herring bite to be as strong as it was.
4th: Bryan Thrift
> Day 1: 5, 19-04
> Day 2: 5, 14-09
> Day 3: 5, 18-02
> Total = 15, 51-05
Bryan Thrift tried to follow the same script that worked for him at Murray in 2014, when he finished 7th. He fished a few topwater spots, but also mixed in points and deep brush piles.
He split his practice between offshore spots and shallow areas where he might be able to generate some buzzbaits bites.
“Practice was tough,” he said. “I wasn’t really trying to catch them, but it was tough to get bit.”
By the time he weighed in on day 1 with 19-04, he knew the complexion of this year’s Cup would be much different than three years ago.
“When I weighed in the first day and saw the fat herring fish everyone had caught, that’s when I knew my long, skinny bream-eaters couldn’t compete,” he said. “There’s usually one dominant technique, but I’ve never seen one like this be this dominant in August.”
His topwater fish were not cane pile-related – he believes they were more relating to herring in the area.
“They were partially schooling deals,” he said.
His progression each day consisted of throwing a walking bait over and along points early in the morning – he’d set his boat over 15 to 30 feet and cast up shallow. He’d make five or six casts at each stop and if he hadn’t had a bite, he’d move on to the next spot.
He did that until mid-morning before dragging a big worm and a shaky-head around brush piles.
“The brush was deeper this time, like in 22 to 35 feet,” he said. “I caught one on day 3 in 38 feet on the bottom.”
> Topwater gear: 7’2” medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Bryan Thrift Series frog rod, unnamed casting reel, 15-pound P-Line Original monofilament line, unnamed walking bait (shiny).
> Worm gear: 7’ heavy-action Fitzgerald Fishing Stunner HD casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 15-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. unnamed tungsten worm weight, 5/0 straight-shank worm hook, 10” unnamed ribbon-tail worm (red bug).
> Shaky-head gear: 6’10” medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Vursa spinning rod, unnamed spinning reel, 10-pound P-Line TCB 8 braided line, 8-pound P-Line Tactical fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/8-oz. unnamed shaky-head jig, 6.5” Damiki Finesse Miki (watermelon candy).
> Main factor in his success – “I can’t point to one thing that made a difference.”
> Performance edge – “The Fitzgerald frog rod that I was throwing my walking bait on. It’s made for frogs, but it turns out it’s perfect for everything else as well.”
Anthony Gagliardi didn't think the cane piles were going to be the factor they were.
5th: Anthony Gagliardi
> Day 1: 5, 21-01
> Day 2: 5, 15-00
> Day 3: 5, 15-02
> Total = 15, 51-03
Anthony Gagliardi didn’t anticipate the cane-pile bite being as dominant as it was. He’s put plenty of them in the lake in the past, but didn’t fish them as much as he should’ve in hindsight.
“It all started on Hartwell,” he said when asked to recount the origin of the vertical pieces of bamboo chutes that are stuffed into buckets before being sank on or next to points.
“We started seeing similarities in how suspended fish were being caught here, so I put some in pockets in 2006 (before the FLW Tour event), but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just trying to catch jerkbait fish then.”
He put more of them in the lake before the 2014 Cup, but never caught anything on those spots. This year, he believes the cooler water is what triggered the fish to congregate around them more.
“The fish then didn’t know how to use it,” he said. “It’s like when grass shows up in a lake and they don’t know how to use that cover. Maybe it takes a couple generations, but that’s where it came from – the herring lakes upstate – and the more this lake has started to fish that way, it became a factor.”
When he weighed 21-01 on day 1, none of those fish came off a spot with a cane pile on it.
“I may have fished two or three, but mostly I fished schooling spots,” he said. “I would’ve focused more on what we used to do and typically do in the fall.
“I didn’t fish it as much as I should’ve. I fished areas that had them, but I fished the whole shoal.”
He spent almost no time shallow in this Cup simply because the bites he was getting on schooling areas were of better quality and more consistent.
His 1-2 punch of baits was the same he employed in 2014 – a soft-plastic jerkbait fished on the surface and just below along with a slender walking bait for when fish would break the surface chasing bait.
“With 50-pound braid on that 7-10 rod, you can throw the snot out of it,” he said. “It’s a good thing sometimes and a bad thing sometimes. You can throw it way out there and it’s great if you land on them and catch them, but it stinks pretty bad when you don’t and they start blowing up 15 feet beside the boat and then it takes you 30 seconds to wind it in to make another cast.”
On Sunday, after his first couple spots yielded only small keepers, he went into the Saluda River to target isolated shallow brush with a big worm. When the clouds moved back in later in the day, he ran back out to the offshore spots and upgraded multiple times with the soft jerkbait.
> Topwater hardbait gear: 7’10” medium-heavy Level Performance Rods casting rod, Lew's Custom Pro Speed Spool SLP casting reel, 50-pound Gamma Torque braided line, unnamed pencil popper (chrome), LIVETARGET Yearling Baitball walking bait (pearl natural).
> Topwater softbait gear: 7’ and 7’2” medium-heavy Level Performance Rods casting rods, same reel, 12-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 4/0 unnamed EWG worm hook, Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits D Shad (pearl and olive shad).
> Main factor in his success – “Just knowing what I needed to do from the get-go and using my entire practice practicing the right type of stuff. I just knew from before what was going to work and I didn’t waste any time during practice.”
> Performance edge – “My rods. That 7-2 medium-heavy I was using for the fluke, it has the perfect tip to cast it a long ways and a parabolic nature so when the fish are loading up on it it’s similar to a crankbait bite. That 7-10 I used for the pencil popper is the longest-casting rod I’ve ever fished with.”